Why Obama’s success is no surprise, and why McCain may be in trouble
Posted by James McPherson on April 22, 2008
Here’s something I wrote more than a year ago (though you’ll have to take my word for that), for my forthcoming book (pp. 213-214). Of course I’d look a lot smarter if the book had come out sooner.
In trying to understand whether political change is indeed underway, hopeful liberals, pessimistic conservatives, and would-be political pundits might look for other parallels with the beginning of the conservative resurgence. For example, they might compare the 2004 Democratic Convention speech of Senator Barack Obama to Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” address of forty years earlier. Both speeches attracted positive national attention, and both men found themselves in demand as speakers inside and outside their parties. Though Reagan had a sharper wit, a folksier manner, and a more practiced delivery, both he and Obama spoke on behalf of their values in direct, positive, and personal ways that connected with listeners. In 2006 Obama was one of the most popular campaigners for Democratic candidates around the country. He also wrote a popular book that might be compared to conservative icon Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Obama’s The Audacity of Hope offered an image for the nation’s political future, calling for, in one reviewer’s words, “a mode of liberalism that sounds both highly pragmatic and deeply moral.” Like a Reagan campaign speech, the book also was long on optimism and short on policy details. [Review from the Washington Post’s Book World/washingtonpost.com]
In this television age Obama has one distinct advantage and one disadvantage compared to Ronald Reagan. The advantage is that after the publication of his book, every national network devoted considerable coverage to the issue of whether Obama might run for president. Predictably, most of the coverage focused on whether in spite of his race and youth he was “electable,” without discussing his political ideas (or even whether he had any). After months of free speculative publicity, Obama finally declared his candidacy for president. One disadvantage he faced was that even though he was relatively inexperienced as a politician, he had been in politics for most of his adult life. A sad fact of contemporary American politics is that many voters trust actors more than they do politicians, as perhaps demonstrated by the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the same governor’s seat once held by Ronald Reagan. Two U.S. senators, Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton, were viewed as very early frontrunners for the 2008 presidential nominations of their parties, but the simple fact that they had voting records in a political body that sometime requires compromise meant that opponents even in their own parties could attack them as wafflers and flip-floppers. It is no accident that almost every president since 1976 has been a governor, not a legislator (the single exception, George H. W. Bush, had been Reagan’s vice president). As for candidates coming from Congress, one critic of the conservative movement made an observation decades ago that might now apply to Americans in general, and to their news media: “Compromise means cooperation . . . and a loss of integrity. By this logic, those who succeed in the political world and attain real influence are corrupt and can no longer be trusted to advance the true cause. Only the loners who refuse to play the game of the System are to be trusted.” [Quote from Alan Crawford, Thunder on the Right: The “New Right” and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 113]