It's pretty damn exciting that Barack Obama has gotten more than 250,000 people to contribute to his campaign. As I've written before, his efforts to raise small dollar donations is looked upon by those in the Beltway as some sort of scandal, when in fact it's totally admirable in an election system that unfortunately is not publicly financed.
The news, covered by Beltway reporters with typically vapid platitudes and caricatures, made me think about a few important questions that few are asking.
The first set of questions are horse-race-ish: Does being an Obama donor mean you are an Obama voter or volunteer? I think that's a harder question to answer than it seems in light of the fact that we know his campaign (admirably) asks lots of people for fairly small amounts of money. Someone may be willing to pay $5 or $10 just to go see Obama speak, but that doesn't necessarily mean they support him. Hell, I might consider paying $5 or $10 to go see one of the Republicans speak just to hear them and evaluate their skills -- but that sure as hell doesn't mean I'd vote for them or work to get them elected. So how much of the 350,000 represents die hard support, and how much represents interest in a media spectacle?
Second set of questions: Though getting so many people to contribute money to the political process is absolutely great, is there anything slightly troubling about it? What I mean is this: Barack Obama has very little experience, and, in my honest opinion, has yet to take either many strong, power-challenging positions on key issues, or really tell us what a Barack Obama presidency would be all about (beyond buzzwords like "hope" and "change"). It's quite possible that's because he's waiting until later on in the election process to do so, considering that, despite the media's hyperventilation, we are still a full seven months away from the first primary votes being cast. Or, alternately, perhaps his relatively undefined profile exists because he just isn't interested in really fundamentally challenging the status quo -- I can't be sure, because I'm not inside his campaign.
But I wonder if underneath the genuinely positive and awesome feat of attracting that many new investors in the political process there is a sad commentary on what has become of America's political culture? Is the key to engaging people really just about being a media celebrity who positions himself as a blank slate of nebulous "hope?" In other words, are people so desperate for anything that even resembles change from Clinton-dominated dynasty politics that they will flock to a candidacy that most can candidly admit is still not all that well-defined? If that's the case, what does it say about the substance of American politics? Obama, after all, may talk a lot about change, but it's an undebatable fact that A) it's difficult to state succinctly what his candidacy is truly about, beyond a politician actually saying the words "hope" and "change" and B) he's chosen to surround himself by many key parts of the D.C./Clinton machine (as just one example, he keynoted the launch of the Hamilton Project -- the Bob Rubin creation designed to continue pushing lobbyist-written globalization policies). Thus, if people supporting Obama are supporting him out of a desire for fundamental change but Obama doesn't really represent fundamental change, would there be any real election mandate for such a candidate to DO something specific once in office?
The Obama partisans are going to inevitably attack me for asking these questions -- a small but vocal group of his most ardent supporters have a bit of a Limbaugh-ish dittoheadedness to them in that they attack anyone who says anything other than Barack Obama is a deity. But, as I said, I actually like Barack Obama, and, more importantly, I ask these questions sincerely because I think they get to the deeper issues of what our politics are really about -- or not about -- and what kind of concrete results we can expect from a given election. That is, at least for me, far more important than any one candidacy in any one election cycle -- especially with 20/20 hindsight in looking at the false prophet nature of Bill Clinton's populist 1992 presidential campaign.
Bottom line here - Good on you, Barack, for engaging so many new people. It's a truly impressive accomplishment. Now, what does it all mean for the long-haul?