Magazine article The American Prospect

The Year of Passion

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Year of Passion

Article excerpt

NOW THAT BARACK OBAMA HAS SECURED HIS PARTY'S presidential nomination, it is a good moment to assess the extraordinary and improbable thing that the Democrats have done.

It was not intuitively obvious, particularly to those who saw the party's central task as winning back the Reagan Democrats, that the best way to retake the presidency would be to nominate an African American with an Islamic-sounding name. In the abstract, before Obama emerged, that concept had not suggested itself, and some political insiders may be excused for not immediately grasping its genius.

Let us recall the leading explanations in recent years as to why Democrats were losing and what they had to do to win. To appeal to the Reagan Democrats, some held that the party needed a candidate who was culturally and religiously close to middle America--say, a moderate (white) Southern governor along the lines of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, the only Democrats to get elected in the past 40 years. Central casting sent over Mark Warner to play this role, but he dropped out before the primaries began.

Others said that the party should wage its fight on economic grounds and nominate a populist. John Edwards used this script, but given his wealth and style, he wasn't the best choice for the part.

The populist strategy also had elements of a related theory. Instead of trying to appeal to voters who had moved right, this approach called for reaching out to millions of nonvoters, many of them minorities, women, and young people, who simply haven't seen any connection between politics and their own lives. This strategy, however, requires something that cannot be planned and that conventional politics rarely provides--inspiration.

Obama and Hillary Clinton drew upon these cultural/religious and economic theories in framing their campaigns. But they also stirred Americans at a deeper level than politics ordinarily does, raising the prospect that the Democrats might win the presidency this year by enlarging the electorate. Obama tapped into a repressed memory of what politics can be like when it lifts our aspirations instead of dashing them. His novelty is partly that he is very old-fashioned, a political leader who has risen largely on the strength of his oratory and the eloquence of his writing. In the course of the fight, Clinton became a better candidate, too, and found her own voice, though it was no match for his. …

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