I was going to stay clear of politics for a while, but as some of you may have figured out I am a bit of a political junkie and I can’t really help myself.
As we all know, Barack Obama scored an impressive win in Iowa and now stands to reap the rewards with a probable victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where he is starting to lead in the polls. Could it be that the presumed Democratic nominee and next president, Hillary Clinton, is watching her dreams evaporate as Obama’s sunny message gets hotter and hotter and threatens to go supernova?
I saw Obama’s victory speech on Thursday and it was, indeed, a fine oration. Obama can effectively weave together our national story and his personal story and what it means to believe in ideals larger than ourselves. He is not quite so good at debating, or at one-on-one interviews, but give him a platform and a microphone and a prepared speech and he is right up there with Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
Hope is always a powerful force in politics. And I think that one of the reasons it resounds so much now in the Democratic primaries is that for the past seven years most Democrats and many independents have felt profoundly hopeless and powerless. We have watched the country go downhill in almost every respect, often betraying those ideals we were raised to believe in, which has made it all the more painful. And until the Democratic victory in 2006, we were shut out of the process of governance by a take-no-prisoners approach exemplified by the leadership of Tom Delay in Congress and Bush, Cheney, and Karl Rove in the White House. All this happy talk from Republicans about “reaching across the aisle” didn’t start until after they became the minority party on Capitol Hill.
Barack Obama is a thoughtful man who offers an idealized version of how things ought to work, but I fear that is not the way they do, in fact, work. Almost every significant reform that has been accomplished in this country has come through, as Winston Churchill once said, “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” The civil and voting rights acts of the 1960s passed not because everybody suddenly realized that it was criminal to deny people equal rights based upon race but rather because Lyndon Johnson twisted arms and busted heads to get the legislation through Congress. How did FDR get a conservative US Supreme Court to stop blocking some important aspects of the New Deal? By threatening to increase the number of justices and pack it with his own people. How did labor unions become established? Not by asking politely, but by workers striking and being beaten and dying in the streets. (The same is true, of course, of those who fought the long struggle for civil rights, without which the stage for Johnson's legislation could not have been set.)
Not everything has to be confrontational -- and I think most Americans are tired of the hyper sense of divisiveness that has characterized the Bush era -- but history is written by those who stand their ground and fight. For good or ill, Dubya has done just that on Iraq: he won’t take “no” for an answer, he insists on the rightness of his policy, and he has indeed kept us in there long after most Americans thought it wise.
And elections are won by negative things as much as positive ones. Attack ads work. Swiftboating works. Wedge issues work. And sad to say, as much as most Americans say they don’t like these things, they are indeed swayed by them.
Now, has something finally happened to change all that? Has there been come cosmic shift in the political landscape? Maybe I’m just getting to be an old fuddy-duddy, but I am skeptical.
That is the reality of politics, and that is why I prefer the John Edwards “fighting” approach when it comes to getting things done. My fear about the rather inexperienced (and possibly naive) Obama is that he could suddenly find himself facing bare-knuckled politics and not be capable of coping with it effectively. When was the last time, if ever, that we had a “gentlemanly” general election in this country? 1792?
It’s an exaggerated example, but Marilyn put her finger on it the other day when she said that what we Democrats need is not a Neville Chamberlain but a Winston Churchill. Chamberlain compromised with a man who had absolutely no interest in compromise and he accomplished nothing. I fear that there can be no real compromising with the GOP leadership, or with the entrenched corporate interests that try to run the show in Washington. Like Churchill, we need to recognize the opposition for what it is and we need to fight like hell.
In other words, blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
Is Barack Obama the man to lead that fight? Or would I rather have John Edwards or even Hillary Clinton at my back in a brawl?
Maybe I am wrong about Obama, maybe something has indeed changed in this country -- Mike Huckabee's "positive message" campaign is a breath of fresh air on the GOP side (good luck getting past the GOP establishment, Mike) -- but I have seen too much in history to believe that we will get, say, universal health care, without kicking some major ass.
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