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Changing the Changeling

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And Obama isn’t merely losing godly ground among white Catholics. Whereas in Maryland and Wisconsin he outpaced Clinton by as much as 30 points among regular churchgoers of all stripes, in Pennsylvania she whipped him by double-digits among the observant, while he did best among those who never attend religious services. At the same time, whereas Obama used to routinely thump Clinton among voters describing themselves as conservative, moderate, and somewhat liberal, in Pennsylvania the only ideological cohort he carried was the self-described “very liberal.” In a flash, a candidate who once was hailed as post-partisan, post-ideological, and post-racial was looking like a typical secular lefty, with a base comprising college students, African-Americans, and upscale “progressives.” No wonder, then, that Judis—but not just Judis—has started to wonder whether Obama might just be “the next McGovern.”

The reasons for Obama’s image transformation aren’t hard to pinpoint. In the minds of more than a few white voters the controversy surrounding his association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright has helped turn Obama from a candidate who is black into a black candidate. His now-infamous bitter/cling comments went a long way toward cementing a picture of him that was already forming—as a down-the-nose-looking elitist at worst, as a detached academic at best. His association with Bill Ayers, the unrepentant Weatherman turned elder statesman of Hyde Park, has helped his enemies to cast him as a spiritual descendant of old-school sixties rabble-rouserism.

But neither Ayers nor any other random bits of ephemera account completely for Obama’s rebranding as a standard-issue liberal. “He’s tried to be post-partisan on the cheap,” says Galston, “through bring-us-together rhetoric and leadership style as opposed to substance.” Galston, it should be said, is a supporter of Clinton’s, but he harbors no animus toward Obama—and, more to the point, he’s 100 percent correct. After months of trailing Obama, I can’t recall a single policy or proposal he’s offered that couldn’t have been put forward happily by Nancy Pelosi or Ted Kennedy.

The bright side of this story—and there is a bright side—is that the fall election isn’t shaping up to be one in which charges of liberalism or other cultural caricature are central. Instead, what lies before us is a contest, as McCain put it recently, about great issues and large differences. The war in Iraq. The onrushing recession. The collapse of the mortgage market. Health care and climate change. “In years when peace or prosperity are at stake, let alone peace and prosperity, other considerations become secondary,” says Galston. “This is such a year.”

On all these matters, Obama is—or could be—a superior Democratic messenger to Clinton. And in one crucial respect, he has already proved to be her better: In his extraordinary ability to draw new participants into the political arena. This may be the single best salve to Democratic worries about his electability, which are, after all, rooted in a static notion of the electorate; in a belief that the electoral battlefield of tomorrow will be roughly the same as the battlefield on which yesterday’s campaigns were fought. If the Democratic primaries thus far have taught us only one thing, it’s that such assumptions are badly misguided.

For all the labored comparisons of Obama to Jack Kennedy, it’s here that the analogy may actually prove valid. As Galston points out, “In 1960 Kennedy did worse than a more traditional—a.k.a. a Protestant—Democrat would have done in substantial portions of the South. He won because he expanded the electorate and got a disproportionate share of the parts that expanded most. His numbers among Catholics were phenomenal! So there’s an intriguing parallel: Obama may lose a greater portion of the white working class than another Democrat would get, but he may very well be able to make it up among the new voters he brings into the process.”

A happy thought, for sure. But Obama and his people would be making a grave error if they take too much comfort from it. What the past two months have shown beyond doubt is that Obama’s campaign is in desperate need of a serious midcourse retooling—in particular, a sharper economic message, delivered from a brawler’s stance, in order to give those blue-collar voters who’ve sided with Clinton a bedrock reason to stay in the Democratic column and not flee to McCain, as many now threaten to do. Even more important, though, the time has come for Obama to move beyond his airy mantra of post-partisan transformation. The polarization that plagues our politics is an awful thing, no doubt. But the irony is that before Obama can do anything to change it, he needs to win. And winning will require him to channel the very partisan furies—the anger at Bush, the ire toward the Republicans, the palpable yearning for a fight—that he eventually hopes to tame.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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