September 10, 2008
Party on the verge of a nervous breakdown
Posted by: Kevin
There is no question that Barack Obama and his senior aides ran an astounding primary campaign, right through to the nomination acceptance speech at the end of their triumphant convention in Denver. Obama broke out of the pack early on, raised a gigantic amount of money, and took on the Clinton machine head-to-head. He fought off endless efforts to smear him, both on the internet and in the media, and didn't relent. Even in his announcement speech, he upstaged the establishment and dominated the scene whether he'd won or lost that day. Against the odds, he made history on several fronts, not the least of which being the first African American nominated for President of the United States.
I celebrated his victory over Hillary Clinton, and all that her cynical, soulless borg came to represent. To me, a Hillary victory would mean the Democratic Party would be "assimilated" into a cynical enterprise meant to serve the Clintons and their Ideology of Me, weakening the party at a time when gays are dangerously - perhaps fatally - dependent on its flagging interest in delivering on our issues. I agreed fully with the heart and the spirit of the very first notable YouTube fan video for Obama, which portrayed his primary challenge as nothing less than a one-person revolution against a cowed and brainless mass, sitting agape upon having the thin TV screen of their droning and predictable psychodrama (starring Herself) shattered and destroyed. Hope was alive.
Obama's Denver acceptance speech was hands down the most electric and ballsy feat of political drama since the day in 1912 in Milwaukee when Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest in on the campaign stump and went on to give a thundering 90 minute speech anyway. Obama will be remembered for the 80,000 cheering fans, the fireworks shooting into the sky, the stagecraft, the music and the iron confidence he showed in himself, despite being the insurgent. And every African American alive today and for the next hundred years will be able to say that the glorious history of that moment was fully honored and fully inhaled by the nation for time and memorial. It was, in all sincerity, spectacular.
But I sat down and read Obama's speech without the fanfare, putting aside the history around his race and the stirring artistry of the scenery. It was, as the Associated Press rightly pointed out, very light on specifics, despite promises that it would have many. Most people I know who watched the speech can't remember a single line from it today. Obama needed to unite his party, yes. That was definitely achieved. But he also had to make his case to the vast number of undecided or skeptical voters who, like me, would put aside the historic and visual implications and pay attention to what he actually said and stood for. Was he really so different? Was he really bringing "change" that was more than skin deep?
He didn't break out for me in Denver. On foreign policy, it was all meringue and no candor or recognizable philosophy. On education, it was essentially no-child-left-behind-plus-Americorps. On energy, it was embarrassingly light on comprehension and almost identical to the current policies of George W. Bush (who is pouring money into R&D on biofuels, campaigned on clean coal technology as early as 2000, and is protecting the corn ethanol industry like Obama wants to do). On taxes, it was about raising them. And on the issue of gay equality, there were a couple of placating words but, in terms of policy, only a vague reference to hospital visitation rights. (Noted lesbian reporter Karen Ocamb noticed, and raised an alarm on this.) Ironically, McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt said about as much to a placated room full of Log Cabin activists in Minneapolis as Obama said in that stadium to the nation.
To me, this points to a larger weakness in the campaign's central strategy. Obama is still campaigning as the insurgent despite being the nominee and the presumed President-to-be, given the horrendous approval ratings of the Republican lame-duck. This is a mistake. He hasn't yet made the vitally important leap to statesman and "presidential", not in my mind and not in the mind of many undecided Americans.
He seems to have thought he'd just shift his insurgent campaign against Hillary to an insurgent campaign against George W. Bush, and simply win the election. It was exciting in the primaries, at least for us non-Democrats or for new voters, and not for any cynical reason. I truly like Barack Obama. I admire his communication skills and his flair for the emotional, the dramatic, the inspirational -- all of which is sorely lacking in honorable U.S. politicians. I envy his charisma. To be honest, there were moments a few months ago when I really wanted to be in his corner all the way. But I was waiting for him to close the deal. It didn't happen. And with the ever growing scale of his production values, I grow more doubtful that a deal-closer is there behind the curtain. (Still time to prove me wrong.)
Then I looked at the Denver performance again on my DVR and realized I was seeing something interesting. The agape faces of the Democrats. The happy, satiated activists. They had a new psychodrama to latch onto, a new giant jumboscreen to watch. So what that it was now starring the man who demolished their last one? They were in their seats again. Mouths open. That's what they always wanted. They didn't need to hear specifics. They just needed the right lyrics to go with the music.
I need more than that if you're going to ask me to toss aside nearly everything I believe on every issue besides gay rights and vote the way you say I must. In the words of Madonna, I've heard it all before.
And then, the unexpected game-changer. Sarah Palin happened to Barack Obama and the Democrats. Aside from what it actually meant in reality, in terms of the Democratic psychodrama it was a sudden, horrifying, Hurricane Katrina of a different sort. Something suddenly went awry inside their heads. (Indeed, speaking of hurricanes and kookiness, several noted Democrats publicly likened the arrival of Hurricane Gustav to God's punishment of the GOP that weekend. Jerry Falwell would be proud of them for that - and it was surreal to hear it coming from their lips.) And rather than spend the next week sitting back, confident that their man was more than up to this pitiful challenge to him, it seems that much of the party's activist wing began to quickly descend towards a nervous breakdown as independents began to break hard for the McCain-Palin ticket in most polls.
Obama's faulty strategy hasn't helped him. He had to leave the stadium and lightshows behind and close the deal, but he's flailing now. The ridiculous boomlet over his "lipstick" remark was notable not for whether he intended to liken Palin to a pig (I say he didn't), but for the speed in which so many fell for the agile McCain reaction and recoiled. That was a red warning light that needs to be heeded. It was one of those bizarre moments where Obama pulled a Bill Clinton -- he said something really stupid (perhaps too candid about his true feelings of contempt? I hope not) and seemed to almost know it a moment later. Then he added a metaphor about a stinking fish, and maybe compounded the error. That this was the only line of his stump speech that got attention that day is a glaring reflection of his failure to move with the shifting direction of this campaign (and he blamed the media for it), and how there is much more going on in the body politic for which repetitive doses of "hope" and "change" rhetoric aren't enough. If Obama doesn't change strategic direction soon, a whiff of Dukakis will be in the air.
And the crack-ups going on among the activist base, on glaring display across the internet in the last two weeks, is a troubling sign of the Democratic Party's deeper institutional hollowness that Obama's victory has not addressed. This party is not ready for prime time if this is all they've got coming out of Denver. And intelligent people of high note on the blogosphere seemed to go loco and wallow in the lowest depths of conspiracy theories and smears. The alarm among cooler heads was such that Andrew Sullivan, for instance, had to post a note to readers acknowledging their "concern" and to say that he is "absolutely fine". It was only days after seeming to demand that Palin submit to a maternity test to prove that her youngest child was her own (he has since backed off such crazy talk).
Camile Paglia, a partisan Democrat herself, said it best:
The witch-trial hysteria of the past two incendiary weeks unfortunately reveals a disturbing trend in the Democratic Party, which has worsened over the past decade. Democrats are quick to attack the religiosity of Republicans, but Democratic ideology itself seems to have become a secular substitute religion. Since when did Democrats become so judgmental and intolerant? Conservatives are demonized, with the universe polarized into a Manichaean battle of us versus them, good versus evil. Democrats are clinging to pat group opinions as if they were inflexible moral absolutes. The party is in peril if it cannot observe and listen and adapt to changing social circumstances.
Some of the charges, exaggerations and pure inventions about Sarah Palin were so loud, numerous and deafening that they seem to have backfired egregiously. The waters are so muddy and polluted now that undecideds are refusing to believe almost anything being said about her, and any rightful critiques or discrepencies in her record or statements are being painted with the same broad brush of mistrust as the crazy talk. For a party that has long -- and rightly -- denounced such campaigning to turn so ferociously, chaotically and ineptly to the same tactics was a jolt in the face of Obama's sunny and uplifting style. And it leaves the undecided voter cold and cynical about whether there is anything about them that has "changed."
And the fact that simply by writing all this, I will probably be subject to a volley of truly hateful comments says even more about what is going wrong with Obama's quest. There is still far too much window-dressing and preaching to the choir, mixed with a really shocking level of sleaze from the activists that must be driving Obama crazy. Perhaps it's because he knows that so long as it continues, voters like me (the ones who will decide this election) will see no difference between him and the Republicans, and when the artistry and emotion is wiped away, he is dead even with John McCain -- and maybe won't hold up.
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