On the eve of Super Tuesday, the Hillary Clinton–Barack Obama race resembles the closing minutes of a football game: Team Clinton has a small lead, but Team Obama has the ball—and the momentum. Some of that momentum derives from an extraordinary, if unspoken, mésalliance that has emerged in recent months between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Their hostility to the Clintons brings them together. In the words of liberal columnist Jonathan Chait, “The Right was right about the Clintons.”
This comes as music to the ears of the old-time liberal warhorses who never forgave Bill Clinton for his strategy of triangulation. They despised his defiance of liberal orthodoxy on welfare reform, trade, and crime, and during the Monica Lewinsky scandal defended him only on the grounds of partisan allegiance. For their part, grateful Republicans have been happy to have their hostilities confirmed across the aisle since, if only in retrospect, it justifies the way they overplayed their hand in impeaching President Clinton. Both Left and Right seem to agree that the centrism of the 1990s produced a debauched decade. Through the alchemy of politics, these two versions of partisanship have ignited the “post-partisan” campaign of Barack Obama.
Obama has drawn praise from the New York Post and from numerous conservative heavyweights, including former Reagan speechwriter Jeffrey Hart, National Review editor Rich Lowry, former education secretary and radio host Bill Bennett, and former George W. Bush aide Peter Wehner. They have praised Obama’s graceful manner, stunning speaking abilities, and transracial appeal. Like John McCain, Obama seems to transcend partisan squabbling. Conservatives may also have a covert motive for admiring Obama, namely, their sense that a candidate who has neither been thoroughly vetted by an adoring press nor ever tested in a partisan election fight may be the weaker Democrat come November.
But if nothing else, the appeal of Obama and McCain—one too young, the other too old, to have been Baby Boomers—speaks to twentysomethings’ almost palpable disdain for the rancor of Sixties-era partisans in both parties. This appeal would seem to settle the debate over whether political polarization represents the broad view of the electorate, or is rather a product of the two parties’ increasingly ideological positions. Karl Rove and MoveOn.org notwithstanding, it turns out that the “mythical middle,” as Marcos Moulitsas once dismissed it, wasn’t just a transient phenomenon of the 2006 election. Swing voters will choose the next president.
Obama’s achievements in reaching out to moderate voters are largely proleptic: words aren’t deeds. And while he has few concrete achievements to his name, he does have a voting record that hardly suggests an ability to rise above Left and Right. In 2005, his first year in the Senate, the man who made a specialty of voting “present” in the Illinois State Senate refused—despite repeated entreaties—to join a bipartisan agreement among 14 senators not to filibuster President Bush’s judicial nominees. After his first two years in the Senate, National Journal’s analysis of roll call votes found that he was more liberal than 86 percent of his colleagues, and his voting record has only grown more liberal since then. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action now gives him a 97.5 percent rating, while National Journal ranks him the most liberal member of the Senate. By comparison, Hillary Clinton, who occasionally votes with the GOP, ranks 16th. Obama is such a down-the-line partisan that, according to Congressional Quarterly, he voted more often with the Democrats than did the party’s majority leader, Harry Reid.
This is the record that appeals to Ted and Caroline Kennedy and the aging MoveOn.org boomers who have long nursed hopes for a renewal of Camelot. But now as then, a charismatic political personality carries more dangers than benefits. The “politics of meaning,” which emerged from the Kennedy years and has now resurfaced with Obama as its empty vessel of hope, is doomed to disappoint because it asks more from politics than politics can deliver. In symbolic confirmation that Obama’s candidacy is as much about the liberal past as about the country’s future, the Grateful Dead, which disbanded years ago, has announced that it will reunite to perform a concert for him.
The banality of Obama’s campaign is exceeded only by his unwillingness to challenge liberal orthodoxy. In the recent Hollywood debate, he insisted, contrary to the evidence, that the problem with American education was that it was underfunded. But education funding has increased dramatically over the last 20 years to no good effect, as student performance on content-based tests continues to decline. In the same debate, Obama at first waffled in response to an African-American woman’s question about the effect of illegal immigration on working-class wages. But finally, in an echo of those who once saw fear of crime as simply an expression of racism, he insisted that complaining about the effects of illegal immigrants on working-class wages and neighborhoods was a form of “scapegoating.”
Republicans, swing voters, and moderate Democrats are entitled to know why a man who has never been to Iraq* and who, aside from a brief trip to London, has barely been abroad as an adult, is ready to guide us internationally. Obama’s foreign-policy pronouncements might well be treated with derision if they came from a man with less poise and grace. As befits someone whose stock-in-trade is speeches that appear to dissolve deep-seated differences in a bath of good-think, he has deep faith in the UN and proposes a summit between the U.S. and the leaders of Islamic nations to discuss ways to “bridge the gap between us.” Obama, who never refers to anything so clear-cut as radical Islam or jihadism, says that he “wants to ask them to join our fight against terrorism.” He insists that Sunni tribal chieftains turned against al-Qaida in the Anbar province of Iraq because Democrats won the 2006 election, even though the chieftains’ shift took place months before the election. When violence broke out in Kenya after its recently contested election, he referred to his Kenyan grandmother as proof of his foreign-policy credentials, but failed to mention the tribalism—endemic to much of the African and Islamic world—that had produced a string of massacres.
It’s when Obama tries to show that he can also be tough that he most fully reveals his limitations. He both insists that Pakistan be governed more democratically and proposes to insert Special Forces into tribal Waziristan, if necessary without the cooperation of Islamabad. Such a move would destabilize a Pakistan rent by ethnic hostilities and already in danger of disintegration. As with Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, Obama’s unstable mix of high-blown rhetoric and would-be bellicosity invites our enemies to misjudge us. In the wake of Bush’s naivety about Iraq and about the Islamic world’s supposed yearning for liberty, Obama, who is more at home with grand pronouncements than with facts on the ground, represents a gigantic gamble.
It will be ironic if in the name of post-partisanship we manage, with the contrivance of both Left and Right, to elect Oprah’s candidate, a man with a narrowly partisan record who has never demonstrated a capacity (rhetoric aside) either to lead or to govern. Only Clinton derangement syndrome can explain the alliance of so many otherwise thoughtful people of both parties who speak well of the candidacy of a man with scant knowledge of the world who has never been tested and has never run anything larger than a senatorial office. The question that we need to ask is whether this man—who candidly admits, “I’m not a manager”—can manage the vast apparatus of the federal government. Will packaging be enough to deal with our problems?
In 1965, appalled by the unearned adulation for mayoral candidate John Lindsay (who was also considered a future president), Robert Moses warned: “If you elect a matinee idol mayor, you’re going to have a musical comedy administration.” And that’s just what New York got. Substitute “president” for “mayor,” and you can anticipate what might be coming.
Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.