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Thursday, March 20, 2008

A More Perfect Election: How Obama’s Speech Won the Nomination and possibly the Presidency in a Single Stroke.

No doubt those who believe that today’s polls are 100% predictive of primary elections weeks and months in the future believe that either Obama has forever lost his bid to win the nomination and certainly eliminated himself from contention in a general election battle with John McCain. Some might even say that if poll numbers do not significantly change in the next few days, Obama’s speech failed in its mission to reassure voters who are upset about his long term association with Rev. Wright. More on why that’s a misguided line of thinking below, first there is some structure and existing fact to contend with.

Unless the “comeback kids” can pull a legendary political maneuver there will be no “
redo” in either Michigan or Florida. This, as the punditry has pointed out, is devastating for Clinton’s ability to appeal to super delegates. Even if the DNC accept Florida delegation as is, Obama would still lead Clinton by 400,000 in the popular vote and almost everyone agrees, with the exception of Pennsylvania, Obama will win or be close in all 12 of the remaining Democratic primaries/caucuses. There’s a ton of evidence that indicates neither Hillary’s “big states matter in the fall” message nor her pleas for “voter’s rights” are achieving any traction in the media or among the American people. And thank goodness for that, because those positions make no sense. Hillary’s win in large primary states were not so substantial that they suggested Ohioans or Californians would not vote for the Democratic nominee in fall. Exit polls (at the time) indicate that most voters would be more than happy with either candidates and, as has been mentioned on this blog, the two candidates are as one in terms of policy. It must be added that the symmetry between their policy decisions does not reflect Obama’s ability to “xerox” policy proposals from Clinton; it reflects both candidates knowledge of Democratic political history as both policies fall in line with the policy traditions that worked for F.D.R’s New Deal but did not work for Johnson’s Great Society.

With that said, unless Clinton wants to join the anti-Rev Wright bandwagon and use that as a justification for superdelegate’s overriding the popular vote and pledged delegate count, there’s little more she can do at this point to make a case that she’s a more viable candidate than Obama. And unfortunately for Clinton, the last week has eliminated a series of her principal critics against Obama: That he has not been challenged, we don’t know who he is, that the media has treated him with soft gloves and that he has not proven he can be a fighter. Check, check, check and double check. The orgy of sensationalism and irresponsible media coverage of the Rev. Wright scandal has had an effect on how Americans see Obama. For some, this was there first close look at a candidate and in a society where African Americans are judged collectively to a degree incomparable with white Americans, that first glance could not have been a pretty one.

Thankfully, A More Perfect Union was not only the perfect response by Obama to this growing scandal it also offered the American people a true choice about their political system, about how leaders and leadership is evaluated and what issues “matter” in an election cycle. First and most importantly, is Obama’s decision to not “disavow” or “completely renounce in every way, Rev. Wright.” Political strategists around the world must have watched Obama through trembling fingers as he said the following:

Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

The risk and reward here is in Obama’s willingness to use Wright to throw a mirror at the American people, linking his religious and emotional experience to a politic that so often imagines itself as in a different social and cultural world than their political candidates. This isn’t the fault of American citizens. The allures of power and prestige often pull people from the population who do imagine themselves as above or greater than everyday American citizens. Politicians replicate this skewed view by actively participating in political campaigning that test’s a campaigns ability to manage image rather than manage policy options and make a case to the American people. The ever escalating costs of the election cycle substantially limit who can afford to run, not just in terms of funds, but in time off from work and home life. Yet, Obama has attempted to cut through that, asking people to be self reflexive and ask themselves how they react when they hear a controversial or fiery message from a religious leader in their community with which they do not agree. I believe, in the long term such a strategy can be effective for a few reasons. First, there’s a segment of the electorate who is hungry for people who are “real” who will speak honestly and plainly about their own faults and the faults of those around them, this message is hugely appealing to them. Second, there’s a segment of the electorate who is religious and heard these kinds of messages and had that cringe moment and who stayed in their church. Here Obama is specifically appealing to younger voters.

Obama shines the social mirror on the public even brighter in the following section.

The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth - by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.”

There’s much more here than asking people to “forgive” or “understand” Wright. He’s inviting people to think about their own journeys of self discovery and their own development of political ideology. Like many people in their twenties when Obama met Wright he had to be impressed by his ability to create a huge religious, community service organization despite meager beginnings and a life history where he experienced intense levels of overt and institutional racism. No doubt over the course of his time at Trinity Obama began to evolve beyond certain aspects of the Reverend’s ideology, particularly the parts rooted in a logic that understands America as, in Obama’s words, “static.” Young voters going through similar periods of self discovery will strongly relate. Generation X will perhaps relate even more as they realize how far they have come from their ways of thinking and believing since their twenties.

There are of course, huge risks, with this strategy. Many Americans, particularly when it comes to race but it extends to foreign policy and the defense of class difference, are defensive as all get out when it comes to these issues. The audacity of being associated with Rev. Wright could dig Obama a deeper hole with people who wanted to see contrition, remorse and “disowning.” And while I agree with Roland Martin’s brilliant observation that nothing about these calls for “disownment” are in synch with a Christian philosophy of love and forgiveness, it’s not even about that. If individuals are unable to emotionally relate to the numerous semi-biographical/historical narratives about himself, Wright and the politics of race in America then they made their minds up before he spoke and would, very likely, not vote for any African American President for office. Unless you have cut yourself off completely from the African American community you can not totally divorce yourself from this brand of Black ideology and you can not win the Black vote as a Black candidate.

Brilliantly, Obama called this segment of the population out towards the end of his speech, declaring that Americans are free to treat this campaign as a one issue referendum on race, if they so choose. I fully expect him to treat the issue with increasing insignificance over the coming months. Ideally, if questioned on the matter he will take a truly Presidential tone and declare that he has spoken on the issue, the video exists, the transcript is out there and if voters have continued questions once viewing the speech that there’s not much he can do. Between now and November, Wright will remain part of the public discourse, he must. As Obama pointed out, race can not be ignored, it’s too endemic to our culture. But what will happen is some Americans will look at the economy, the war and healthcare and say “I care about these issues more than I care about Rev. Wright.” It is, in every way, the ultimate test of voter’s ability to truly stomach a Black President. Not the most Anglophiled person with Black or brown skin who parrots negative stereotypes about African Americans back to white audiences(J.W. Watts, Clarence T. etc) to demonstrate their subservience to conservative white perspective on the world. But an African American person whose love for their country is unwavering and intermixed with a knowledge of the nation’s racial faults and faultlines. I don’t know what will happen, but I think it can not be argued that Obama failed to lay down the gauntlet, or to stand up for himself or to declare to the American people “this is who I am, either vote or not.”