Barack Obama: The Visible Man
Senator Barack Obama is on the cover of Time this week, with a love song portrait composed by Joe Klein, who last lost his heart with Bill Clinton. Obama, who is not running for anything this year, was on Tim Russert's Meet the Press show Sunday to tell the world that he might not complete his Senate term and is now considering running for President in 2008, despite his earlier assurances on Russert's show and elsewhere, that he had no such plans. For those who have climbed Mount Everest, jumping from Illinois State Senator in 2004, (after having been badly beaten as a Congressional candidate) to President in 4 years might be an even steeper ascent.
Newsweek, not to be outdone, graces its cover with a picture of Democratic Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. now running for the open senate seat being vacated by Bill Frist in Tennessee. Newsweek tells us these Democrats (Ford, as an example) are 'not your daddy's Democrats'.
Well, then, what of Republican Michael Steele involved in a close race for the open senate seat in Maryland? Or Lynn Swann , running as a Republican for Governor of Pennsylvania? Or Ken Blackwell, running as a Republican candidate for Governor in Ohio? One might say, if one had any interest in these candidates (or their party), that with three black candidates running statewide, this was not your 'daddy's Republicans' either.
It is far more likely you will see a national news story about the Democratic candidate for Governor in Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, also an African American, than about Blackwell or Swann this year.
Why are the Democratic African American candidates of so much greater interest to the national media than the Republican African American candidates running state wide this year? Silly question, of course.
Party label is really all that matters in terms of where to shine the spotlight. And for partisans of the left or the Democratic Party (increasingly the same thing), keeping African American voters on their side of the ledger is of paramount importance. Black voters account for as much as 20% of the national Democratic Party vote. If they started seeing Republican candidates, black or white, as real alternatives, the Democrats' chance of achieving national majority party status would be doomed. No Democrat has scored above 51% of the popular vote in a Presidential election since1964. And only Jimmy Carter exceeded 50% (barely) in 1976, before registering an all—time low percentage of the popular vote for an incumbent in 1980.
Obama: up from obscurity with help from the press
In 2004, then—State Senator Obama trailed badly in third place just weeks before the Democratic primary for the open Illinois US Senate seat being vacated by Peter Fitzgerald. The leader was investment banker Blair Hull, who had spent about $40 million on an ad campaign that got him name recognition and a big lead in the polls.
Then the Chicago Tribune peeked into his bedroom, and revealed that he was an alleged wife beater. Hull's campaign collapsed and most of his support swung to Obama, who was a poorly funded candidate going nowhere until the Tribune story destroyed Hull's candidacy.
Next, the Tribune released supposedly sealed divorce documents concerning Republican nominee Jack Ryan, revealing he was a bit too kinky in his sexual tastes for his former wife. Ryan pulled out of the race, and the Illinois Republican Party, true to its decade long death wish, nominated Alan Keyes to oppose Obama. Suddenly, the unknown State Senator was now US Senator Obama with a smashing 71% share of the vote.
Of course, Obama also got a boost from the Democratic National Committee which offered him a speech in prime time at the 2004 convention, that left network anchors gushing for this fresh face, and new talent. For the record, Obama is smart, charismatic, personable, and even a decent writer. Affirmative action may get you into Harvard, but will not get you to be an editor of the law review at Harvard Law School. There are many ways in which Obama would be a far more interesting candidate than many of his Senate peers. But as John McWhorter asks, would any of these attributes been enough to have gotten Obama where he is today, were he not black?
Obama is very ambitious. He ran for Congress in 2000, and the US Senate 4 years later. Running for President in 2008, after 4 years in national politics, is a bit out of pattern for most Senators, but then again, it is not as if John Edwards or Hillary Clinton had long legislative records or formal governmental experience before becoming national candidates, or presumed national candidates.
And not having a legislative record is an advantage — fewer votes that anybody can dig up to slam you. There are already some for Obama, however. Though half the Democrats in the Senate voted for John Roberts for Chief Justice (including Pat Leahy and Russ Feingold) Obama voted "no" on Roberts. Why? There seems to be no good reason, except that Bush nominated him. Roberts was probably the brightest , most knowledgeable Court nominee in decades. He is also a mid—westerner, with a very moderate disposition, not unlike Obama himself. Has Roberts been a radical on the Court since his ascendance to Chief Justice? Hardly.
Obama's no vote on Roberts was rank partisanship, not inconsistent with his very liberal voting record, almost identical to Ted Kennedy's. Having a pleasing personality does not mean one is not a candidate of the left. Voting records speak for themselves. It is also worth noting that media pundits have routinely belittled the chances of most Senators who seek to run for President, given their singular record of failure over the last 80 years (only JFK went directly from the Senate to the White House during this time period). They routinely point out that it is generally Governors, with some executive experience, who make the successful jump. But this lack of executive experience is never mentioned as a weakness for Obama.
Edwards, Clinton, and perhaps Al Gore are the likely candidates standing in the way of Obama's next coronation, should he make his candidacy official. For now, he is being drafted to run by a liberal national media, hungry for a fresh face, weary and wary of the old demons that a Clinton candidacy will dredge up.
Obama would be a huge threat to Hillary, since African Americans, along with single women, are her two biggest support groups. I think it is a safe assumption that some of that huge haul of tens of millions that Ms Clinton has raised for her non—competitive Senate race this year is now going to pay for opposition researchers trolling for 'material' on Obama going back to his State Senate days in Illinois.
Little such research is required to dig up material on Al Gore. Playbacks of his first debate with Bush in 2000, immediately caricatured on Saturday Night Live, might be enough to sink his candidacy. Gore pontificates — then about an 'iron clad lockbox' to hold Social security money, now about global warming. Voters know when they are being talked down to by a candidate who behaves like a 'know it all' and who assures you that some controversies are now settled, since he says so.
My guess is that Hillary would offer the VP slot to Obama in 2008, were he well enough behaved to not challenge her for the top spot.
I think the odds are that Obama will disappoint Hilary and run. In four years, he might not be as much of a celebrity. Whoever wins in 2008, if Obama does not run, will be a favorite to win again in 2012. That might mean Obama's next good shot is 2016. There might be other African Americans in the Senate by then, or other new hot candidates the media falls in love with.
Obama's status probably will not be unique by then. He will have more votes to defend. Hillary can raise a few hundred million to run in 2008, but she is still Hillary, "joyless" in the word of Elizabeth Edwards, and lacking in the natural political skills of her husband. So Obama has a decent shot at the prize. In fact I think he may be the Democrat who would be most competitive with John McCain or Rudy Giuliani were either to be the GOP nominee.
The media's love affair with Obama has several dimensions. It is, to begin, the predictable white liberal guilt, gushing out to support a black candidate (so long as the candidate is a Democrat) thereby demonstrating one's 'decency' and 'humanity'. But in the case of Obama, it might also be pragmatic; he might be the Democrat with the best chance to win.
And the media is tired of GOP rule, and tired most of all of President Bush. I sometimes think the national media most hates Bush because he drags them to Crawford, Texas, in the brutal heat of August each year for his annual vacation. At least Bush's father took them to Kennebunkport, Maine for his vacations.
Forget Obama's stand on the issues. Does anybody know where he vacations?
Richard Baehr is the chief political correspondent of American Thinker.