Sunday, March 09, 2008


On Wednesday morning, Barack Obama will have a choice. The Mississippi primary will be over – the blacks there will vote for him, and the whites against him – but there will be enough blacks among the Democratic primary voters to give him a victory, which will make it two victories in a row, three out of the last six contests, and 14 out of the last 17. Real Clear Politics will indicate that his pledged delegate lead exceeds 150, or perhaps 160, and he will seem like the inevitable winner of the “pledged” delegate contest. Intrade, the political betting market, which presently lists him at roughly 72%, will likely place him at 75 or higher. In short, some of the MoJo that the Spin Doctor Evils of the world had temporarily taken from him will have returned. Somewhat.

So, he will have a choice. He can follow his heart, and jet off to Europe, Israel, Arabia, and the Far East. In that trip, he could meet lots of world leaders, deepen his appreciation for world conditions as they exist right now, not as they appear from some stale briefing book, and … well, and take in some incredible museums and other historical treasures. Man, that sounds good to me.

Alternatively, he can follow the dictates of his mind … and jet off to Scranton, and then Harrisburg, followed by Wilkes-Barre, Pittsburgh, Pottstown, and … isn’t there another town in Pennsylvania beginning with “P”? Oh yeah, Portage. Once there, he can hang out with “real Americans,” the kind who, according to the Governor of the Great State of Pennsylvania, refused to vote for gubernatorial candidate and Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann because he was black. And somehow, he could figure out a way to talk their language so that, by April 20th, he could seal the deal … and then go to Europe!

What do I think Barack should do? The answer is found in the title of this blog – “Empathic Rationalist.” As you all remember from The Creed Room, Empathic Rationalism holds that no human characteristic is more sacred than empathy, which must become the fundamental rudder that guides us through life. Comparatively speaking, the voice of reason calls us less often and is difficult to hear. But whenever it does call us, we must listen. And this time, it ought to be calling Barack. Stay home, brother. Fly to Philly, and then take that winding, congested, miserable road known as the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Pittsburgh. I still don’t know how I have survived 47 years given the number of times I’ve driven that thing. That road – and not Hillary Clinton – is the real monster.

So why should Barack put Pennsylvania over Pakistan? There are multiple reasons. First, he needs to stay competitive not merely in the overall delegate count but also in the overall popular vote. His lead in that category can eviscerate rapidly, assuming Hillary gets a do-over in Florida (Michigan should be close, but Florida shouldn’t), if she can take him down badly in PA. Right now, his lead is 590,000, having lost 325,000 in Texas and Ohio – and Texas was really close. If he loses the popular vote, that will give the Clintonistas the argument they sorely need to steal the election. The “Big State” argument or “Swing State” argument doesn’t resonate with anyone except the already-biased, but the popular vote argument will resonate more with an electorate who is still steamed about Gore v. Bush. Believe me, I still think the argument is B.S. – this game was supposed to be about delegates, before Clinton’s people tried to rig it – but others might buy into it. That’s why Barack needs to fight not merely for every delegate, but for every vote.

Secondly, and more importantly, Barack can’t be seen for what he really is – which is the dirtiest word in American politics. He must go to Pottstown and show everyone there that he belongs, that he eats what they eat, drinks what they drink, watches what they watch, and drives what they drive. He’ll have plenty of time to see the Sorbonne later, but now, he must go to a different classroom, and incorporate into his rhetoric the lessons learned in the land known for high school quarterbacks and college linebackers. This may be his last chance to learn the most important lesson of American politics. Never, I mean never, come across primarily as an intellectual.

Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the winner of a 1964 Pulitzer Prize, describes an America that is very recognizable 40-odd years later. During the interim we have seen such events as Ronald Reagan rope a dope the Democratic establishment with a simpleton act, and George H.W. Bush, the Yalie, ridicule Michael Dukakis for being an intellectual from Harvard. Hoftstadter carefully examined America in the 50s, which political junkies may recall as the time when the intellectual Adlai Stevenson flamed out not once but twice as the Democratic Presidential nominee. Here’s how Hoftstadter described the way intellectuals were perceived by the public:

“Intellectuals, it may be held, are pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive. The plain sense of the common man, especially if tested by success in some demanding line of practical work, is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise acquired in the schools. [T]he discipline of the heart, and the old-fashioned principles of religion and morality, are more reliable guides to life than an education which aims to produce minds responsive to new trends in thought and art.”

One of the things that most characterizes an intellectual is the recognition that the ends do not justify the means. In other words, true intellectuals are devoted to principles – whether they involve the principles of logic or those of ethics. It’s that devotion to principles – and not the absence of “toughness” – that prevents Barack from copying the approach that the Clinton campaign has termed the “kitchen sink,” which is just another term for wallowing in the mud. Intellectuals don’t do that. They have too elevated a sense of self, too much pride, to behave in a way that violates basic ethical rules. An intellectual is willing to tie one hand behind his back in order to comport with ethical guidelines, but he isn’t willing to tie both. Barack is willing to fight Hillary – and even take her on at times – but the kitchen sink? I think he’d rather lose an election than lose his pride.

And that’s how it should be. Personally, I don’t want to see Barack lower himself like Hillary has. I don’t want to see him question her religion, or compare her unfavorably to John McCain (however apt those comparisons might be). But I do want to see him learn a bit more about how to connect with the NASCAR crowd. I’m not just thinking about what he needs to win the nomination, or even the general election. I’m thinking about what he needs to make the same kind of sale among the American people that Rush Limbaugh and Company made when they sold “Amuricans” against amnesty for illegal aliens. It would sure be nice if Barack could engage in a Vulcan mind-meld, like the one that Mr. Spock used to connect telepathically to a creature made of silicon. I’d love it if Barack could meld with the blue-collar, high school educated, and (in many cases) racist citizens that abound in so many rust belt and southern states. That would go a long way to helping him communicate effectively on such issues as health care reform, global warming, and the use of American armaments or diplomacy overseas.

One of Barack’s best moments in this campaign – and one of the Clintons’ slimiest – was when he praised Ronald Reagan, and she attacked him for that praise. Reagan elevated to an art form the way you have to communicate to the very voters that have eluded Barack so far. You need to come across as honest, speaking from the gut, and guided by common sense above all else. Remember the Hofstadter quotation – the “plain sense of the common man” is viewed as the highest of all oracles in mid-America. Barack has impeccable judgment. He should have no trouble connecting with that plain sense. He just needs to learn a bit better how to communicate that connection.

But let me not end this on a quibbling note. Barack is doing an amazing job in this campaign. Yes, he had a bad day or two just before the New Hampshire primary, and yes, he had a worse few days just before the Ohio and Texas primaries, and yes, he must be absolutely exhausted at the moment – if not shell shocked by the prospect that the Democratic establishment is allowing a candidate who lost 11 primaries and caucuses in a row to skewer her opponent viciously. Still, when you take the view from 30,000 feet, it is incredible that he is now, according to Real Clear Politics, 437 delegates away from clinching the nomination with 1,015 delegates yet to hear from. And he’s accomplished what he’s accomplished in the face of a huge institutional advantage by his competitor (reflected in the Super Delegate totals at the outset of the race) and as a result of both profoundly inspired speeches and increasingly solid debate performances. In the process, he has brought an incredible number of new voters into the political process and has ignited the passions of voters of all ages. What he’s done to inspire my 15 year old daughter is priceless.

Does Barack still have stuff to learn? Sure. Might he learn some of it in Altoona and Erie? I suspect so. But even if he jets off to London and points East, he will still have my support, and my faith in his chances. One thing’s for sure – when the Clintons try to turn this Pennsylvania primary into a “do or die” for both candidates, I will crack up at the idiocy of that suggestion. The “intellectual” in me is too devoted to the rules of the game to take seriously the idea that one candidate can claim victory by deciding, halfway through the contest, that only a few states matter, and particularly those states in which the polls gave her an advantage from the start. The truth is that there is no one do or die state for Barack. If, as I suspect, he wins Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oregon, and holds his own in Indiana (which collectively will involve 272 delegates, or 70 percent more than Pennsylvania), he’ll be fine. Remember, to an intellectual, there is nothing more beautiful than math.


Anonymous said...

It's amazing how leftists see everything as immutibly genetic, or about race and class warfare when it isn't. It's like a girlfriend who only wish you were taller, but doesn't realize yet that it isn't somethig one can do anything about, but dwells on it anyway.
In this case, a party electorate is getting intensely obsessed with the people they selected almost exclusively for some symbolic features of their personage, tries to insist that that hasn't been the case, and now wants to fight over it for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that they passed up an awful lot of potential Democratic candicates who one wouldn't need to oversell as experienced, capable, "visionary seeming" etc., because they actually ARE some of those things... not two one-term Senators that got shoed-in by a politcal apparatus and tested well with advertising focus groups.

And if Sen. Obama "jets off" as you say to western Europe and the near east, so be it - but the people who will elect him are here, not there. He's already shown very little aptitude for international affairs, so I'm guessing that this is supposed to prop up how that level of aptitude is perceived.

Daniel Spiro said...

I disagree that Obama has shown very little aptitude for international affairs. I don't know what more to say than that. You may disagree with his views on international affairs, and he may have made a statement or two on international affairs that are ill-advised, but I think his center of gravity has been excellent.

Again, a lot of this has to do with one's values, rather than one's aptitude. Obama takes a lot of heat for his "inexperience," but rarely do I see anyone question his aptitude. Given his experience level, I think he's doing a great job. (Of course, in saying that, others would say "Ah, so you admit he's not qualified." Actually, what I'm admitting is that he's not the perfect candidate. Then again, such a person doesn't exist and never will.)