The Realism of Idealism

This is kind of a partisan national political post for my first post back from a long hiatus.  But this one has been stuck in me for a while.  So bear with me.

The Clinton campaign today finally throws what it considers “the kitchen sink” out there trying to derail the Obama Machine.  Among their “five points” they continue to harp on this idea that because Obama is an eloquent speaker that therefore there is nothing substantial with which to back it up from a policy perspective.  This is just silly.  There is no Law of Conservation of Virtues that says just because a person is eloquent, they are a policy dunce.

For starters Clinton (and the GOP) is just plain wrong in the experience issue.  In an institution where it can take years for a Senator to make any kind of impact at all, Senator Obama has had a very distinguished first term.  Don’t take my word for it, Hilzoy of the Obsidian Wings blog put together a very complete profile of Obama’s legislative record, way back in October of 2006.

I think the main problem that many have in suspending their disbelief that there can be any substance behind the calls for hope is that we have come to see utter mediocrity as the standard of our political discourse.  Somehow, in the years since 1968 it became unfashionable (too elitist?) to wax eloquent about our collective dreams and aspirations.  The standard has become the highly briefed pol who studiously says nothing while occasionally throwing out a short sound bite as red meat to the mob.  See, no new taxes, compassionate conservative, and ready to lead on day one.  The winner is the one who can come closest to embodying the mental image their sound bite evokes in 51 percent of the superset of party regulars and normal people who can hold their noses long enough to vote.

What we have forgotten is that that Barack Obama represents old school politics.  He is a throw back to the way things used to be.  Being a successful national politician used to REQUIRE being an orator of the first order.   Heck, even a presidential mediocrity like old “Silent Cal” Coolidge could unleash a gem that would resound down the ages:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

Let us remember that both Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were both considered big talkers with nothing to back it up.  Lincoln as a freshman Congressman was considered way to inexperienced to lead a nation on the verge of civil war.  Roosevelt was considered an upper-class twit who would be eaten alive by the hard-core pols and lobbyists who (even in 1930) infested Washington.

The genius of the politician-as-orator-as-pop-icon campaign strategy is that it bypasses all other electoral strategies.  It does Obama’s opponents no good to run a campaign that focuses on the old, reliable strategy of securing 51 percent of the same old voter pie.  Obama is building a movement that is baking a bigger pie.  He is appealing to people who have been disgusted by politics-as-usual, he is gunning for a mandate in the old fashioned sense.  Memo to George Bush: 51% is NOT a mandate.  Reagan winning 49 states… THAT’S a mandate.  And that is the game Barack Obama is playing; to be to the Democratic party what Ronald Reagan was to the Republicans and reunite the country behind a common purpose.

I think the reason Obama has found a large and rapidly growing constituency in 2008 is that there is an unspoken sense among the electorate that business as usual simply will not do any longer.  A gut sense that many might not even be able to give voice to that the national automobile is off on a sandy shoulder with no guard rail and we are staring out the window at a very steep drop.  It is time for a steady hand on the wheel and some hard-eyed realism.  Some may say that that describes Hillary Clinton. But people want more.

More than anything else, Americans want to feel like they are part of a collective again, that we are all pulling in the same direction, as one nation.  Barack Obama is a realist who understands the importance idealism plays in the service of realism.  His oratory of idealism and hope — or as McCain would have it his “eloquent but empty call for change — plays the same role that that of Lincoln and Roosevelt did in crises gone by.  It serves as an important rallying cry to our nation’s atrophied sense of unity and common purpose that can help convince us to make the sacrifices we must in order come through and prevail in our current time of crisis.

Cross posted from the new, improved, cman blog.

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Tags: Obama

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  • I just shake my head

    I am sorry, because this is a good post, but I just do not get this take on Obama at all. There will be no sense of unity and common purpose that will bring us the change we need. We know that the Republicans and the corporate Democrats will never go along with the solutions we need.

    To me Obama could hardly be telegraphing more clearly that he does NOT plan to govern as a progressive Democrat, that he will stand above partisanship and promote some kind of compromise agenda.

    In practice I think that means one Sister Souljah moment after another, where Obama shows that he is not beholden to liberal ideologues as the Washington pundits cheer.

    Anyway, like I often say in comments like this, I hope you are right about Obama and I am wrong.