Heart versus Mind Can the Democrats Afford an Obama Movement?

The Democratic race has become a race between Hillary Clinton's campaign machine and Barack Obama's political movement. But which one has a better shot against the Republicans?

By Peter Ross Range


Riding a wave of momentum provided by his convincing victory in last Saturday's South Carolina primary, Barack Obama’s star is shooting across the American political skies this week. His challenger for the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton, however, is not far behind. With the mega-primaries of “Tsunami Tuesday” looming in just a few days, the question remains as to whether Democrats will vote with their hearts or their heads.

The departure of John Edwards puts the Democratic primary race right where it belongs -- a choice between the seasoned (female) political veteran, armed with a mountain of policy proposals, and the fresh (black) face who inspires dreams of a united nation overcoming internal differences and external errors.

But although Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are ideologically close -- on the economy, healthcare, and even on national defense -- their campaigns are based on starkly different approaches. Clinton’s campaign is about the common grind of daily life, and the grim reality of international threats. Barack Obama’s is about self-perception and international image. One is propelled by a political machine, the other by an emotional movement. The question for Obama is: Can the movement beat the machine?

Obama has been under attack for the lack of substance behind his rhetoric. His campaign is based almost exclusively on “hope” and “change” and he has sometimes come across more as a cheerleader than as a presidential candidate. Still, boosted by his resounding victory in South Carolina, Obama has pushed even higher into the stratosphere of non-specific campaigning. With his increasingly perfect pitch as an orator, he is creating a gauzy sense of mission and vision that has enormous appeal to some Democrats. The ringing endorsement this week of Senator Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion of American politics, gave Obama’s campaign the added sheen of the Camelot legend.

Who Are We?

To Americans old enough to remember President John F. Kennedy (who died 44 years ago), and to members of the educated elite who envision a utopian America, Kennedy’s anointment raises the Obama phenomenon above politics to the level of salvation. For them, in the end, it’s all about identity. As an American people, who are we?

Such existential questions separate political movements from mere campaigns. In the 1960s, it was such a fundamental question of American identity that finally secured legislative success for Martin Luther King's weak and struggling civil rights movement. Obama seeks to do the same now. He wants to turn American doubts about who we are, fueled by the questionable policies of the Bush era, into a political movement capable of defeating Clinton's campaign machine. His campaign, he says, is about the future, whereas hers is about the past.

Obama is not the first to use this approach. But history shows it can end in disaster. In 1972, the candidacy of Senator George McGovern caught fire among young and educated Democrats united in their opposition to the Vietnam War. To the surprise of the party establishment, the soft-spoken, dovish McGovern began running away with primary victories in such liberal states as Wisconsin. Because of the youthful exuberance of his following -- much like Obama’s today -- the press began calling the McGovern juggernaut “the children’s crusade.” As one who was there, I remember how closely it felt like an extension of the civil rights movement.

In the end, the children won, marginalizing the adults (the party regulars) and giving McGovern the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But in the general election, McGovern failed disastrously, losing 49 of 50 states to Richard M. Nixon. The movement that could gain control of the Democratic Party, always tilting left during the primary season, was fatally out of touch with the rest of America when it came to a head-to-head battle with the Republicans. It is a lesson that Bill Clinton never forgot during his more centrist campaign in 1992.

There’s also precedent for the mixed blessing of Kennedy’s Camelot legend. In 1980, Kennedy -- dissatisfied with Jimmy Carter’s insufficiently liberal governance -- decided to contest a sitting president of his own party for the nomination. The media had breathlessly awaited this moment for nearly two decades, since the assassinations of Kennedy’s two brothers. The Kennedy magic, so powerful in the hands of John and Robert Kennedy, seemed ironclad and transferable.

Glaring Flaws

But, in the hands of the younger brother, it proved disastrous. Kennedy could articulate no compelling reason for his candidacy, other than that he was a Kennedy, the heir to the Camelot legend (he never used those words, but the constant presence of numerous families members on his campaign trips provided the visual reminder). Within weeks, his flaws as a national candidate were glaring; within months, he was gone. The mantle of Camelot was meaningless and badly frayed.

There’s no denying that Barack Obama’s movement is currently catching fire -- at least with the young and the educated. Crowds of up to 10,000 people are cheering him on college campuses. Were Obama ever to have his moment, this is it. The question is whether it can carry over to primaries beyond next week, given that neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to score a decisive victory on "Super Tuesday." And the even greater question is whether a political movement like Obama's can work in a national campaign against a strong Republican candidate like Arizona Senator John McCain.

Clinton, meanwhile, is hewing to her basic campaign strategy. She is the candidate, she claims, that has mastery of the facts and the issues. She has, she says, a “connection to the American people” -- code for not-the-educated-elite. And she may be right: Her focus on everyday economic challenges -- increasingly the number one issue for voters -- resonates louder with the working people in Middle America than the anti-war passions of the Starbucks elite. These economic concerns may trump Obama’s attempt to label her a blast from the past and a quasi-Republican war supporter no different from John McCain.

And while Obama reaps a slew of big name endorsements from the party’s liberal wing, Clinton still has the advantages of a political machine built over decades among party regulars, union leaders, and minority organizations all across the country. They don’t regard Clintonism -- dramatic job growth, balanced budgets, welfare reform -- as tainted goods just because Bill's presidency happened in the 1990s. While nothing final will be decided on Feb. 5, with its large turnouts in places like New Jersey and New York State, the results of the 22 Democratic primaries on that day will provide a hint of whether the machine can best the movement by appealing to people’s heads. Or whether the Obama phenomenon, with its promise of creating a new American identity, will win the hearts and become the Next Big Thing in American politics.

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