Friday, February 15, 2008

The Bicentennial Obama

There have been, in my memory, three "change" candidates in American politics, at least on the Democratic side. Barack Obama is the fourth. In each case, the politician in question emerged from obscurity virtually overnight, promised new ideas and a fresh perspective, and became suddenly popular even before he was particularly well known. Bill Clinton, a young and charismatic governor, offered an escape from twelve years of the divisive politics of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Eight years before that, Gary Hart electrified the political world with his startling takedown of veteran pol Walter Mondale in the 1984 New Hampshire primary. Hart was, like Obama today, the sudden darling of the young, educated, upper-middle-class voters we used to call yuppies. Hollywood adored him, too.

Neither Clinton nor Hart, however, proves a particularly good match for Senator Obama. Clinton had enjoyed a certain level of buzz for a number of years before capturing the Democratic nomination and his 1992 campaign was less an inspiring coronation than a whirlwind, marked by personal scandal and dogged perseverance. Gary Hart, of course, had his own zipper issues, but they would come later, in his second bid for the White House; he was still fresh and untainted in 1984. Still, Hart, unlike Obama, was little more than a flash in the pan superstar, fading almost as quickly as he rose, and eventually losing the nomination to Mondale by a wide margin.

Instead, the closest analog to the 2008 Barack Obama phenomenon predates both Clinton and Hart, reaching all the way back to America's bicentennial year. In 1976, a depressed nation had just moved beyond a disgraced presidency and a pointless, unsuccessful war. After several years of economic turbulence, many citizens wondered if our best days were behind us. The anger that had filled the streets during the 1960s had found its way to the halls of government, with Vietnam and then Watergate fraying bonds of trust and collegiality in Washington. On the liner notes to Bob Dylan's mid-career masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, Pete Hamill, writing in the year of Nixon's resignation, put it this way:

"We live in the smoky landscape now, as the exhausted troops seek the roads home. The signposts have been smashed; the maps are blurred. There is no politician anywhere who can move anyone to hope; the plague recedes, but it is not dead, and the statesmen are as irrelevant as the tarnished statues in the public parks. We live with a callous on the heart."

Hamill was introducing a new, less political Dylan, but his words perfectly encapsulate the mood leading into 1976. Cynicism reigned and politicians were held in general contempt. It was in this discouraged atmosphere, a time not unlike our own, that an obscure former Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter demanded the country's attention.

Those of you who only know the unhappy story of President Carter, or think of him as an earnest old man tilting at the windmills of global war and poverty, may find it hard to believe what he represented in the early months of 1976. Carter seemed, at the time, confident and charismatic, not as much as Obama to be sure, but still an attractive, reassuring figure with a John Edwards smile that became his calling card. In a decade of deep division and distrust, he promised honesty and openness. Just as important, as the first son of the Deep South to run a viable presidential campaign since Reconstruction, Carter's candidacy represented a chance to heal some of the country's most persistent and destructive divides.

The 1976 election was overshadowed by the legacy of a supremely unpopular president. Richard Nixon's name did not appear on the ballot that year. Indeed, he had fled to California two years earlier, thoroughly discredited. Instead, Carter's opponent, interim President Gerald Ford, enjoyed a reputation for decency and integrity. Or at least he did until the second month of his accidental administration, when he opted to grant Nixon a broad and absolute pardon that placed his predecessor finally and irrevocably above the law. (Don't believe the revisionists who dominated the coverage of Ford's 2006 funeral; the pardon was regarded at the time as an act of unthinkable political cowardice and expedience.) From that moment forward, Ford, who had only reached the Vice Presidency because of the resignation of Spiro Agnew, a crooked Marylander, found himself permanently branded as Nixon's surrogate.

Jimmy Carter wisely chose to run against both Ford and Nixon, but his campaign was designed mostly as a rebuke of the latter. "I will never lie to you," he vowed, suggesting also that he would never disappoint the nation by allowing crooks to get away with their misdeeds. His government, Carter said, would be as open as Nixon's was closed, as accountable as Nixon's was venal, and as competent as Ford's was feckless. Going into the fall campaign that year, the Democratic challenger led the incumbent in the polls by anywhere between 15 and 20 percentage points. Nobody expected a close election.

Like Barack Obama, Carter's positions on the issues of the day received relatively little attention early in his campaign. Instead, he was, also like Obama, a receptacle for the hopes and dreams of a damaged America. As a fresh face, unsullied by the noxious politics of the previous decade, voters initially defined Carter as a sort of non-partisan, or even post-partisan, figure and fell in love, as it were, after only a couple of dates.

The rest of Jimmy Carter's story, however, provides a cautionary tale for Democrats and a source of hope for the GOP in 2008. As the Georgian's campaign moved past the primary election season, Republicans took to defining Carter, painting him as a hopeless liberal, George McGovern with a southern accent. They hammered away at his relative inexperience in public office and the shallowness of some of his policy positions. Carter did not always help his own cause, committing a series of rookie mistakes as he negotiated the transition between airbrushed media darling and partisan standard bearer. Even after clearly defeating Ford over a series of three presidential debates, Carter squandered nearly his entire lead, coming within a whisker of falling to the man who had let the hated Nixon walk. In the end, his victory relied on the electoral votes of conservative southern states like Alabama and Mississippi who backed a fellow son of Dixie out of nothing more than regional pride.

No analogy is perfect, of course, and we cannot predict how Barack Obama will fare this fall against John McCain, should both capture their respective nominations. On the one hand, Obama's eloquence and polish greatly exceed that of the soft-spoken Carter, and the Illinois senator seems resistant to embarrassing misstatements. On the other hand, John McCain, with his heroic back story and fawning press coverage, represents a much stronger adversary than Gerald Ford. McCain's largely undeserved reputation as an anti-partisan maverick will serve him far better with a cynical public than Ford's record of loyal party service and presidential pardon.

Nevertheless, the comparisons between Obama and Carter should not be ignored. Voters who fall in love in haste do not repent in leisure; often, they simply leave the groom at the altar. Even the most talented rookies face moments of crisis. Like Carter, Obama still faces the difficulty of somehow maintaining a universal appeal once the nasty general election political season begins. Unlike Carter, he cannot count on help from any of the deep Red States that were so critical to the Democrats in 1976.

Voters have so far met Barack Obama the candidate and Barack Obama the eloquent and inspiring speaker. The Republicans will soon introduce them to Barack Obama the Democratic officeholder, a flesh and blood politician who takes controversial stands on hot-button political issues. They will attempt to redefine Obama just as they redefined Jimmy Carter three decades ago.

Those that consider the 1960 election (another razor-thin victory, by the way) to be Obama's roadmap to victory had better to take another look at 1976 and act accordingly.

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