Reihan Salam

Not what we were expecting

Reihan Salam on why a race between two post-partisan figures has ended up as such a bar fight

Not what we were expecting
Text settings

Why have Barack Obama and John McCain run such drearily conventional campaigns? Hard though it is to remember those halcyon days, informed observers once believed that Obama and McCain would barnstorm the country together, flying on the same plane and taking part in Lincoln–Douglas-style debates over war and peace and the meaning of life itself.

In fairness to both candidates, there has certainly been plenty of tactical innovation on both sides. Flush with money, the Obama campaign has embraced sophisticated technologies and management techniques. The McCain campaign has gone for death-defying stunts, up to and including the nomination of a largely unvetted unknown for vice president, that are far from dreary. Yet McCain is damning Barack Obama for wanting to raise taxes and increase spending, and for being soft on criminals and terrorists. Hardly novel. Remember that this is the McCain who opposed the Bush tax cuts for breaking the bank and for being too tilted towards the rich, which are all but identical to Obama’s objections.

One gets the distinct impression that McCain didn’t want to run an utterly ordinary campaign. Indeed, all evidence suggests that he wanted the pro-choice Democrat Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s VP pick in 2000, as his running mate, a move that would have made the Republican National Convention a near-bloodbath.

McCain is addicted to dramatic gestures — one can easily imagine him challenging Obama to a duel — so the aggressiveness of his anti-Obama attacks is hardly surprising. The McCain campaign’s aggression reflects the candidate’s profound desire to save the country from the supposed danger posed by the mild-mannered Obama. It just so happens that the thrust of his attacks fit into a familiar left-right framework.

Obama, meanwhile, is accusing McCain of being a Bush clone while promising, during his lengthy laundry list that masqueraded as a speech to the Democratic National Convention, to provide Americans with cheap, domestically manufactured clean-coal-powered automobiles, or something to that effect. As I watched the speech, I wondered why Obama didn’t lovingly describe the beautiful Corinthian leather interiors of these marvelously futuristic vehicles. Wasn’t Obama supposed to be above all that?

Well, it’s complicated.

If it weren’t for Bobby Rush, Obama would be nowhere near the presidency. Bobby who, you ask? A former Black Panther and civil rights activist, Rush represents Chicago’s South Side in Congress. And in 2000 he crushed Obama in a hard-fought Democratic primary. The district is decidedly urban, and it has the highest concentration of African-Americans of any congressional district in the country. Obama’s elite credentials, his association with the University of Chicago and his unconventional background proved a real liability on the South Side. Rush’s allies ran a brutal campaign against Obama, arguing, essentially, that he wasn’t black enough for the job.

At this point, Obama could have decided to strengthen his bona fides as a champion of America’s impoverished inner city neighborhoods. Having lost the race as a rootless cosmopolitan, a charge that must have stung, he could have redoubled his efforts to build a base. Had Obama been elected to Congress that year or two years later, it is easy to imagine him emerging as a celebrated figure on the Democratic Left, or as Richard Daley’s successor as mayor of Chicago. Yet Obama sensed, shrewdly, that he’d be better served by looking beyond the South Side. And so rather than try to beat Rush at his own game, he used his cerebral charisma to build a strong base among Chicago’s affluent liberals. The rest is history.

Obama’s ‘unconventionality’ is in fact a strange kind of base politics, only his base doesn’t consist of African-Americans or labour activists: it consists of America’s highly mobile meritocrats. Consider that the urban liberals who have fervently embraced Obama’s candidacy share something very important with the immigrants and children of immigrants who are transforming the country: the experience of displacement. A not inconsiderable number of urban liberals hail from the traditionalist heartland, and explicitly chose to separate themselves from its values and way of life, which only reinforces the sharp, intimate nature of the underlying cultural conflict. Yet there is a real hunger for connection to those places left behind.

Obama’s 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention was about reconciling America’s deep divides, cultural, regional and ideological. At that time, his unconventional background proved an unmistakable strength. Having struggled to root himself in Chicago, Obama found that his lack of a strong regional identity served him spectacularly well — the whole country could be proud of Obama. Better still, his speech offered Democrats a nationalism of the Left. Whereas the nationalism of the Right involves celebrating the nation as it is, this nationalism of the Left is a preachy perfectionism, a call for Americans to become their truest and best selves.

And who better to bear this message than Obama? The prospect of a half-Kenyan presidential candidate would have seemed simply bizarre as recently as two decades ago. Now, however, 44 per cent of American children are Hispanic, black or Asian. By 2050, assuming current projections hold, there will be slightly more Hispanic children than non-Hispanic white children. The number of Americans of mixed ancestry is expected to treble over the same period. This shift has been going on for decades, but its political impact is only now being felt. In 2004, for example, Hispanics were 16 per cent of the Democratic primary electorate in California. In 2008, that number almost doubled. A similar Hispanic surge in states like Colorado and Nevada might win Barack Obama the presidential election. One might say that Obama doesn’t just represent America’s ethnic future — he represents America’s ethnic present as well.