Commentary Magazine


Contentions

I’m Not Swooning

Peter Baker of The Washington Post writes

It may no longer be surprising to watch so many young people, African Americans and well-off Democrats fall so hard for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as he battles for the Democratic presidential nomination, but it has been fascinating to see so many conservatives swooning over him lately.

Peggy Noonan, the Reagan-Bush speechwriter, calls him “thoughtful” and praises his “classy campaign.” George Will, the columnist and television pundit, describes him as “an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic ‘fights’ against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.” Peter Wehner, the former Bush White House aide, calls Obama “a well-grounded, thoughtful, decent man” whom Republicans “would find it hard to generate much enthusiasm in opposing.”

… Yet when the infatuation wears off, if Obama gets the nomination, will Republicans still think so highly of him? If Obama delivers the knockout blow to the Clinton dynasty, the bete noire of so many conservatives, would they still find reason to think of him as a knight in shining armor? Lost amid all the dramatic primaries and debates of recent days have been a few moments that voters are likely to hear more about in the fall should Obama win the nomination, moments that will remind Republicans that in many ways he is a pretty conventional liberal.

Let me try to disentangle some of this. I certainly have written favorable things about Senator Obama — for his speeches (which are uplifting and moving, if often devoid of a serious discussion of issues), his style of politics (including his color-blind campaign), and the kind of man he seems (by all accounts) to be. Yet in the same op-ed that Baker cites, I went on to write this:

[Obama] is, on almost every issue, a conventional liberal. And while rhetoric and character matter a lot, politics is finally and fundamentally about ideas and philosophy. Whether we’re talking about the Iraq war, monitoring terrorist communications, health care, taxes, education, abortion and the courts, the size of government, or almost anything else, Obama embodies the views of the special-interest groups on the left…If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and fails to take steps such as this [endorsing conservative policies], his liberal views will be his greatest vulnerability. Obama will try to reject the liberal label–but based on his stands on the issues, at least so far, the label will fit, and it will stick.

In other words, I make precisely the point that Baker says will be made about Obama if he wins the Democratic nomination. But the way Baker’s piece is set up, any future criticism of Senator Obama, on grounds of political philosophy and ideology, will be seen as activating the “Republican attack machine.” And those of us who have said favorable things about Obama will be accused of going “partisan” because we dare say a negative word about the young senator from Illinois.

This piece by Baker illustrates how the media culture often perpetuates what it says it laments (for example, reducing politics to a simplistic level and people to predictable, cartoonish figures). Baker, by using silly words to describe the views of Will, Noonan, and me toward Obama, apparently wants to create a political environment that continues to personalize policy and ideological differences.

We should be able to praise Obama on the grounds we have without being accused of being “infatuated” with him and “swooning over him.” We can recognize his gifts without viewing him as a “knight in shining armor.” The reality is that Senator Obama is an impressive man and a remarkable political talent. He is also a conventional liberal and, on Iraq particularly, I believe his policies are unwise and even reckless. I disagree with him on probably every major issue–and yet I still find him to be an appealing figure.

Those two things aren’t incompatible–and Peter Baker, a fine and often insightful political reporter, should recognize this.