2/4/08 Wash. Post (Bus. Sec.)
Barack Obama is not only popular among Democrats, he's also an
appealing figure to many Republicans. Former GOP House member Joe
Scarborough, now a host on MSNBC, reports that after every important
Obama speech, he is inundated with e-mails praising the speech --
with most of them coming from Republicans. William Bennett, an
influential conservative intellectual, has said favorable things
about Obama. So have Rich Lowry of National Review and Peggy Noonan.
And so have I.
A number of prominent Republicans I know, who would wage a pitched
battle against Hillary Clinton, like Obama and would find it hard to
generate much enthusiasm in opposing him.
What is at the core of Obama's appeal?
Part of it is the eloquence and uplift of his speeches, combined
with his personal grace and dignity. He seems to be a well-grounded,
decent, thoughtful man. He comes across, in his person and manner,
as nonpartisan. He has an unsurpassed ability to (seemingly)
transcend politics. Even when he disagrees with people, he doesn't
seem disagreeable. "You know what charm is," Albert Camus wrote in
"The Fall," "a way of getting the answer yes without having asked
any clear question." Obama has such charm, and its appeal is not
restricted to Democrats.
A second reason Republicans appreciate Obama is that he is pitted
against a couple, the Clintons, whom many Republicans hold in
contempt. Among the effects of the Obama-Clinton race is that it is
forcing Democrats to come to grips with the mendacity and
ruthlessness of the Clinton machine. Conservatives have long
believed that the Clintons are an unprincipled pair who will destroy
those who stand between them and power -- whether they are political
opponents, women from Bill Clinton's past or independent counsels.
When the Clintons were doing this in the 1990s, it was viewed by
many Democrats as perfectly acceptable. Some even applauded them for
their brass-knuckle tactics. But now that the Clintons are roughing
up an inspiring young man who appears to represent the hope and
future of the Democratic Party, the liberal establishment is
reacting with outrage. "I think we've reached an irrevocable turning
point in liberal opinion of the Clintons," writes Jonathan Chait of
the New Republic. Many conservatives respond: It's about time.
A third reason for Obama's GOP appeal is that unlike Clinton and
especially John Edwards, Obama has a message that, at its core, is
about unity and hope rather than division and resentment. He
stresses that "out of many we are one." And to his credit, Barack
Obama is running a color-blind campaign. "I did not travel around
this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a
black South Carolina," Obama said in his victory speech last
weekend. "I saw South Carolina." That evening, his crowd of
supporters chanted as one, "Race doesn't matter." This was an
electric moment. Obama's words are in the great tradition of Martin
Luther King Jr. Obama, more than any figure in America, can help
bind up the racial wounds of America. In addition, for the past
eight years, one of the most prominent qualities of the American
left has been anger, which has served it and the country very
poorly. An Obama primary win would be a move away from the politics
The one thing that will keep Obama's appeal from translating into
widespread support among Republicans is that he is, on almost every
issue, a conventional liberal. And while rhetoric and character
matter a lot, politics is finally and fundamentally about ideas and
philosophy. Whether we're talking about the Iraq war, monitoring
terrorist communications, health care, taxes, education, abortion
and the courts, the size of government, or almost anything else,
Obama embodies the views of the special-interest groups on the left.
In this respect, he should borrow from the Clinton strategy in 1992,
when Bill Clinton ran as a "New Democrat," championed free trade,
promised to "end welfare as we know it" and criticized, on hawkish
grounds, the "butchers of Beijing."
Bill Clinton ran an intellectually creative race whose ideas
appealed to non-Democrats. Barack Obama has shown no such
inclination so far (his speeches, while inspiring, mostly avoid a
serious discussion of policies). If he wanted to demonstrate his
independence from liberal orthodoxy, for example, he could come out
in favor of school choice for low-income families, which would both
help poor families and demonstrate support for some of the best
faith-based institutions in America: urban parochial schools.
If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and fails to take steps such
as this, his liberal views will be his greatest vulnerability. Obama
will try to reject the liberal label -- but based on his stands on
the issues, at least so far, the label will fit, and it will stick.
Barack Obama is among the most impressive political talents of our
lifetime. If he defeats Hillary Clinton, the question for the
general election is not whether he can transcend his race but
whether he can reach beyond his ideology.