Friday, June 20, 2008

Effectively Political

It’s really fascinating to watch the Republicans come to the realization that they are in deep trouble and are staring up the mountainside as the landslide approaches. Seeing how they deal with it now tells you a great deal about how they’re going to respond when it actually hits.

My favorite gauge of this deer-in-the-headlights syndrome is David Brooks of the New York Times. He’s not one of those over-the-top outragers like Pat Buchanan or any number of jowl-shaking pundits who shout and interrupt people on cable TV; Mr. Brooks is more like the befuddled sit-com dad who just can’t seem to understand why everyone doesn’t just agree with him because, well, just because. And since Mr. Brooks gets to play the part in the paper and then later on NPR and PBS, he gets three chances to peddle his befuddlement.

Case in point: today he’s giving Barack Obama the “split-personality” treatment. (By the way, this is one of his old favorites; he’s done it to George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and just about anyone else he discovers has more to them than just the persona portrayed by the media.)

God, Republicans are saps. They think that they’re running against some academic liberal who wouldn’t wear flag pins on his lapel, whose wife isn’t proud of America and who went to some liberationist church where the pastor damned his own country. They think they’re running against some naïve university-town dreamer, the second coming of Adlai Stevenson.

But as recent weeks have made clear, Barack Obama is the most split-personality politician in the country today. On the one hand, there is Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set and feeling the fierce urgency of now. But then on the other side, there’s Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who’d throw you under the truck for votes.

This guy is the whole Chicago package: an idealistic, lakefront liberal fronting a sharp-elbowed machine operator. He’s the only politician of our lifetime who is underestimated because he’s too intelligent. He speaks so calmly and polysyllabically that people fail to appreciate the Machiavellian ambition inside.

In other words, Mr. Brooks is just figuring out how a young lawyer with political ambitions rose from being a community organizer on the south side of Chicago to U.S. Senator and presidential candidate without having a political machine like Karl Rove or a father’s Rolodex to do it for him. This amazes him because that’s just not how it’s supposed to happen. And he’s even more amazed that a Democrat would actually be a politician with sharp instincts; they’re not supposed to be like that. (By the way, you can tell that Mr. Brooks is flustered; he doesn’t even get the metaphor right: it’s “throw someone under the bus“, not “the truck.”)

The example Mr. Brooks plays on is Mr. Obama’s decision not to accept public financing for his campaign, and he accuses — albeit with some admiration — of breaking a promise. He might have a point, but so far no one has been able to produce proof that Mr. Obama made such a promise. He gave a lukewarm conditional pledge to accept public financing only if his opponent pledged to do the same, and since then he’s realized that he can do a lot better without it. This has the Republicans freaked out because they know that they are so far behind the curve on fund-raising that the only way they could hope to keep pace with Mr. Obama is if he tied himself to the limits imposed by John McCain’s campaign finance reform law (which, by the way, John McCain himself seems to be breaking). They’re stunned that he’s not falling for their trap, hence the frustration on a par with Wile E. Coyote.

But there’s a glimmer of respect for Mr. Obama from Mr. Brooks after all.

I have to admit, I’m ambivalent watching all this. On the one hand, Obama did sell out the primary cause of his professional life, all for a tiny political advantage. If he’ll sell that out, what won’t he sell out? On the other hand, global affairs ain’t beanbag. If we’re going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunist Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside.

All I know for sure is that this guy is no liberal goo-goo. Republicans keep calling him naïve. But naïve is the last word I’d use to describe Barack Obama. He’s the most effectively political creature we’ve seen in decades. Even Bill Clinton wasn’t smart enough to succeed in politics by pretending to renounce politics.

That’s his way, I suppose, of resigning himself to the fact that he and the Republicans are about to be swept away by the landslide, and instead of running scared like the rest of the Orcosphere and grasping at every twig (“he’s a Muslim! and his wife is … not shy! and … aughh!”) he’s awkwardly trying to adjust to the new paradigm of a Democratic candidate who is as good at politics and as ambitious as the Republicans think they are as well as set himself up for the next four years or so of writing columns and doing NPR and PBS commentaries where he can survive off the “grudging respect” line. That’s his own way of being “effectively political.”