Commentary Magazine


Barack, We Hardly Knew Ye

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Barack Obama promised to “turn the page” on the “old politics.” He was, we were assured, the antidote to trivial, low-road campaigns. The former teacher of constitutional law was going to elevate the debate in American politics; he was a man of subtle intelligence, intellectually serious and high-minded, and allergic to the “Washington game.” Rather than divide Americans, he would become a rallying point for us, a unifying figure, a healer not only of the planet but of deep and old political divisions.

Then came the campaign of ’08, when Obama became the embodiment of all he said he stood against. I was reminded of this yesterday, in watching Obama criticize Senator McCain for not answering how many houses he and his wife Cindy owned and then turning McCain’s words into an ad.

So this is what the New Politics is all about?

I have no idea if Obama’s tactics will succeed or not; I suspect they won’t be nearly as effective as the Obama campaign hopes. And given Obama’s links to the corrupt Tony Rezko, I’m not sure he should be terribly eager to get into a discussion about houses. But whether Obama’s tactics are effective or not, they are undoubtedly trivial. In fact, they are exactly the kind of silliness that is (and almost always has been) commonplace in American politics.

That Obama is doing what virtually every Presidential candidate has done is not, by itself, problematic. Campaigns are, by their nature, filled with both moments of inspiration and exasperation, high drama and banality, charges and countercharges.

What is problematic for Obama is the fact that he consciously and persistently insisted he was above politics as usual. He was the figure we had been waiting for, the candidate who would magically transcend the “old politics” and replace them with a high-tone, non-stop national conversation that would lead us to broad, sunlit uplands.

Obama, in other words, is the person who set the enormously high expectations about his candidacy and made the promise of a new kind of politics central to his Presidential run. Without it, Obama would look like just another conventional politician–which is what he is, and how he now appears. And that explains in part why, in a year that should overwhelmingly favor a Democrat, the race is basically tied and Obama, in going “negative,” has stepped into a trap of his own making. It’s dangerous to portray yourself as a political Messiah when you’re not.