Sunday, May 11, 2008

How George W. Bush Helped Barack Obama

Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President. Hillary Clinton may not believe it yet. But, this being a democracy, what most people believe is what counts, and Obama has more support than Clinton.

A funny thing about the Democratic primaries is how George W. Bush gave Obama a crucial advantage over Clinton. Probably no Republican President in the last 75 years has been as damaging to the political right as George W. Bush. His foreign policies have largely failed. He has seriously worn down America’s ground forces, leaving us with reduced military options in dealing with Iran, a nation that really may be building weapons of mass destruction. His domestic policies have largely been non-existent, or, if they exist, are controversial (like No Child Left Behind). His fiscal policies have turned a balanced federal budget into a deficit-riddled mess. By so completely botching the job of President, he revived the political left in America (which, on its own, was in the process of disintegrating from dated ideologies and self-destructive squabbling).

Most Democratic politicians in recent years have desperately tried to avoid being labeled as liberals or members of the left. The Sunbelt Presidents (Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush (sort of a Sunbelt guy), Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) all got to the White House by seizing the political middle. Most importantly for Hillary, Bill Clinton famously retrieved the White House for the Democrats by playing to the political middle.

In a democracy, political change comes from the ground up. Barack Obama, newly arrived in Washington from the streets of Chicago and the halls of the Illinois state capitol in Springfield, was closer to sidewalk level than Hillary Clinton and sensed the revival of the left. No doubt, he noticed Howard Dean’s 2004 grassroots, Internet-based fundraising success, an early sign that there was ground level discontent he could tap into. Although many of his positions are actually similar to Clinton’s, he sounds like he’s farther to the left, and that’s what people are hearing.

Hillary Clinton, buffered by position and wealth, had a harder time picking up the signals. Given how far she and Bill Clinton had gotten by aiming for the middle, her antennae probably weren’t well attuned to receiving a different message. Since her election as Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton has, until recently, carefully stayed in and around the political middle. She voted for the Iraq War, then supported it, then criticized it and now promises, if elected President, to end it. This sequence of position shifts closely mirrors changes in the sentiments of the American political middle. When the campaigning for the primaries began last fall, it’s no surprise that she did what had been so successful for Bill and her in the past. She thought her nomination was inevitable, and tried to position herself in the middle for the general election against whoever the Republican nominee would be.

All too late, she figured out where the action was. Just barely in time for some Rustbelt primaries, she became an old-fashioned working class liberal, reaching out to blue collar workers who might be put off by Obama’s message of change. Blue collar workers have been hurt by change. They’d prefer that things have stayed as they were. They don’t have an obvious place in Obama’s political paradigm, and were easily scooped up by Clinton--at least until her Pyrrhic victory in Indiana. Exit polls showed that many voters felt she wasn’t credible enough. She will win a few more small primaries. But the music’s over for her. And all because she didn’t figure out soon enough that George W. Bush had resuscitated the left.

The general election this fall will be, as always, a fight for the middle. But the middle this year has shifted. Both Obama and McCain are to the left of the centers of their respective parties. That’s no accident because the electorate has shifted leftward. George W. Bush, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney hoped, in 2000, that they would establish a permanent Republican majority. But they overreached, and paved the way for the revival of the Democratic Party.

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