Obama must win on his own terms
With startling chutzpah, Republicans are again casting the opponent as out of touch. Democrats shouldn't play the game.
The funny hat—usually stars and stripes, often involving glitter—is one tradition of the American political convention that has not faded. Plenty were on display at the Democrats’ gathering, but one in particular caught my eye. It was studded with badges from previous campaigns: there, frozen in time, were the smiling, hopeful faces of a succession of Democratic nominees for president, all the way back to 1968.
Trouble is, with only two exceptions, every one of those men failed to reach the White House: Kerry, Gore, Dukakis, Mondale, McGovern, Humphrey—the woman’s hat was a roll-call of losers. She might as well have worn a giant L on her head.
The current worry of many Democrats, who once thought Denver would be a celebration en route to a coronation, is that Barack Obama could be about to join that uncelebrated company. Polls show the race with John McCain locked in a dead heat, Obama’s lead eroded to zero. The question delegates and bigwigs were asking each other in the hotel lobbies and on the shuttle buses is: “Why aren’t we ahead?”
They all know the landscape has rarely looked more favourable for their party. A Republican president is the most consistently unpopular since records began. Nearly 80% of Americans say their country is heading in the wrong direction. The economy is tanking and US soldiers are still dying in an unpopular war. As the California strategist Bob Mulholland told me, straining to be heard over the convention house band: “If George W Bush was seeking re-election, we’d be 20 points ahead.”
But he’s not. Nor is McCain an incumbent vice-president tarred by the record of the outgoing administration. Instead, he can pose as a maverick who, more than once, has challenged Bush.
That’s one possible explanation for Obama’s failure to pull ahead, but Democrats have no shortage of others. Some blame Obama’s recent vacation in Hawaii, leaving the playing field to McCain: while Obama was on the beach, the Georgia crisis erupted, allowing the Republican to pose as the seasoned foreign policy sage.
Others say the Democrat is still hobbled by the Clinton psychodrama, which dominated yet again in Denver. Disunity stories have been treading on the Obama message, as the Clintons keep grumbling that, like a mafia clan, they are not being shown enough respect. What should be Barack’s week is still filled with Bill and Hillary. (It was surely an error to give them two evenings—Tuesday night to her, Wednesday night to him—rather than bundling them together and out of the way in a single session.)
One poll this week found that fewer than half of Hillary’s former supporters in the primaries are ready to vote for Obama; one in four plan to vote for McCain.
And most Democrats suggest, once safely off the record, that a key factor is, depressingly, race. If Obama were white, they say, this contest would be over. “When will South Africa elect a white president?” whispered one party official, fretting that the US might not be ready to put a black man in the White House.
But the simplest explanation, one that touches on all of the above, is that McCain has fought an aggressively negative campaign these past few weeks—and it’s working. Its twin themes are clear and simple: Obama is inexperienced and not ready to be president; and he is a “celebrity”, out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans.
The attack on inexperience is wholly predictable: it’s the flipside of Obama’s presentation of himself as an untainted outsider and agent of change. It’s legitimate too, since Obama would indeed have the shortest resume of any president in a century.
But the “celebrity” attack is another matter entirely. For this is just a new word for an old message: that Obama is an elitist, remote from real America. And it truly is an old message. The Republicans have been aiming this missile at Democrats for more than 50 years. So John Kerry was vaguely French and liked windsurfing: not a real American. Al Gore was the son of a senator and “grew up in a hotel room in Washington”: not a real American. Michael Dukakis had a funny name and looked weird in a tank: not a real American.
Again and again they do it and with breathtaking chutzpah. Who was it calling Gore and Kerry sons of privilege? Why it was George Walker Bush, the son of a president. Who now tries to pretend that the Obamas are rarefied snobs with no feel for the way most Americans live? That would be John McCain, who, when asked last week how many houses he owned, hesitated, before telling the reporter his staff would get back to him. (The answer was seven.) McCain’s wife, Cindy, meanwhile, once said of her home state: “In Arizona, the only way to get around is by small private plane.”
What complicates matters is that it’s not solely about economics. The Republicans say Democrats are out of touch not just because they might be wealthy—though it helps Obama that his running mate, Joe Biden, is the poorest member of the senate with a negative net worth—but for failing to match up to a whole set of more nebulous, cultural criteria. Crudely put, Democrats are deemed elitist if they would look out of place at a Nascar rally (a stock car race); if they don’t listen to country music; if they can’t chug beer from a bottle or clear brush on a ranch.
Would-be First Ladies meanwhile have a different set of boxes to tick: they have to prove they are “non-threatening”, that their careers are less important to them than their roles as wives and mothers, that they are gentle and free of spiky edges. (This was Michelle Obama’s task on Monday and she fulfilled it quite brilliantly.)
The US media go along with all this. There is a starting assumption that Republicans are, by definition, solid, patriotic all-Americans. It is Democrats who have to prove themselves. Thus the press recycle endlessly Obama’s reference to the price of arugula—but almost never mention Cindy McCain’s preference for the private jet.
Worse still, Democrats seem to have internalised this assumption about themselves and their opponents. Democratic congressman Ed Markey told Time that Obama’s first task is to prove he is “one of us”. Is there any Republican of whom he would ask that question?
Democrats can choose one of two ways to fight this problem. The first is to do their best to fit the right’s definition of a real American, either by nominating southern, down-home males (like the Bill Clinton of 1992) or by somehow trying to squeeze into that box: picking a working-class bruiser like Biden, having Michelle Obama declare her childhood passion for the Brady Bunch.
Or Democrats can simply refuse to fight on these Republican terms. That is what Obama did when he burst into the national consciousness at the 2004 convention, declaring that the culture war of red states and blue states had gone on too long. “We coach little league in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states,” he declared, so insisting on the legitimacy of all Americans.
Restating that message is surely part of his task. He needs to change the terms of trade in this election, to reframe it so that he’s no longer answering, “Is he one of us?”—but persuading his fellow Americans that it’s time, at long last, to put that question behind them.—