Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Endless Campaign; Some Final (I Think) Thoughts

1) It pisses me off that of all the commentary that I’ve heard on CNN & all of the op ed pieces that I’ve read in the New York Times & the Washington Post, not once have I heard anyone say or seen anyone write that Obama won because he was, by several furlongs, the superior candidate. Yes, Bush made most voters realize how incoherent social conservatism is as a working political & economic ideology. Yes the economy made voters anxious to throw the bastards out. Yes, McCain made some blunders, but it was clear to anyone who wasn’t dead or, worse, ideologically locked into voting Republican at any cost, that Barack Obama was the best of all the candidates of both parties, & that’s why he won by such a plurality.

2) As much as everyone, including me, complained about the length of this Presidential campaign, in some ways its length, its very enormity, was of historic substantive importance. First, it gave Barack Obama time to grow. The Obama whom I saw Sunday night on 60 Minutes is a much larger man than the Obama who announced his candidacy however many eternities ago. Remember that neophyte? He read his speeches beautifully but had long gaps in his answers to interviewers while he searched for safe places to stand. Did you not think, “talented young guy, but not ready. He’s building his name, marking his path to 2012 or even 2016.” People who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew said that he expected Sen. John McCain to beat Sen. Hillary Clinton in ’08, that his run was a rehearsal. But as the months passed we saw him steadily pile up elements of competence. His delivery grew progressively smoother. His responses to interviewers appeared less & less like a grad student who had stayed up all night studying for the quiz & more like those of a professor who might have taught the course. Similarly, the Barack who did well to survive the first debate with the formidable Sen. Clinton was replaced by the fully hatched man of depth & scope who seemed mildly amused by the desperate jabs & hooks of Sen. McCain, an old pro who actually was at the top of his game in the three debates. In sum, by the end of the campaign, Barack Obama exuded a reassuring command that made us comfortable in our votes. I’ve been watching these campaigns for more than forty years, & I’ve never seen such growth in a candidate before.

3) Then there’s the campaign its own self, as we used to say in North Carolina. Remember how the early speculation was that, while Sen. Obama would be able to raise a fair amount of money & attract a lot of attention, Sen. Clinton’s organization was too well made for him to challenge seriously; nor could he aspire to raise the cash that would flow to her. & anyway, Sen. Clinton had already locked up all of the leading strategists, so there was no one left to guide Sen. Obama. Yet Sen. Obama’s operation was so well conceived, so meticulously organized that it dropped the jaws of hard, life-long politicians. My sister-in-law, a State Senator, was one of a group of Connecticut politicians that included at least one Congresswoman, who convinced Sen. Obama to fight Ms Clinton for Connecticut, which his staff had thought the New York Senator had locked. This was a tough group of hard leg pols who worked effectively to help deliver the state, but they all swore that they had never seen an operation & a staff with even half the efficiency of Obama’s, & this was in the early primaries. This, they said, was something new. By the time of the election, the organization had grown so large that it might easily have become unwieldy. Yet everyone I know who volunteered to work on the election, including my wife & daughter, both experienced street organizers, shook their heads in amazement at the competence & resources of the Obama enterprise. It’s an interesting sidebar that the staff that my wife encountered in Virginia comprised primarily older women, while my daughter met twenty-somethings & college students in Cleveland. Even the Republicans, accustomed to the efficiently cynical, leave no bull pie unthrown campaigns of Lee Atwater & Carl Rove, were boggled by the supremacy of the Obama machine.

All of this was governed by an intellectual acuity that was the solvent of all of the slander, misdirection & faux populism of the opposition. It was the first 21st century campaign. One Republican Governor complained this week that, “Obama’s got an email list of ten million, while our candidate doesn’t know how to use (a blackberry)”. Enough has been written about President-Elect Obama’s application of the internet to mobilize suporters & to raise money, & I’m more like Sen. McCain than the President-Elect in this respect, so I will not comment on this more. But they will go to school on this operation for a long time. Don’t think for a minute that Republicans won’t woodshed on it & apply its lessons in turn. They did not like being outspent by an attractive young man who could legitimately claim to owe no lobbyists, with some $500,000,000 raised on-line.

Too, as noted above, Obama was superior to any other politician who declared for President in strategy. He & his assistants out-thought them all. Sen. Clinton was dead certain that she’d have the nomination locked by super Tuesday & was completely unprepared by Sen. Obama’s methodical accretion of delegates. Nor Was Sen. McCain able to cope with the red state challenges that Sen. Obama posed. There was such precisely cold-blooded analysis at work in all the demographic groups, the campaign so sure footed, so prepared for every assault, that Senators McCain & Clinton must have felt themselves surrounded.

The result was that by the end, voters were reassured that someone who could build such an organization, conceive such a strategy, execute a two-year march with such originality, discipline & skill, was competent to be their hard-times President, no matter the skimpiness of his resume. I have never seen the very management of a campaign become a crucial mode of evaluation of a presidential candidate, It was the campaign of a new generation of politicians, & it is only right that they take over this world that my generation has screwed up so bad. & no, the left is not blameless for this state: we fell dormant too often & for too long to have a serious historical effect during the last twenty years.

4) Can we please stop hearing from Sarah Palin for a while? Doesn’t she have a job? This is a genuinely annoying person who has nothing interesting to say, but there she is, every day, blabbing inanities to anyone with a microphone. Will she shut up if we let her keep the shoes? Even though she shows no evidence of ever having read a book voluntarily, she’s gotten a fat book contract. What will the title be? Maybe Knocked Up In The Tundra: Miss Alaska Heads For Washington With A Moose On Her Hood But Gets A Flat On The Way. No, that’s the whole book. She’s going to need a hell of a ghostwriter.

But seriously folks, as Peter Beinart has written, the culture war that the right loves to wage & that Gov. Palin personifies so perfectly is irrelevant in depressed times. Few people are preoccupied with issues of racial, sexual & religious identity when they are struggling to buy groceries & pay the mortgage. Beinart notes that in the roaring twenties, elections were fought over immigration, evolution, the Ku Klux Klan & prohibition. He wrote, “in 1924, the Democratic convention so bitterly split over prohibition & the Klan that it took more than 100 ballots to nominate a candidate for president.” (I trust that no one will think that he was implying that bigotry became impotent during this period). The Depression put the progressive wet candidate, FDR, in office. In 2000, one of several years when the business flourished on the kind of abstract capital that the ‘twenties roared on, 22% of voters cited moral values as their primary concern against 19% who named the economy. Compare this with the Newsweek poll in the week before the 2008 election wherein 44% named the economy as number one & only 6% held to “issues like abortion, guns & same-sex marriage.” This is why McCain-Palin couldn’t anchor Bill Ayres & the Rev. Wright (again, a better man than most of you think) to Obama. This is why Sarah Palin couldn’t help Sen. McCain extend his reach.

5) If you go back a few entries you’ll see my essay entitled …Being & Politics
in which I discussed the Existential implications of Sen. Obama’s candidacy for inner city youth, who often are so alienated that they think that being smart is white. I wrote that the symbolism of his success might bring at least some of them to the kind of angst that could cause them to reconsider this lost view of blackness. Now we have innumerable anecdotes describing teenaged African American & Latino youth talking about how, after watching Obama work, they might try to go to college. I saw literally hundreds here in D. C. wearing Obama t-shirts. He made smart cool.

I hope that he & Michelle remember the kids like those with whom he worked as a community organizer in Chicago. Of course, he’ll try to improve their education; perhaps he’ll fund developmental after school programs for kids who have no constructive leisure time activities. Some intensive job training would be good. But most of all, I hope that he occasionally talks to them, goes to see them, shoots some hoops with them. Show them how cool smart really is.

A. B. Spellman