Monday, April 21, 2008

Obama Nation

Flipping through the cable channels yesterday, I landed on MSNBC, where Tim Russert was talking to David Gregory and Chuck Todd about the Democratic presidential campaign. Usually, the sight of Russert alone is sufficient to propel me in the direction of the nearest channel changer, willing to hit any button to make it go away. But I was lazier than usual this particular Sunday afternoon, so I hung around for a few moments.

Someone—I think it was Todd—made a point that has not received nearly enough attention from the popular press. He mentioned the single-minded ferocity of Barack Obama's supporters, christening them "Obama Nation", as though they were devotees of some professional sports franchise. Todd remarked on the deluge of e-mails received by ABC News after last Wednesday's Democratic debate, most of them coming from Obama backers who were outraged that their man should be asked uncomfortable questions about his personal associations. Todd concluded by suggesting that these political zealots would have a difficult time uniting around a Hillary Clinton candidacy, should Clinton somehow wrest the nomination from Obama.

Anyone who frequents the major political sites on the internet must have found Todd's comments utterly unsurprising. The most significant liberal blog, DailyKos, has been a veritable clearinghouse for pro-Obama propaganda ever since John Edwards dropped out of the race in February. That, in itself, might be unremarkable, of course. Obama polls well among young people and highly educated Americans, two groups overrepresented on the web. If Clinton owns the union halls, Obama is the master of cyberspace.

Still, the devotion of Obama Nation goes far beyond a mild preference for one liberal Democrat over another. Instead, the Illinois senator's supporters not only deify their own preferred candidate, they also demonize a woman who, less than a decade ago, was considered liberalism's greatest friend in her husband's disappointing administration. Go to Google and punch up "Hillary Clinton is a liar" and you will be rewarded with 95,000 hits, a large proportion of them from liberal websites, including Daily Kos. It's as though a whole new generation of liberals needs to re-learn the lessons of the 1960s and 1970s: the point of presidential elections is to win in November, not April.

Chuck Todd, whose relative youth may be a disadvantage as he searches his memory for analogies, compared 2008 Obama supporters with backers of George W. Bush in 2004. That, I thought, revealed a startling ignorance of the conservative movement. Outside of Bush's immediate family (and we really don't know for sure how Jenna voted), very few right-wingers are invested in W himself. Rather, they are focused on the success of the movement. They're not very fond of John McCain, but you notice that they are predictably flocking to his campaign now that he has become the only alternative to four years of Democratic governance. George W. Bush was never the point to the conservative movement; winning was.

Had Todd reached back a few years, he could have found at least two superior analogies, one Republican and one Democratic. The last presidential nominee to enjoy this level of personal loyalty from his troops was Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater's supporters not only displayed the requisite level of fanaticism, they also despised their hero's opponents for the GOP nomination, especially New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. But the analogy breaks down at this point. Unlike in the current Clinton-Obama contest, the ideological distinctions between Goldwater and Rockefeller were substantial. Imagine Barack Obama fighting for the nomination against Joe Lieberman.

Perhaps the better comparison comes from the Democratic side. And no, it's not George McGovern. McGovern's supporters certainly idolized the South Dakota senator, but their focus was mostly on ending the Vietnam War. Had McGovern lost the Democratic bid in 1972, they would still have been united in their dislike for Richard Nixon.

Rather, the best analogy may be to the supporters of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Like Obama, McCarthy appealed to a coalition of the young and the educated limousine liberals. He built his following in opposition to a destructive, hopeless war and to the incumbent president who refused to bring the troops home. So great was their devotion to his candidacy, that thousands of youthful campaign workers even cut their hair and beards (a pretty significant sacrifice in the late '60s), going "clean for Gene".

Once it was clear that the anti-war vote had legs, Robert Kennedy swooped into the nomination fight as the establishment alternative to McCarthy. This outraged many of McCarthy's supporters, despite the fact that Kennedy's views were essentially indistinguishable from those of their champion. They redoubled their efforts, spoke angrily about RFK, and handed the Kennedy family its first-ever electoral defeat in the Oregon primary, just before the race headed to California.

Tragedy would intervene in Los Angeles shortly thereafter, so we will never know for sure whether McCarthy's army would have sided with Bobby Kennedy had he won the Democratic nomination. We do know that they not only rejected the eventual Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, with a vengeance, but that many of them converged on the Dems' Chicago convention, resulting several nights of violence (mostly in the form of police beatings) that discredited the party and helped give the unsavory Dick Nixon the keys to the White House.

It's not 1968 anymore, so nobody expects a repeat performance of the melee in Grant Park this year in Denver. Indeed, unlike McCarthy, Obama probably will win the Democratic nomination, where he will ultimately receive the grudging support of Team Clinton. The party will unite around Obama in a way that it might not have united around Hillary.

And therein we see the problem. What happens if Obama loses the 2008 election to John McCain? Will the netroots be chastened and realize that the party needs all of its legs (including the hated moderate DLC) to run a successful race? Or will the Daily Kos diarists and their internet allies simply return self-righteously to their echo chamber prepared to make all the same mistakes four years later?

The future of the Democratic Party—indeed the country—may hang on their response.

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