I had an unexpressed thought early last year (really – I did) that the Democrats this year should run their selection process somewhat like American Idol. Not that they should all submit to the judgements of a smarmy, self-promoting cheesy-music hack like Simon Cowell. My idea was that the candidates should treat the process like summer camp, high-fiving each other in victory and defeat, giving hugs all around when they get booted or move to the next level. In the end – at the convention – they would all stand behind the winner, joining hands and singing in unison as they scatter across the country to take it back from those dumb-ass Republicans. There is a certain joy we should allow ourselves. We always thought we were right about a lot of things, but with the whole country finally turning on the radical Bush/GOP agenda, we never thought we were this right.
Though not by design, it has pretty much turned out that way. Everyone played nice until Iowa, and then those who needed to get out got out, with grace and support for whoever wins. John Edwards fought an excellent fight with the most dynamic populist message, but it was not to be in this historic year and he had perfect timing leaving the race, taking the best wishes of all with him. Now, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama stand alone, practically tied, but Obama has the momentum and new frontrunner status. And, here, this is no longer a spectator sport. Wisconsin votes on Tuesday, and, suddenly, they are here.
Obama spoke in Madison at a new building, a block from one of my many apartments on Dayton Street. His wife, Michelle, was hanging with some other women at Ma Fisher’s, of all places (alas, not at 2 in the morning). Chelsea Clinton was at UWM and in the Great Hall at Memorial Union in Madison, the same room where my own infamous Mother’s Day concert took place in 1982. Bill Clinton showed up this week at the Italian Community Center, where I first shook his hand during the ‘96 campaign. Both Hillary and Obama are attending the Founders Day dinner at the Midwest Airlines Center, on the site where I and many ither parked our cars for years.
So this is the time when these national, ultimately historic figures traipse across the fields of our existence and memories. It is here in these familiar places where they insert themselves and we take their measure. Although they come and they go and try to make a personal connection, chances are our decisions will be informed not so much by any contact we can make with them in the next couple of days as by the continuing reality show that is their campaigns as extensively covered on cable TV.
This campaign has been going on for more than a year now; every dreary and inspirational moment captured and talked to death on cable. Despite the life-sucking coverage and look-alike-sound-alike appearances by the candidates – Obama’s rally on Tuesday night could have been in Maryland or South Carolina; except for the kid in the sombrero, Hillary’s in-the-round deal in Texas the same night could have been anywhere – there are still a couple of moments (one for each candidate) in the past couple of weeks that stand out and threw my decision who to vote for on Tuesday into temporarily murky confusion.
I had my Hillary epiphany while watching her on Letterman the night before Super Tuesday. Dave was conducting a very friendly, substance-centered interview with her. She was discussing the ins and outs of various plans for health care, mortgage-crisis relief and whatever and everything she said was clear, concise and right.
I tried to imagine Obama doing the same thing. I couldn’t see it. Obama would be too busy trying to promise to get the middle somehow, using any problem to riff about how the bickering has to stop and how we should find common ground and the rest of it. It would be a passable answer, I guess, and I know he’d eventually get to the right place. But Hillary’s "ready on Day One" line is not an insignificant claim. She is an exquisite policy wonk – maybe even more than Bill – and the Bush crew has gotten things so horribly messed up, we need someone with her kind of specific plans and skills.
My Obama epiphany happened while watching the coverage of the Potomac primaries this week. He crushed her 2-to-1 in Maryland and Virginia and the chattering heads on TV were saying that she was giving up in Wisconsin and backing up to her last stand in Ohio and Texas in March. Obama had run the table since February 5th and taken a slight lead in delegates. At the night’s climax, Obama spoke from the Kohl Center.
One of the cable news guys told us that he had teleprompters set up for the Madison rally, which is not always the case. He used the set-up to maximum advantage – his first speech as a frontrunner had him digging into McCain and ignoring Clinton. Like all of his primary-night speeches, it was a good one, bu this one had rhythm, poetry and some real meat on the bones of the possible (if not probable) campaign against McCain. It was inspiring in many ways, not only for its powerful delivery (I wouldn’t be surprised if he rehearsed this one a couple of times) but for its messages. For a moment, I set aside my concerns about what might happen to him when the Republican attack machine gets cranked up to define him. I was ready to go to the mat for him – ready to help make it happen.
Cooler heads have prevailed later this week, as the right-wing – after spending the last week trying to convince you how "unbeatable" he was – finally started testing its anti-Obama strategies. Obviously taking him seriously for the first time, the talking points went forth and all the wing-nuts had something to say about his alleged lack-of-message or his dangerous liberalism. As if to admit their state of desperation, national and local squawkers are now freely throwing around the S-word – socialism – to describe every manner of Democratic design. What we can expect from them – at least until some scab comes out of the woodwork to accuse him of being a secret Muslim or attending communist cell meetings – is the shotgun approach, where they hit you with everything until you become uncomfortable enough with him that you settle for McCain. That’s how Bush beat Kerry.
The funniest attack on Obama is that he is "messianic" – that he is too inspirational, in a way that could lead to some sort of "totalitarianism". This hysteria is brought to us by the same people who want to exhume Ronald Reagan, the master of meaningless hyperbole, such as the "shining city on the hill" and other such nonsense. They accuse Obama of offering hope and unity as a subversive lie. "We can found paradise on earth through a benevolent state," the increasingly-reactionary Rick Esenberg falsely paraphrases. "The government can love you." Elvis Costello sang about the lure of political charisma years ago – You think they’re so dumb/You think they’re so funny/Wait until they get you running to the/Night Rally – but he was talking about brownshirts (and, maybe, Romney). To imagine that thousands would come out of Obama rallies in some sort of trance-like state gives Obama too much credit and his advocates none at all.
Besides the beginning of the anti-Obama campaign on the right, Hillary also got some good news later this week – finally being declared the winner in New Mexico and out-polling Obama by a wide margin in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The campaign is, indeed, going to compete in Wisconsin and a Rassmussen poll today shows only a 4-point difference here.
After all this, I ended up the week where I began. If Hillary has a chance here, I’m going to vote for her. But I'm going try to catch them both in person over the weekend. The Democratic race is exciting, historic, and we can't miss either way. The weather notwithstanding, this is a great weekend to be in Wisconsin.