What is going to become of the Democratic Party, so addicted to the cycle of grievance and apology that it can hardly catch its breath long enough to articulate a governing philosophy? What can we possibly expect of a party, and of presidential candidates, so terrified of giving offense that even their most heralded and YouTubed flights of eloquence originate in the need to backpedal, denounce, clarify, or spin?
For all its celebrated intelligence and nuance, Barack Obama's March 18 speech, "A More Perfect Union," was, tactically speaking, a supplication: "Please don't hold it against me that my pastor is pissed off about the way this country treats black people." It's true, of course, that Obama's rhetoric and analysis rose far above the pathetic pabulum (or nasty race baiting) we're usually fed - but what concerns me more is how easy it was for the frontrunner to get rocked back on his heels, and what he might be considering as a follow-up act. After all, absolutely no one thinks the issue is going away. Everyone knows the Republicans will exploit it in the fall - can't you just see Sean Hannity's ticker, BARACK HUSSEIN AND THE TERRORIST PREACHER? The March 18 speech may have taken the heat off temporarily, but its fundamental flaw is that he can't do it again - or should we expect the sequel, perhaps "An Even More Perfect Union"?
How much more effective would it have been - and how much more would I respect him - if he'd responded by taking off the gloves and pushing back? If he had dropped, for a day or two, his eerily calm demeanor and said, "A man's relationship to his church is nobody else's damn business"? If he'd said, "Go ask Reverend Wright why he's so pissed off - I'm busy trying to put this country back on track"? If he'd challenged the media on their scandal-mongering by saying, "We just had our four thousandth soldier die in Iraq, the country is plummeting into recession, health care costs are shooting through the roof, the Bush Administration has gutted the Constitution, enriched the oil companies, and mortgaged all of our futures, and you think a pastor in Chicago is the Big Story? Why don't you fulfill your civic responsibility and start covering what really matters"?
Would this have solved the Reverend Wright problem? No.
Would it have made the media, and his opponents, think twice before flinging such silly crap at him again? Maybe.
It's the difference between being liked and being respected - a difference I'm not yet sure the Obama campaign understands. You don't respond to political attacks with nuanced explanation; you respond with firepower.
It's why Hillary has pounced so energetically on the latest meaningless kerfuffle - Obama's pronouncement a week ago that working-class voters are "bitter" and that they "cling to guns or religion" as an anodyne for their economic frustration.
It was a stupid thing to say - not because there's not a grain of truth in it, but because even a halfwit running for president of the junior high knows you can't say it that way without sounding like a snobby "latté liberal," exactly the kind of person those working-class people despise. But is it a crisis? Hardly.
The Obama camp has been so drunk on its own saintly aura (think of their favorite mantra: "We are the ones we've been waiting for") that anytime he stumbles they look as shocked and panicked as Harry Whittington must have when Dick Cheney shot him in the face. They simply can't believe it - and worse, they can't believe people are so darned mean as to make a big deal out of it, when everyone knows what a great guy Obama really is.
Obama admits to being "a little disappointed" that Hillary has tried to take advantage of the gaffe. "Shame on her," he says, echoing the silly way in which his acolytes have painted Hillary as Nurse-Ratched-off-her-meds anytime she criticizes him too harshly - as though they believe a presidential campaign should be fought with a feather duster and not a club.
Of course Hillary couldn't care less about the content of Obama's statement - she's not interested in parsing out the social politics of the working class, she wants to win the election. She saw how the Wright controversy threw Obama off his game for weeks - and how he responded to it by trying to soothe, rather than battle back - and she's betting she can do it again and keep him stuttering all the way into the Pennsylvania primary.
And it's working - how many times in the last few days have you heard Obama say "hope"? Now how many times have you heard him say "misspoke"?
Anyone who thinks the moral here is that Hillary is a hypocrite and an opportunist is really missing the point: This is a national political campaign. It's rough. It's a bloodsport. All the wishful talk about a New Politics isn't going to change that. The Republicans will say if you can't stand up to Hillary Clinton, or Tim Russert, how can we expect you to stand up to al Q'aeda? And they're not totally right - but they're not totally wrong. Despite the Bush Administration's criminal incompetence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and just about everywhere else, the burden of proof is still on the Democrats where national security credentials are concerned. That's why the Swiftboat issue was fatal to John Kerry - the public badly wanted to believe the challenger could do better than George Bush, who even in 2004 was a pathetic failure; but the Swiftboaters simultaneously called Kerry's own war record into question and showed him to be mealy-mouthed and wimpy in defending himself against what everyone knew was slander.
If you can't stand up to a bunch of potbellied liars, how can we expect you to stand up to al Q'aeda?
The desire to be everyone's friend is Obama's worst enemy. The most insidious play in the Republican PsyOps manual is the one where they say the Democrats are "too angry" and that the public wants a sunny optimist. Democrats, temperamentally predisposed to cooperation, tend to cringe at this accusation, roll over on their backs and wait to have their bellies rubbed - which has the dual effect of making them look like kittens and changing the subject from whatever travesty of Republican rule they were so angry about to begin with.
Those travesties have proliferated in the four years since John Kerry psyched himself right out of the race: two thousand more dead soldiers, Afghanistan slipping away, a few trillion in debt, a housing crisis, inaction on health care, widening income disparities, total malfunction in the markets, and the worst overall economic picture since the Great Depression. We will never know whether Kerry could have prevented any of this - we will only remember him as having not fought hard enough for the opportunity.
The conventional wisdom is that the White House is the Democrats' to lose in 2008. Coincidentally, this was the conventional wisdom in 2004. However they feel about John McCain, the right-wing machine is getting ready to gear up another below-the-belt smearfest - they won't be scared off by Obama's likeability or the threat of being called "meanies" by his fans.
Obama owes it to himself, and he owes it to us, to take off the gloves. We have suffered through the worst administration in American history, and we're just beginning to feel the long-term consequences of the greed, mismanagement, malpractice, and criminality perpetrated by the mental and moral midget currently occupying the White House. What we need now isn't a Democratic candidate who always plays well with others. What we need now is a titan.