Denver Bar Association
April 2008
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The Audacity of Hype or the Real Thing?

by Doug McQuiston


As I write this, the results of the Feb. 18 Wisconsin primary are coming in. Barack Obama has claimed his ninth win in a row, by a double-digit margin his opponent Hillary Clinton had to find humiliating and exasperating. At every campaign stop, he fills not only 20,000-seat arenas, but the overflow rooms and tents erected to hold his record crowds. He is a phenomenon. But we have seen it before. Sen. Obama knows of whom I speak.

When this issue hits your mailbox, it will be April. Sen. Clinton may have found a way to stop him, though she hasn’t yet. If, as the pundits like to say, present trends continue, the contest will be over by the time you’re reading this. The Democratic Party, and the nation, may be close to its first African-American nominee. Denver, as it should be, will be the place where it may happen.

Stop and think about that for a moment. In 1998, the iconic African-American writer Toni Morrison dubbed Bill Clinton "the first Black President," saying he was "blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime." This year, Toni Morrison has endorsed Barack Obama. The future is now.

It may come as a surprise to our regular readers that I can’t help but be impressed. Don’t get me wrong — I am not yet an "Obama-can." But when I listen to him speak; when I see his smooth-running and efficient campaign organization systematically disassembling the Clinton machine; when I see his prodigious money-raising skills and his judicious use of that money (all while his opponent Sen. Clinton’s campaign is plagued by missteps, turnover, blown cues, profligate spending, and dwindling campaign coffers) I get the feeling that we really might be watching our nation’s history book (as Obama would put it) "turning the page."

I am old enough to be reminded of the last time this happened. Although he is not quite that old, Obama remembers, too. He has patterned his campaign on it. His awe-inspiring rhetoric; his unabashed love for his country; his appeal to the best in America and Americans; his ambitious, wide-eyed references to "Hope"; and his calling of all Americans to join him as the country embarks on its New Day are reaching a whole new audience. He has tapped into that same longing for "change" ridden by another transformative candidate from a generation ago. Like him, Obama never uses the personal pronoun "I." Instead, it is always "we." That subtle little rhetorical device, coupled with his message of "change," have transformed his campaign into a Movement.

His politics could not be more different than those of his role model. But the parallels are undeniable. He is channeling the soul of that earlier "change" candidate.

Barack Obama is the liberal reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.

You heard me — I said Ronald Reagan. He has as much as admitted it. During an interview in January 2008, Sen. Obama said this:

I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

He didn’t just let this slip. Obama is smart, disciplined, and more than anything else, in tune with what Americans are thinking on a level not seen since Ronald Reagan. He means to associate himself with Reagan’s "can-do" spirit, regardless of the chasm between their political views. He knows that optimism and visions of a better future, not 10-point plans, win presidential campaigns. Though his political views may resemble George McGovern’s, by taking Reagan’s rhetorical road, Obama has made his opponent look like she’s running for City Council.

In 1980, Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter. Like Obama’s current opponent, Carter’s campaign tone was downcast, almost melancholy. He spoke in small words and even smaller thoughts, about America’s wrongs, its limitations. He scolded us that we would have to get used to living with less at home, and would just have to learn to accept the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Reagan would have none of it. He made it a dominant campaign theme that America’s best days were ahead. He told adoring crowds that Americans shaped history, they would never be its victim. Reagan’s America was a "shining City on the Hill," a beacon of freedom, the Last Best Hope for the whole world. He asked the American people if they "were better off now than they were four years ago." If so, he said, they should vote for his opponent. If not, then they should join him in his campaign for "change." Sound familiar?

When asked what he would do about the Soviet Union, Reagan couldn’t have been more different than his timid opponent. Carter recited a litany of appeasement and accommodation as our only options. Reagan’s plan for the Cold War? "We win. They lose." It was breathtaking. Despite withering attacks from a hostile media and intelligentsia, Reagan stuck to it, and won the hearts of his electorate.

Obama has studied Reagan’s 1980 playbook. He is running all the same plays, and they are working just as well now as they did then. Though Sen. Obama is favored by a media much more inclined to adore a liberal version of the Gipper, even he has faced some less than fawning coverage lately. Some commentators (mostly those in the tank for his opponent) have asked whether there is "any substance," or called his rhetoric "lighter than air." Obama, like Reagan, is having none of it.

He is beginning to show Reaganesque timing now, revealing just enough specifics, at just the right time, to dampen criticism that he is all speech and no substance. When his opponent ham-handedly tried to dismiss him as being "just words," Obama eviscerated her with a speech that had a packed house swooning: "…‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’—just words. ‘I have a dream, that one day we can be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character’—just words." Brilliant.

Reports from the campaign trail tell us of people in Obama rallies actually fainting. Has anyone ever fainted during a Clinton speech? Lapsed into a deep sleep from boredom, perhaps, but fainted? Even Reagan could not have dreamed of that kind of reaction.

He is hoping the magic can last just a little longer. Sen. Obama knows very well what happened next in 1980: Reagan won 44 of 50 states. Reagan didn’t simply defeat Jimmy Carter, he crushed him. He won the popular ballot by almost 10 million votes, and took the electoral college vote by 489-49. It was a landslide, repeated, by even bigger margins, in his re-election in 1984.

Only time will tell whether "President" Obama will truly be as transformative as his role model. Obama will have just as tough a road as Reagan did, if not tougher. He will need to back up his rhetoric about "bringing Republicans and Democrats together" with actions along that line. He will need to choose a powerful, dominant theme for his first term, (as Reagan did). If he does, we may be witnessing history. If instead he retreats into the "little politics" of the Clinton era, and settles for pay increases for teachers or free flu shots for all, his Movement will collapse. He is beginning to learn that those who would have the audacity to turn history inherit a tremendous responsibility to turn it in the right direction.

Barack Obama seems like a sincerely decent man. He seems to be running for President not to "be somebody," but to try to do something. He may just get his wish. I pray that we have finally found another politician, like we saw a generation ago, who has the courage and perseverance to rise above his own hype and govern, not just speak, in transformative ways. Although I can’t see myself voting for him, I can’t help but root for him.

We live in exciting times.

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