Just in case you had any lingering doubts about Barack Obama’s brief honeymoon with conservative elites being over, Representative Jack Kingston (R-Georgia) showed up on Real Time With Bill Maher Friday night and brought the slime. Kingston didn’t just slam Obama for being short on substance and foreign-policy experience (“He’s all ready to go hug Raul Castro, a little lovey-dovey there Now that he knows who Musharraf is, he apparently still wants to bomb Pakistan”). He also brought up that dopey false story, not so fresh off the Internet, about Obama declining to place his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Kingston is the perfect bleeding-edge attack dog for the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: a guy with a lifetime rating of 96.4 from the American Conservative Union who is also media-genic and funny enough to have gone head-to-head with Stephen Colbert and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and who is now backing John McCain. But it wasn’t so long ago that conservative talking heads seemed genuinely fascinated rather than disingenuously appalled by Obama. They had sensed his transcendent appeal, which was particularly interesting at a time when Republican presidential candidates were having a hard time getting anybody excited. They admired his willingness to speak to American ideals and eschew victimology. And of course they saw Hillary Clinton as a common enemy. The day after Clinton beat Obama in New Hampshire, right-wing radio was abuzz with hosts inveighing against the tragic inevitability of her triumph. Rush Limbaugh assured listeners he, at least, would stick around to keep attacking Hillary.
Even after Obama rebounded, it was safe for wingers to dip a toe into Obamamania, because they couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe Clinton could lose. After Obama’s victory speech in South Carolina on January 26, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote at the Corner, “I tell you, he almost had me tonight until he talked about the war that shouldn’t have been authorized and reminded me there are real policy issues at stake in this election!” But Michael Graham demurred: “It’s over. The Clintons have defeated [Obama] already, because he is leaving South Carolina as ‘the black candidate.’ He won’t win another state. Even worse, in November Hillary will carry 90 percent of the black vote, despite their cynical, race-based campaign against the first viable black presidential candidate.”
Coming to grips with Obama, not Hillary, as the 2008 face of the Democratic Party made conservatives realize that he’s liberal! Suddenly the bloom was off the rose. David Brooks signaled a shift in genteel punditry, mocking Obama as “The Chosen One” on the day of the Wisconsin primary. In scummier waters, Cliff Kincaid outed one of Obama’s childhood mentors as a Communist. Since then, Lisa Schiffren has speculated (without any evidence) that Obama’s parents might have met through Communist politics. John Derbyshire has written, “I really need persuading that when I look at Barack Obama, I’m not just seeing Al Sharpton minus the pompadour and the attitude.” Even Michelle Obama’s senior thesis at Princeton has come in for criticism.
Thing is, many of the attacks on Obama have an anachronistic feel to them. Hauling out the Pledge of Allegiance is so George H.W. Bush. Red-baiting is an even more tired stunt. For the moment, right-wingers are attacking Barack and Michelle Obama as America-hating left-wingers. But if most voters hadn’t already accepted the American success as a central story line in the Obamas’ narrative, the Obama campaign couldn’t have come this far.
On Friday night, while Representative Kingston was broadcasting Internet hoaxes on HBO, former Bush speechwriter David Frum was sitting at the same table telling Bill Maher that an Obama presidency will make the nation nostalgic for hard-working Hillary Clinton — a point echoed by a National Review Online writer with the nom de cyber “David Kahane.” Well, maybe. But what conservatives really seem to be lamenting in the defeat of the Clintons is the unexpected passing of an enemy they knew how to attack by keeping the culture wars stoked.
Barack Obama may or may not be post-racial. But movement conservatives are not yet post-1968. —Peter Keating