In the eye of the electoral hurricane, Democrats are dividing into math vs. momentum determinists: "Barack Obama has a majority of elected delegates." "Hillary Clinton has momentum and will win the super delegates." "Wyoming and Mississippi results gave the momentum back to Obama." "Did not." "Did so."
Putative GOP nominee John McCain also has to wait, but he can seize the spring to improve relations with conservative evangelicals and movement pros before swinging to the center in a general campaign. Like the two Democratic front-runners, he so far has run a personality-driven campaign, with no concept such as 2000's "compassionate conservatism" coming to the fore.
That sloganeering vacuum means that GOP gurus now have the opportunity to stand back and ask some basic questions: What, if anything, is the 2008 campaign revealing about American culture? Great political movements always have cultural and philosophical roots that go deeper than month-to-month politics: What are the beliefs and ideals that move Americans in 2008?
Let's try four Rs: restless, religious, reality-based, rambunctious. Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s classic Democracy in America wrote that Americans tend to be restless and religious, and in the 21st century that is still the case. Some Americans are chanting political mantras this year, but past elections suggest that most at some point will come to reality-based conclusions. Many journalists similarly fall into propaganda, but increased media diversity in recent years means that they can and will be shamed into rambunctious reporting.
De Tocqueville wrote, "In the United States, a man will carefully construct a home in which to spend his old age and sell it before the roof is on. . . . He will settle in one place only to go off elsewhere. . . . If his private business gives him some time for leisure he will immediately plunge into the whirlwind of politics."
Many presidential candidates have been rooted. We think of George Washington from Virginia and John Adams from Massachusetts. Even in 2004 the race was between New Englander John Kerry and George W. Bush, a proud Texan who talks like one and emphasizes his years in Midland public schools rather than his Ivy League higher education.
This year, though, restlessness has started at the top. John McCain is from everywhere and nowhere: Born in the Canal Zone, he moved frequently with his military family and during his own military career. As analyst Michael Barone notes, McCain when elected to Congress to represent Arizona had spent far more time in a Hanoi prison than in his new home state.
Obama and Clinton have Illinois in common, but Clinton headed east as soon as she could and had a marriage-required sojourn in Arkansas. Hawaii, California, and the state of Harvard all have claims to Obama's consciousness. But the unrootedness is far more than geographic, especially in Obama's case where such transcendence is a campaign centerpiece: He says "the choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white. It's about the past versus the future."
This strikes a powerful chord in America, where many among the young want to be adults before they're ready to be, many among the old want to be young, and most of us don't know much about history. Obama transcends racial divisions, Clinton breaks the glass ceiling for women. McCain's restlessness frustrates traditional conservatives. All three of the biographies tap into what Christian witness brings out: "neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Apart from Christ we're not really changed, but we want to be: e pluribus unum.
And the restlessness is deeper than that. Obama is the leading crier for "change"-he used the word 33 times in a speech last month after winning the Wisconsin primary-but all three candidates have turned the six-letter word into an applause line. That's strange: Why, when America is the most affluent society in history, is "change" a plus-especially since one possible change in the next decade is a U.S. city destroyed by a terrorist's nuclear weapon?
Beatles and Christians can answer that question by noting that money can't buy you love. The "change" mantra taps into a sense of alienation, a recognition that we are wanderers. It suggests that politics, if we choose the right change agent, can do what only God can do.
All the candidates this year have spoken of their religious beliefs, yet as de Tocqueville described Americans in the 1830s, "It is often hard to know from listening to them whether the main intention of religion is to obtain everlasting joy in the next world or prosperity in this." Or votes.
Journalists wrote and spoke the most about Mike Huckabee's beliefs: A Lexis-Nexis search shows "Huckabee" and "religious right" appearing 893 times during the three months before the Texas and Ohio primaries. Religious liberal Obama, though, typically avoided such characterization: His name and "religious left" appeared together only 28 times during that period.
Huckabee received press criticism for an Iowa ad that called him a "Christian leader," but few fussed about a South Carolina brochure that praised Obama as a "committed Christian" who is "called to Christ."
Obama has benefited from messianic hopes and has indulged them by (among other things) saying that he and his supporters can become "a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, and make this time different than all the rest." But he should not be ridiculed as lightweight because some of his fans swoon in the aisles as if they were slain in the spirit: He is delivering the "social gospel" that became prominent a century ago more skillfully than anyone else has done in recent decades.
Obama's profession of faith invigorates many and scares few because it is horizontal rather than vertical, with an emphasis on finding community rather than communing with God. Community organizers Obama worked with two decades ago saw "a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst. And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well-that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone."
Obama says his joining a church "came about as a choice, and not an epiphany." Choices do not bother secular Americans; epiphanies do. Joining a church to fight loneliness makes it as unobjectionable as joining a social club, but his affiliation serves as an antidote to evidence-less charges that Obama is secretly a Muslim. He says, "I've been to the same church, the same Christian church, for almost 20 years"-and he's listened to the same far-left pastor.
Obama's Christian affiliation also gives him the opportunity to dip into language that has resonated with many Americans in prior religious-left campaigns such as those of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Bryan, of course, lost all three times, because of a third American tendency.
De Tocqueville wrote about the American tendency to use "crisp, clear and unadorned language" in business dealings, only to turn to "bombast" and "relentless pomposity" when indulging in supposedly poetic public speaking. But de Tocqueville thought that realism would eventually win out-and so it has been in most presidential elections of the past 30 years, even when the campaigns initially were full of air.
Obama's brilliant oratory so far has allowed him to escape specifics, but Clinton's insinuations that Obama is unprepared and unrealistic allowed her to capture big majorities among Texas and Ohio voters who made up their minds just before voting. Clinton can only go so far in that approach because she shares many ideological positions with Obama, but McCain could have great success if he goes beyond abstract citing of liberal voting records and emphasizes specifics.
The coming Iraq debate will be one example. It's one thing to argue about who opposed the war in 2003, but the real question is what to do in 2008. An article by Angelina Jolie in the Washington Post late last month, with the surprising headline "A Reason to Stay in Iraq," was worth a thousand bombastic speeches.
Jolie argued that the United States should not squander what the troop surge has achieved, an opportunity to make "humanitarian progress" that will be lost if American forces pull out precipitously. Although Cosmogirl.com readers voted Angelina Jolie No. 3 on their list of desired presidential candidates (behind Oprah and Jon Stewart, ahead of Bono), she apparently is not on McCain's list of possible running mates-but he should run with what she wrote.
If the race is McCain vs. Obama, the older senator will need to pop the younger's halo of humaneness. One way is to listen to Jill Stanek, the whistle-blowing nurse who saw close-up at an Illinois Senate committee hearing Obama's opposition to protecting even babies born alive after failed abortions: "Obama's clinical discourse, his lack of mercy, shocked me." The Chicago Sun-Times ran a cartoon of Obama holding a sign reading, "LIVE BIRTH ABORTION," God reaching down from heaven to a baby in front of the state senator, and Obama yelling at God, "You keep out of this!"
Is McCain up to criticizing Obama (or Clinton) on abortion? Perhaps not, but GOP honchos should talk with Clarise McFarlen, a 16-year-old from Wichita, Kan., who-like Obama-is of a mixed racial background. At first excited to hear of Obama's candidacy, Clarise changed her mind when she learned of his position on partial-birth abortion: "My heart just stopped. If you support killing babies, there's no way you can have true compassion."
Both Obama and Clinton received favorable press coverage from December 2007 to last month, according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs: 83 percent of Obama stories and 53 percent of Clinton stories were positive. But just before the Texas and Ohio primaries some reporters became more . . .
De Tocqueville wrote, "It is an axiom of political science in the United States that the only means of neutralizing the effect of newspapers is to multiply their numbers." A generation ago the number of news outlets in America was the lowest ever in proportion to our population, and liberal reporters who virtually monopolized media could write and say the darndest things with little risk of public chastisement. In the internet and talk radio age, much has changed.
Exhibit 1: the turnabout of MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who early in February reacted to one Obama victory by saying, "I felt this thrill going up my leg. . . . [Obama] seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament." Widely ridiculed for such over-the-top treatment, Matthews just before the Texas primary aggressively questioned Kirk Watson, a former Austin mayor who is now a state senator and an Obama supporter.
"What has he accomplished, sir?" Matthews demanded. "You say you support him. Sir, you have to give me his accomplishments. You've supported him for president. You are on national television. Name his legislative accomplishments." The poor politician's answer was instructive: "Well, I'm not going to be able to name you specific items of legislative accomplishments."
Clinton supporters would probably have had the same problem, but Matthews pressed on: "Can you name any? Can you name anything he's accomplished as a congressman?" Watson, appearing as dumb as Sherlock Holmes' Watson: "No, I'm not going to be able to do that tonight." Matthews: "Well, that is a problem, isn't it?"
Yes, it is, and the press adulation that Obama received until a month ago may have created a backlash. A candidate benefits when reporters give him messianic status, but when they start to report that others are treating him as a messiah, the worm has turned.
A Lexis-Nexis search shows an average of 11 articles per month with "Obama" and "messiah" in them during 2007, 48 during January, 2008, 56 during the first half of February, and 153 during the second half.
Late last month the discomfort of liberal columnists became increasingly evident. Time's Joe Klein: "Something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism." The Los Angeles Times' Joel Stein: "the Cult of Obama." The New York Times' Paul Krugman: "The Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." ABC's Jake Tapper: the "Helter-Skelter cultish qualities" of "Obama worshipers."
NBC's Saturday Night Live also made fun of mediacrats who kiss up to Obama. And the unkindest cut of all, from The Tonight Show's Jay Leno on the eve of the Texas and Ohio primaries: "If you believe the media, Barack Obama was born in a manger."
Will rambunctiousness continue? Wait and see. The election is still over seven months away.