03/10/2008 02:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Messiah Virus

A month ago millions of people were discovering the allure of Barack Obama's charisma, and it made for a heady change in politics as usual. Caught on the wrong side of the charisma gap, Hillary Clinton applied the only remedy she knew -- more politics as usual -- and it seemed to work. Her wins in Texas and Ohio shifted the emphasis to toughness. The notorious "3 AM telephone call" ad gave voters second thoughts. Among those voters who made up their minds in the last day or two before the primary, a solid majority went for Clinton. Fear, deception, and innuendo have their uses, as we know all too well.

This looked like the predictable collapse of idealism when the going gets tough. Now on all sides Obama's toughness is being called into question. This is another predictable phase in the electoral process -- taking the gloves off. Americans love a good fight, and they want their president to be first of all a commander-in-chief. Except that this time the pre-written scenario has hit a snag, because those millions who fervently believe in Obama want a messiah more than they want a fighter or commander-in-chief. The Clintons must realize that, and they must also be deeply worried. If Hillary wrests the nomination away from Obama by using spoiler tactics, in-fighting, smears, and cronyism (which looks like the only way she can win), she will be shooting Santa Claus in front of the children, to quote a witty remark making the rounds.

There are two opposing views about Obama as a political messiah. On the one hand his supporters are typed as immature whiners who need to grow up and realize that politics is nasty business. On the other hand, his idealism is seen as the real thing, and forcing him to counter the Clintons' get-down-in-the-mud tactics would fatally compromise his integrity, the very soul of Obama's campaign.

I think the idealists have more truth on their side, and yet the messiah virus isn't entirely benign. If Obama loses the nomination, his followers could be so devastated that they will renounce political participation, and lack of political participation is the very thing that gave us the right-wing regimen of the past eight years: idealism was stifled by cynicism and corruption. It should be pointed out, however, that the Clintons aren't trying to crucify a savior. They resort to fighting tactics because it's what they know, and above all, it's how they defeated the right wing. Ironically, the tables have turned, and the toughness that quashed Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America is being portrayed as fatal to the Democratic cause.

The impasse between idealism and pragmatism seems to have only one way out that will benefit the country as a whole. Obama needs to be chosen, not primarily to defeat Hillary -- although she might see it that way -- but to redeem the political process. Of course the realists are right. Obama will face tough fights as president and may be outwitted by tough old warriors in the House and Senate, not to mention the virulent right-wing ideologues. But he won't lose all the time, and there's a chance that his presidency could put the entire country back on the right track. It's happened before, and the cynics need to keep that in mind. The messiah virus won't affect everyone, just the discouraged, the disillusioned, and those who feel they have no voice. What more can be asked?