The Movement vs. the Maverick

11/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jim Wallis Christian leader for social change; President and Founder @Sojourners

From the results of the very first primary in 2008, the winner of this year's election was very clear: Change. When 4/5ths of the American people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, what else could the popular sentiment be but a deep hunger for a new direction? The many failures of the Bush administration are part of the passion for change. But the big problems and the political paralysis that the country is so unhappy about pre-date even the Bush years and also have bi-partisan roots. And now, with the Wall Street meltdown and the onset of economic recession, the need for fundamental change in national direction are painfully obvious.

So from Iowa on, all the candidates on both sides of the aisle tried to convince the voters that they were the one who could really change things. And guess what? The candidate from each side who eventually survived (a more apt description than won) the grueling political marathon in this election year were, indeed, the two that campaigned most successfully on the idea of change.

Barack Obama ran as the candidate of a new "Movement" in America. He said it was time to turn the generational page, to move beyond the polarized options of left and right, to replace the politics of blame and fear with the politics of solutions and hope. He promised to listen to both red and blue America in finding the answers to the big problems which have eluded a Washington stuck in the mud of partisanship and controlled by special interests which really don't have America's best interests at heart. His campaign events became citizen "revivals" drawing tens of thousands, especially many young people and including many others new to politics. Barack Obama has energized a new generation who want to make a difference but had been alienated from politics. He runs as the inspirational leader of a new politics in America. On matters of faith, Obama testifies to his own personal Christian conversion, and reminds people that "we have an awesome God" in both the red and blue states. The by-words of the Obama vision and campaign were "Change" and "Hope."

John McCain ran as America's leading "Maverick" politician who was willing to stand up to the special interests, defy the powers that be (even in his own party), and stick to his guns whether it would win him an election or not. Like the Tom Cruise Top Gun fighter pilot he used to be, McCain puts himself forward as a leader willing to take the risks, go against the odds, and turn defeat into victory whether it be in Iraq or in the resurrection of his own presidential campaign this year. Rooting his character and appeal in his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain speaks of the maturity gained through suffering that made him fall in love with his country. He is gritty more than articulate and combative more than inspirational; which is just what he says we need in a time of grave threats to our security and way of life from mortal enemies who require the kind tough Commander-In-Chief that he promises to be. His faith is deeply tied up with honor codes that come with military discipline and devotion. "Reform" and "Victory" were the watch-words of the McCain ethos and campaign.

So how is it turning out at the end; which candidate has stayed more true to their core identities of "movement" or "maverick?"

Obama is still having rallies in battleground states that attract 100,000 people. But, more importantly, he has convinced many voters, especially in the three presidential debates, that the "change" he would bring would be responsible and reliable. His primary campaign of "inspiration" has been transformed into a general election campaign more focused on "trust," persuading the voters that he has the intelligence, judgment, and temperament to steer a steady course, especially in a time of economic crisis. If his charisma impressed the voters during the primary season, it has been his calmness and cool that has won them over in this fall. The celebrity image of the first stage has grown into "no drama Obama." The mantra of change has been the consistent theme of his campaign, but the change message had to pass the trust test and the pre-election polls suggest that the maturation of Obama's message is succeeding.

McCain, on the other hand, has had much more trouble holding onto his mantra of "the maverick." His message of reform has given way to a campaign mostly aimed at making people afraid of Barack Obama. Choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate at first reinforced McCain's identity as a reformer as the "two mavericks" hit the road together. But growing questions about her readiness for the presidency have undermined her credentials, and even McCain's own credibility of putting the country first. And McCain's response to the economic crisis seemed more uncertain and erratic than an experienced reformer's might have been, without a clear message and direction. Since McCain began to plunge in the polls, his campaign has been more and more based on fear. "Exactly who is Barack Obama?" is not exactly the vision of a maverick reformer with a hopeful vision of changing public life. While both candidates have taken their gloves off in negative ads directed at each other's policy agendas, McCain's attack ads have been much more personal than Obama's.

McCain's and Palin's constant efforts to create doubts about Obama as a person and leader have played directly into the ugly innuendo campaign around the country about Obama's "otherness," a person not like the rest of us. He is a Muslim, or an Arab, or a socialist, or an outsider with a foreign middle name, who is only supported by the less pro-American parts of the nation. Directed against the first African American candidate for the presidency, the racial undertones of this political environment are unmistakable.

Running that kind of campaign has clearly undermined McCain's greatest strength as a reformer: that he is a man of honor. "Honorable" is not the first word that will be used in describing the McCain strategy in the final stage. McCain made a mistake not to run on his vision as a different kind of Republican, a reformer who wants to put politics back on the high road, and a political leader who has had real differences with his own president and party. McCain has not shown how he would "reform" the economic policies from eight years of Republican rule. He virtually left his reform record behind to embrace the conservative Republican base and get elected; but it hasn't worked so far.

In this week before the election, Barack Obama's message of change seems to be winning over McCain's new message of fear; but never underestimate the politics of fear in America. But clearly, the movement has won over the maverick.

There is now a spirituality to this campaign which is one of hope vs. fear. Obama has retained his hold on the former, while John McCain has let his campaign slide into the latter. And when the mood of the country is change, hope will normally triumph over fear--or at least one hopes so.

Jim Wallis is the best-selling author of God's Politics and The Great Awakening