I went to see Obama last night. He had a fundraiser at H20, a yuppie disco/restaurant in Southwest DC. I was curious about how he is in person. I’m still absorbing the many impressions I got. But one thing stays in my head. This guy is a liberal. Make no mistake about that. He may, in fact, be the most effective liberal advocate I’ve heard in my lifetime. As a conservative, I think he could be absolutely lethal to what’s left of the tradition of individualism, self-reliance, and small government that I find myself quixotically attached to. And as a simple observer, I really don’t see what’s stopping him from becoming the next president. The overwhelming first impression that you get – from the exhausted but vibrant stump speech, the diverse nature of the crowd, the swell of the various applause lines – is that this is the candidate for real change. He has what Reagan had in 1980 and Clinton had in 1992: the wind at his back. Sometimes, elections really do come down to a simple choice: change or more of the same? Look at the polls and forget ideology for a moment. What do Americans really want right now? Change. Who best offers them a chance to turn the page cleanly on an era most want to forget? It isn’t Clinton, God help us. Edwards is so 2004. McCain is a throwback. Romney makes plastic look real. Rudy does offer something new for Republicans – the abortion-friendly, cross-dressing Jack Bauer. But no one captures the sheer, pent-up desire for a new start more effectively than Obama. From the content and structure of Obama’s pitch to the base, it’s also clear to me that whatever illusions I had about his small-c conservatism, he’s a big government liberal with – for a liberal – the most attractive persona and best-developed arguments since JFK.
I fear he could do to conservatism what Reagan did to liberalism. And just as liberals deserved a shellacking in 1980, so do "conservatives" today. In the Bush era, they have shown their own contempt for their own tradition. Who can blame Obama for exploiting the big government arguments Bush has already conceded?
And just as Carter branded liberalism in a bad way for a generation, so Bush and his acolytes have poisoned the brand of conservatism for the foreseeable future. When you take a few steps back and look closely, you realize that Bush has managed both to betray conservatism and stigmatize it all at once. That’s some achievement.
Obama’s speech began and continued with domestic policy. War? What war? There was one tiny, fleeting mention of the terror threat. Yes, this is the base. Yes, the base’s fixation is ending the war in Iraq. Yes, you can make an argument that withdrawal there now is a boon to the terror war. But Obama didn’t make that argument. And it seems to me that the two biggest obstacles Obama will have next year are residual racism and concern that he doesn’t fully grasp the seriousness of the Islamist terror threat. He’s been proved right on Iraq – I’m sorry to say. And that good call – and the reasons he gave for it in 2003 – will surely undermine the case against his "inexperience". Inexperienced? he’ll rightly scoff. If "experience" means backing the Iraq war, I’m glad I don’t have as much of it as Clinton and McCain and Giuliani. But he must tell us how we are to stay on offense in this war if he is to win over worriers like me. To listen to a stump speech five or so years after 9/11 and wait for almost half a speech until he mentions it is disconcerting. And yet, it is also bound up, surely, with his appeal. That appeal is partly to take us past the 9/11 moment, and describe a journey forward that isn’t obviously into darkness.
Two further impressions. At a couple of points in his speech, he used the phrase: "This is not who we are." I was struck by the power of those words. He was reasserting that America is much more than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and Katrina and fear and obstinacy and isolation. And so he makes an argument for change in the language of restoration. The temperamental conservatives in America hear a form of patriotism; and the ideological liberals hear a note of radicalism. It’s a powerful, unifying theme. He’d be smart to deepen and broaden it.
My favorite moment was a very simple one. He referred to the anniversary of the March on Selma, how he went and how he came back and someone (I don’t remember who now) said to him:
"That was a great celebration of African-American history."
To which Obama said he replied:
"No, no, no, no, no. That was not a great celebration of African-American history. That was a celebration of American history."
There’s a reason for his wide appeal. The over-whelming question for me at this point in this historic campaign is a simple one: who will stop him?