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Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Posted: September 10, 2008 01:46 PM

The Passion Gap


So who is the grinch who stole Obama's passion? Maybe Obama himself.

Obama fans should be reassured that he has been in this funk before, and has managed to get his mojo back. However, the anxious class has good reason to be anxious.

Obama's particular brand of post-partisanship seems to be having a rendezvous with the condition that has afflicted the Democrats in the past two elections, best known as "Gorekerry Disease." Each element of the malady is worth unpacking.

My friend Drew Westen brilliantly explained Gorekerry Disease in his 2007 book, The Political Brain. It is one part tin-ear, and a related failure to pay attention to the emotional aspects of politics as well as the cognitive ones. And one part placing key decisions in the hands of risk-averse staffers who are overly reliant on polls and focus groups. And one part a reluctance to sound too populist or too partisan. And one part letting the opposition define you instead of going on the offensive to define them. Instead of throttling the Swift-boaters, the Kerry campaign decided not to dignify their assault with a response, and they sank his ship. Westen latest piece highlights what Obama must do in the final sixty days.

Gorekerry Disease is often fatal: it causes Democrats to blow winnable elections, and then suffer the remorse of a political afterlife. When Kerry in 2008 listened to his own heart and his own voice, he blew the roof off of the convention hall in Denver. When Gore stopped running for office and pursued his own passions, he acquired the charismatic appeal that the robotic Gore utterly lacked in 2000.

As I observed in Obama's Challenge,

After the election, Gore began speaking out on the environment, with a wit and a passion that electrified audiences. Where was that Al Gore when we needed him? It turned out that Gore's "expert" campaign consultants had advised him to avoid talking about the environment because it wasn't a first-tier issue that moved voters. What they totally missed was that it moved Gore, and allowed him to demonstrate his own passion, warmth, and leadership. By depriving him of his most effective passion, they weakened him as a candidate.

Admirers of Obama convinced themselves that he was the cure for Gorekerry Disease. Here was a leader who could be truly inspirational, as well as passionate. Yet there is a side of Obama that is reluctant to go for the jugular, uncomfortable being too partisan, and even something of a policy wonk-fine in office, but deadly on the campaign trail.

Obama's recent speech on education, delivered Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, is a perfect example. The very week that Sarah Palin is feeding the Republican base raw moose-meat, the unemployment rate is soaring, and Fannie and Freddie are being bailed out by a Republican administration that doesn't believe in government (except to save Wall Street from its own folly), what major subject does Obama choose to address?

He delivers a beautifully crafted, idealistic and highly detailed speech on education. Here is a sample:

If we want to keep building the cars of the future here in America, we can't afford to see the number of PhDs in engineering climbing in China, South Korea, and Japan even as it's dropped here in America; we can't afford a future where our high school students rank near the bottom in math and science, and our high school drop-out rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world.

Well, sure. I happen to agree with most of his proposals; and if he manages to be elected, he may even get a chance to carry them out. But in a lengthy speech, promising at several points to move beyond party and ideology, he spent all of two minutes on John McCain. Here's the entirety of what he said about his opponent:

If we're going to make a real and lasting difference for our future, we have to be willing to move beyond the old arguments of left and right and take meaningful, practical steps to build an education system worthy of our children and our future.
In the past few weeks, my opponent has taken to talking about the need for change and reform in Washington, where he has been part of the scene for about three decades.
And in those three decades, he has not done one thing to truly improve the quality of public education in our country. Not one real proposal or law or initiative. Nothing.
Instead, he marched with the ideologues in his party in opposing efforts to hire more teachers, and expand Head Start, and make college more affordable. You don't reform our schools by opposing efforts to fully fund No Child Left Behind. And you certainly don't reform our education system by calling to close the Department of Education. That would just make it harder for us to give out financial aid, harder for us to keep track of how our schools are doing, and lead to widening inequality in who gets a college degree.
That is not my idea of reform. That is not my idea of change. That is not a plan to help your kids compete with those kids in China and India.
After three decades of indifference on education, do you really believe that John McCain is going to make a difference now?
John McCain doesn't get it. He doesn't understand that our success as a nation depends on our success in education.

Now, this is not bad. But it was buried well down in a long speech, on a policy issue where many of the actual differences between Republicans and Democrats were blurred by the cohabitation of No Child Left Behind.

And what's with the insistence on moving "beyond party and ideology?"

A moment after that formulation, which he repeated elsewhere in the speech, Obama aptly pointed out that one party and one ideology was short-changing America's kids. (He just didn't do it forcefully enough.)

An election is nothing if not a choice of ideology and party. Otherwise, why bother? And if the right is passionately telling the voters why Democrats and progressives are scoundrels while the liberal left is sticking to high-minded post-partisan stuff, the liberal candidate will be rewarded by the sound of one hand clapping. It's bad enough when this advice comes from the candidate's handlers. But heaven help us when it's in the candidate's own soul.

Obama is a supremely gifted politician, but he has a very short period and a very steep learning curve in which to blend his idealism with a surer sense of the jugular, and his policy wonkery with greater passion. Otherwise, he will join the progressive graveyard of presidential candidates who found their true urgent voice only in the ashes of defeat.

Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect and Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, has just published Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (Chelsea Green). He is blogging daily about the election and the economic crisis at www.obamaschallenge.com.