Much of Barack Obama’s appeal is rooted in his promise to bring a new style of thoughtful politics to Washington. “[I]t’s not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most,” he said when he declared he was running. “It’s the smallness of our politics.”
Ironically, Obama’s “new” intellectual and reasoned candidacy is part of a long modern-Democratic tradition. And that is both its strength and much of its weakness.
Obama has been fond of subtly comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln — announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, for instance, and equating his relative inexperience with that of Lincoln. Alas, at least politically, the better comparison is to another son of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, who had a similar scholarly approach and promised an end to politics as usual. “Let’s talk sense to the American people,” he said in his 1952 Democratic acceptance speech, which could have been delivered by Obama today. “Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains.”
The tack has been repeated several times since. Eugene McCarthy, who nominated Stevenson for president in 1960, picked up the torch in ’68, igniting the idealistic, the young, and the intellectuals within the party. McCarthy was then followed by George McGovern in 1972, Jerry Brown in 1976 (who, running at age 38, makes Obama, 46, look like a senior citizen), Gary Hart (McGovern’s old campaign manager) in 1984, Paul Tsongas in 1992, and Bill Bradley in 2000.
The good news for Obama is that all of these Democrats appealed strongly to Independents and young voters. Most were embraced by the press for their attempts to uplift the dialogue; many were even noted for their attempts to write or quote poetry. (The poems of Obama’s youth have surfaced; McCarthy traveled with Robert Lowell, and a book of Brown’s Zen-like proverbs — “Why is the governor like a shoemaker?” — surfaced during his campaign.) Plus, most did better than expected in the New Hampshire primary, a state where more than half the electorate in the Democratic primary now has a college degree. (Oregon used to be a good locale for this brand of candidate, as well.)
But the bad news is that only two such candidates won the nomination, and both were beaten decisively in the general election. Being the favorite of the egghead or wine-and-Brie set (two negative characterizations of this constituency through the years) doesn’t win you enough voters, you see. Thus the famous story about Stevenson being approached by a voter who told him that he had the support of every thinking American.
“Thank you,” he supposedly replied. “But I need a majority to win.”
The same kind of comment echoed in 1968 from Bobby Kennedy, who wryly noted that he had the support of all the “C” students, while McCarthy had the “A” students.
Better start drinking beer
Already, one can see impending pitfalls of Obama’s thinking-man’s effort. His speaking style, especially in debates, is professorial. Much of his fundraising base is said to be built around his contacts at his alma mater, Harvard Law School. Obama even had his former professor, Larry Tribe, praise him in his first ad.