2/11/08 Globe & Mail (Toronto Can.) A17
Barring a miracle - not a trivial qualification since Mike
Huckabee believes in them - Senator John McCain will be the next
Republican presidential nominee. Alas, almost any Democrat is
favoured to win against almost any Republican in 2008.
Democrats are raising far more money than the GOP. Turnouts for
Democratic primaries and caucuses have been twice as numerous. Polls
on such matters as party self-identification heavily favour the
Democrats. By these tests, even if Hillary Clinton would probably be
easier to beat than Barack Obama, both are so favoured to win this
distinction between them hardly matters.
What does matter, therefore, is whether there is an important
distinction between them in how they would govern.
Some U.S. conservatives set aside their distaste for Ms. Clinton at
this point and discover unsuspected virtues in her. She is tough,
competent, experienced, and centrist. But while a practical
politician who is prepared to compromise, she is also a principled
liberal Democrat, and she knows how government works inside out. In
other words, her compromises always move the status quo a little
further toward statism and regulation. And Ms. Clinton is a finished
product. She will not change politically.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, is a more tentative, ambiguous and even
self-contradictory figure. He is running as a unifier who wants
America to transcend race and ethnicity. His record of legislating
has been firmly liberal on racial (as on most other) issues.
Republicans tend to discount his rhetoric while minutely examining
his voting record. Usually, that is sensible, but on this occasion
it may mislead.
Much of Mr. Obama is a work in progress. He is most clearly liberal
on Iraq policy where he promises a 'drawdown' of U.S. troops that
would be completed in 16 months. But Iraq is the issue on which
American voters are most clearly liberal, and he has salted his
commitments with escape-hatch phrases such as 'responsibly.' It is
not hard to imagine a President Obama responding to a 'surge' in
Iraqi violence by 'responsibly' stretching out the time-scale of
And while Mr. Obama proposes roughly the same higher tax plans as
Ms. Clinton, he recognizes the need for countervailing measures to
reduce what would then be a top tax rate of more than 50 per cent.
His health-care plan is also cheaper than Ms. Clinton's and avoids
imposing expensive mandates on workers and small employers.
It is on race and ethnicity, however, where the really revolutionary
impact of an Obama victory would be felt. The mere fact of a
President Obama would change both America and the world's view of
America - just as the mere fact of a Polish pope undermined Soviet
rule in Eastern Europe. It would demonstrate that the 'American
Dream' - one of opportunity for all - is real and is being
It would undermine anti-Americanism abroad and the querulous
politics of racial grievance at home, and perhaps launch U.S.
politics on a new trajectory.
But what sort of trajectory? Despite his magnificent rhetoric, Mr.
Obama has generally stuck to his party's line on racial preferences,
immigration, and other issues tinged with race. At the same time, he
has occasionally thrown out remarks suggesting he was unhappy with
this. Thus he told George Stephanopoulos last May on television that
preferences should also 'take into account white kids who have been
All this suggests a deep ambivalence. How is it likely to be
In his fine study of Barack Obama, A Bound Man, author Shelby Steele
traces this to a conflict within Mr. Obama's soul created by his
upbringing. To oversimplify a subtle argument, Mr. Obama, in the
absence of his father, sought a sense of belonging in his racial
identity, joining the Black Student Society, and going along with
arguments that blamed relative black poverty wholly on white racism,
etc. But this quest for belonging through race afforded him little
but psychological comfort - and sometimes psychological discomfort
as when he assented to racist talk of 'white folks' that he knew to
For Mr. Obama knew from his own life - and in his own
autobiographical writings he fondly acknowledges - that his success
is due to the habits of diligence, self-reliance and responsibility
instilled in him by his loving mother and his (white) grandparents.
These 'vigorous virtues' - as the philosopher Shirley Robin Letwin
called them - are human virtues rather than racial ones.
Expressed in political terms, the contrast becomes: Should Barack
Obama today urge young black people to seek advancement in racial
identity, as both establishment America and the Democratic Party
implicitly argue? Or should he urge them to develop the responsible
virtues that have helped him to rise?
How Mr. Obama answers that question should - in logic at least -
determine how he shapes policies on education, health, welfare, etc.
But which answer he gives might well be shaped by how the election
If Mr. Obama is elected president - especially if by a landslide -
he would undoubtedly owe his victory to the votes of crossover
Republicans and independents as well as those of Democrats. He is
already winning more white male votes than Hillary Clinton. And it
is not fanciful to predict that he could be the first Democrat since
Lyndon Johnson to win a majority of the white vote.
Political calculation alone would mandate that he govern in such a
way as to keep the good opinion of these Republicans and white
Democrats. But he would also know that these voters had placed their
trust in him in an unusually serious way. They would be looking to
him to govern in the spirit of a colour-blind national unity and to
encourage the 'vigorous virtues' in all ethnic groups. Their support
would reinforce the lessons he has already begun to draw from his
It would be a very cold-hearted statesman who could resist the power
of such hopes - but a very brave one who would risk the storm of