Believe the Hype

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, July 28, 2004)


The American public – or at least those with cable who chose to tune in – got a glimpse Tuesday night of why Barack Obama has come so far so fast in Illinois politics.

The first state legislator to keynote a national convention, Obama demonstrated his enviable political skills and his ability to appeal beyond his base, which he does by casting his progressive viewpoints in a language of shared destiny:

“For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. ‘E pluribus unum.’ Out of many, one.”

Obama’s speech was so effective that conservatives are responding by trying to co-opt its content. Roger Clegg of The National Review tried casting the Democratic Party as out-of-touch with Obama’s words, while blogger Andrew Sullivan labeled Obama’s message one of “conservative values.” As the Daily Kos blog explains, those comments show why Obama is such a formidable candidate:

“The reason Obama has put the Right into a quandry [sic] is that he exposed, in one masterful performance, every caricature the Right has of liberalism. He affirmed our belief in government’s ability to make life better without conjuring up images of ‘welfare queens’. He affirmed the right every American has to believe in the god of his or her choice, or no god for that matter, without making it a public matter. He affirmed the beauty of multiculturalism, that we are more than white, black, Asian, Latino, or anything else, without feeding the fiction that we all want a balkanized country. He affirmed that unity is an American value, while dividing Americans based on sexual orientation or race is not.”

Make no mistake, an Obama victory in his Senate race would be a major victory for progressives (and with the Republicans still unable to find a challenger, that outcome is all but assured). He opposed the Iraq war from the start, supports universal health care, wants to renegotiate tariff-free trade deals to include environmental and labor standards, supports affirmative action, supports importing prescription drugs from Canada, supports civil unions, and opposes George Bush’s tax policy. In the Illinois state Senate, he supported tax credits for low-income families and has called for business tax incentives to reward only companies that create jobs in the U.S.

While those issues all play well with Chicago liberals, Obama’s come-from-behind victory in the Illinois primary proved he could win support in more conservative areas. In a seven-way race that included a popular state comptroller, Dan Hynes, and Blair Hull, a free-spending millionaire — each one led polls at different points — Obama won more than 50 percent of the vote statewide. More progressive than either Hull or Hynes, Obama still gained a majority in the six traditionally Republican “collar counties,” and fared well in rural areas downstate where conservative Democrats normally win.

In Illinois, Obama often draws comparisons to the late Sen. Paul Simon, a popular and much-admired progressive. Simon supported Obama during previous campaigns, and Simon’s daughter appeared in a primary ad championing Obama as heir to her father’s legacy. As William Finnegan explained in The New Yorker:

“Paul Simon was the most respected political figure in the state for decades. He was a liberal Democrat who came from a conservative downstate region where his name remains political gold. The universal explanation for Simon’s near-universal popularity is ‘integrity,’ and this spring I heard the word a lot from people discussing Obama. It refers to consistency and incorruptibility, but also to a refusal to resort to smear politics.”

Like Simon, Obama has parlayed his personal story and integrity into statewide support. The overwhelmingly positive response to his Tuesday speech showed that he can be valuable not just by winning his own race, but by campaigning for other Democrats. In Obama’s words:

“If we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president, and John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president, and this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.”

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