Is Obama Another Dukakis?
Why is Obama so vapid, hesitant, and gutless?
Last week really ought to have been the end of the McCain campaign. With the whole country feeling (and its financial class acting) as if we lived in a sweltering, bankrupt banana republic, and with this misery added to the generally Belarusian atmosphere that surrounds any American trying to board a train, catch a plane, fill a prescription, or get a public servant or private practitioner on the phone, it was surely the moment for the supposedly reform candidate to assume a commanding position. And the Republican nominee virtually volunteered to assist that outcome by making an idiot of himself several times over, moving from bovine and Panglossian serenity about the state of the many, many crippled markets to sudden bursts of pointless hyperactivity such as the irrelevant demand to sack the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And yet, and unless I am about to miss some delayed "groundswell" or mood shift, none of this has translated into any measurable advantage for the Democrat. There are three possible reasons for such a huge failure on Barack Obama's part. The first, and the most widely canvassed, is that he is too nice, too innocent, too honest, and too decent to get down in the arena and trade bloody thrusts with the right-wing enemy. (This is rapidly becoming the story line that will achieve mythic status, along with allegations of racial and religious rumor-mongering, if he actually loses in November.) The second is that crisis and difficulty, at home and abroad, sometimes make electors slightly more likely to trust the existing establishment, or some version of it, than any challenger or newcomer, however slight. The third is that Obama does not, and perhaps even cannot, represent "change" for the very simple reason that the Democrats are a status quo party.
To analyze this is to be obliged to balance some of the qualities of Obama's own personality with some of the characteristics of his party. Here's a swift test. Be honest. What sentence can you quote from his convention speech in Denver? I thought so. All right, what about his big rally speech in Berlin? Just as I guessed. OK, help me out: Surely you can manage to cite a line or two from his imperishable address on race (compared by some liberal academics to Gettysburg itself) in Philadelphia? No, not the line about his white grandmother. Some other line. Oh, dear. Now do you see what I mean?
Why is Obama so vapid and hesitant and gutless? Why, to put it another way, does he risk going into political history as a dusky Dukakis? Well, after the self-imposed Jeremiah Wright nightmare, he can't afford any more militancy, or militant-sounding stuff, even if it might be justified. His other problems are self-inflicted or party-inflicted as well. He couldn't have picked a gifted Democratic woman as his running mate, because he couldn't have chosen a female who wasn't the ever-present Sen. Clinton, and so he handed the free gift of doing so to his Republican opponent (whose own choice has set up a screech from the liberals like nothing I have heard since the nomination of Clarence Thomas). So the unquantifiable yet important "atmospherics" of politics, with all their little X factors, belong at present to the other team.
The Dukakis comparison is, of course, a cruel one, but it raises a couple more questions that must be faced. We are told by outraged Democrats that many voters still believe, thanks to some smear job, that Sen. Obama is a Muslim. Yet who is the most famous source of this supposedly appalling libel (as if an American candidate cannot be of any religion or none)? Absent any anonymous whispering campaign, the person who did most to insinuate the idea in public—"There is nothing to base that on. As far as I know"—was Obama's fellow Democrat and the junior senator from New York. It was much the same in 1988, when Al Gore brought up the Dukakis furlough program, later to be made infamous by the name Willie Horton, against the hapless governor of Massachusetts who was then his rival for the nomination.
By the end of that grueling campaign season, a lot of us had got the idea that Dukakis actually wanted to lose—or was at the very least scared of winning. Why do I sometimes get the same idea about Obama? To put it a touch more precisely, what I suspect in his case is that he had no idea of winning this time around. He was running in Iowa and New Hampshire to seed the ground for 2012, not 2008, and then the enthusiasm of his supporters (and the weird coincidence of a strong John Edwards showing in Iowa) put him at the front of the pack. Yet, having suddenly got the leadership position, he hadn't the faintest idea what to do with it or what to do about it.
Look at the record, and at Obama's replies to essential and pressing questions. The surge in Iraq? I'll answer that only if you insist. The credit crunch? Please may I be photographed with Bill Clinton's economic team? Georgia? After you, please, Sen. McCain. A vice-presidential nominee? What about a guy who, despite his various qualities, is picked because he has almost no enemies among Democratic interest groups?
I ran into a rather clever Republican operative at the airport last week, who pointed out to me that this ought by rights to be a Democratic Party year across the board, from the White House to the Congress to the gubernatorial races. But there was a crucial energy leak, and it came from the very top. More people doubted Obama's qualifications for the presidency in September than had told the pollsters they had doubted these credentials in July. "So what he ought to do," smiled this man, "is spend his time closing that gap and less time attacking McCain." Obama's party hacks, increasingly white and even green about the gills, are telling him to do the opposite. I suppose this could even mean that Sarah Palin, down the road, will end up holding the door open for Hillary Clinton. Such joy!
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photographs of: Michael Dukakis by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images; Barack Obama by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of Barack Obama on Slate's home page by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty.