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Outsmarting Himself

By Steven Stark

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.

That's symptomatic of a larger concern yet to be addressed: all the candidates in the Stevenson tradition have, generally speaking, ranked poorly in the black community and among the less wealthy voters in the Democratic Party. Kennedy swept the black vote against McCarthy. Ditto for Jimmy Carter against Brown, Walter Mondale against Hart, and Bill Clinton against Tsongas.

There was talk in 2000 that Bradley might be different, since he's more recognizable in the black community, having played for a New York Knicks championship team. But Bradley chose to run as a kind of tweedy Princeton don rather than a former All-American; as a result, he was narrowly beaten by Al Gore in New Hampshire -- a state Bradley had to carry, given his profile. The rest of the campaign was a foregone conclusion.

Thus, if Obama doesn't change his campaign approach to focus more on the concerns of lower-income voters, history has shown us he, too, may soon run out of luck.

There's still hope for the Illinois senator, though, given two advantages that the previous candidates in this tradition didn't have. The first is that the Democratic primary electorate continues to get wealthier as the less well-off -- who are less likely to vote for Obama -- are less likely to vote at all.

The second, and more important, advantage is Obama's race. And that likely will determine whether he ends up like his predecessors or transcends their efforts. There is an understandable pride among voters whenever "one of our own" seeks the nation's highest office. Obama should be able to capitalize on that.

It wouldn't hurt, of course, if he were to win New Hampshire, either, or come very close, à la McCarthy in 1968. The state is essentially made-to-order for Obama's type of campaign, and the flood of his student volunteers trekking up to New Hampshire next January should be considerable. Let's not forget, either, that Obama's fundraising efforts show he has already built a powerful campaign, which gives him a good head start. But the well-to-do in the Democratic universe have always liked candidates like Obama.

The key to Obama's success is not, as the press has led us to believe, whether he can overcome his relative inexperience. It's whether he can appeal to someone who would rather share a beer with him than a glass of chardonnay.

Boston Phoenix


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