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DENVER – Senator Barack Obama’s acceptance speech last week seemed vastly different from the stands of this city’s Invesco Stadium than it did to the 40 million who saw it on television. Melancholy hung like thick smog over the reserved seats where I sat with Democratic Party staffers. The crowd, of course, cheered mechanically at the tag lines, flourished placards, and even rose for the obligatory wave around the stadium. But its mood was sour. The air carried the acrid smell of defeat, and the crowd took shallow breaths. Even the appearance of R&B great Stevie Wonder failed to get the blood pumping.
The speech itself dragged on for three-quarters of an hour. As David S. Broder wrote in the Washington Post: “[Obama’s] recital of a long list of domestic promises could have been delivered by any Democratic nominee from Walter Mondale to John Kerry. There was no theme music to the speech and really no phrase or sentence that is likely to linger in the memory of any listener. The thing I never expected did in fact occur: Al Gore, the famously wooden former vice president, gave a more lively and convincing speech than Obama did.”
On television, Obama’s spectacle might have looked like The Ten Commandments, but inside the stadium it felt like Night of the Living Dead. The longer the candidate spoke, and the more money he promised to spend on alternative energy, preschool education, universal health care, and other components of the Democratic pinata, the lower the party professionals slouched into their seats. The professionals I sat with were Hillary Clinton people, to be sure, and had reason to sulk, for an Obama victory might do them little good in any event.
The Democrats were watching the brightest and most articulate presidential candidate they have fielded since John F. Kennedy snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And this was before John McCain, in a maneuver worthy of Admiral Chester Nimitz at the Battle of Midway, turned tables on the Democrats’ strategy with the choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Speaking to Obama supporters on the periphery of the big event, I was startled by the rapturous devotion elicited by the junior senator from Illinois. He is no symbol for identity politics, no sacrifice on the altar of white guilt, but the most gifted persuader of individuals that I have encountered in any country’s politics, as well as a powerful orator on the grand stage. This is not a crowd phenomenon nor a fad, but the response of hundreds of people to an individual.
I sat in on a session with three leaders of Veterans for Obama, a group of retired young officers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, courtesy of the New Republic’s writer on the scene, David Samuels. With passion and enthusiasm, these young people spoke of their hopes for nation-building in Iraq. The George W. Bush administration should have put twice the resources into the beleaguered country, they harangued me – not just soldiers, but agronomists, traffic cops, lawyers, judges, and physicians. The Department of Agriculture should have mobilized, along with the Department of Justice.
Nation-building? Doubling down on the US commitment to Iraq? Isn’t that trying to out-Bush the Bush administration, while Obama campaigned on getting out of Iraq and spending the money on programs at home? Unblinking, one of the soldiers said, “That’s what we think Barack will do.” They believed in a more expensive version of the administration’s program, and faulted Bush for half measures – and somehow they believed that Obama really agreed with them, all the public evidence to the contrary. And they believed in Barack with perfect faith.
Gandalf’s warnings about the irresistible voice of the wizard Saruman in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings come to mind. If these battle-hardened veterans of America’s wars fell so easily under the spell of Obama’s voice, who can withstand it? Obama’s persuasive powers, though, are strongest when channeled through the empathy of his interlocutor. Everyone believes that Obama feels his pain, shares his dream, and will fight his fight and heal his ills. But that is everyone as an individual. Add all the individuals up into a campaign platform, and it turns into three-quarters of an hour worth of promises that echo all the ghosts of conventions past.
Obama will spend the rest of his life wondering why he rejected the obvious road to victory, that is, choosing Hillary Clinton as his vice presidential nominee. However reluctantly, Clinton would have had to accept. McCain’s choice of vice presidential candidate made obvious after the fact what the party professionals felt in their fingertips at the stadium extravaganza yesterday: rejecting Clinton in favor of the colorless, unpopular, tangle-tongued Washington perennial Joe Biden was a statement of weakness. McCain’s selection was a statement of strength. America’s voters will forgive many things in a politician, including sexual misconduct, but they will not forgive weakness.
That is why McCain will win in November, and by a landslide, barring some unforeseen event. Obama is the most talented and persuasive politician of his generation, the intellectual superior of all his competitors, but a fatally insecure personality. American voters are not intellectual, but they are shrewd, like animals. They can smell insecurity, and the convention stank of it. Obama’s prospective defeat is entirely of its own making. No one is more surprised than Republican strategists, who were convinced just weeks ago that a weakening economy ensured a Democratic victory.
Biden, who won 3% of the popular vote in the Democratic presidential primary in his home state of Delaware, and 1% or less in every other contest he entered, is ballot-box poison. Obama evidently chose him to assuage critics who point to his lack of foreign policy credentials. That was a deadly error, for by appearing to concede the critics’ claim that he knows little about foreign policy, Obama raised questions about whether he is qualified to be president in the first place. He had a winning alternative, which was to pick Clinton. That would have sent a double message: first, that Obama is tough enough to make the slippery Clintons into his subordinates, and second, that he is generous enough to extend a hand to his toughest adversary in the cause of unity.
Why didn’t Obama choose Hillary? The most credible explanation came from veteran columnist Robert Novak May 10, who reports that Michelle Obama vetoed Hillary’s candidacy. “The Democratic front-runner’s wife did not comment on other rival candidates for the party’s nomination, but she has been sniping at Clinton since last summer. According to Obama sources, those public utterances do not reveal the extent of her hostility,” Novak wrote. If that is true, then Obama succumbed to the character weakness I described in a February 26 profile of (Obama’s women reveal his secret). His peculiar dependency on an assertive and often rancorous spouse, I argued, made him vulnerable, and predicted that Obama “will destroy himself before he destroys the country”.
Alternately, Obama might have chosen a rising Democratic star like Virginia’s 50-year-old governor Tim Kaine. A weaker choice than Hillary, Kaine (or someone like him) would have made a bold statement of self-confidence. Obama could have said with credibility that he would bring to Washington a new generation of outsiders who would change the old system. Instead, Obama saddled an old and unpopular Washington warhorse.
Curiously, Obama ignored the rising stars of his own party, offering the prime time speaking slots to familiar faces, including Senator Edward Kennedy and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as his own wife, the first prospective First Lady to take the keynote spot in the history of American party conventions.
McCain doesn’t have a tenth of Obama’s synaptic fire-power, but he is a nasty old sailor who knows when to come about for a broadside. Given Obama’s defensive, even wimpy selection of a running-mate, McCain’s choice was obvious. He picked the available candidate most like himself: a maverick with impeccable reform credentials, a risk-seeking commercial fisherwoman and huntress married to a marathon snowmobile racer who carries a steelworkers union card. The Democratic order of battle was to tie McCain to the Bush administration and attack McCain by attacking Bush. With Palin on the ticket, McCain has re-emerged as the maverick he really is.
The young Alaskan governor, to be sure, hasn’t any business running for vice president of the United States with her thin resume. McCain and his people know this perfectly well, and that is precisely why they put her on the ticket. If Palin is unqualified to be vice president, all the less so is Obama qualified to be president.
McCain has certified his authenticity for the voters. He’s now the outsider, the reformer, the maverick, the war hero running next to the Alaskan amazon with a union steelworker spouse. Obama, who styled himself an agent of change, took his image for granted, and attempted to ensure himself victory by doing the cautious thing. He is trapped in a losing position, and there is nothing he can do to get out of it.
Obama, in short, is long on brains and short on guts. A Shibboleth of American politics holds that different tactics are required to win the party primaries as opposed to the general election, that is, by pandering to fringe groups with disproportionate influence in the primaries. But Obama did not compromise himself with extreme positions. He did not have to, for younger voters who greeted him with near-religious fervor did not require that he take any position other than his promise to change everything. Obama could have allied with the old guard, through an Obama-Clinton ticket, or he could have rejected the old guard by choosing the closest thing the Democrats had to a Sarah Palin. But fear paralyzed him, and he did neither.
In my February 26 profile, I called Obama “the political equivalent of a sociopath”, without any derogatory intent. A sociopath seeks the empathy of all around him while empathizing with no one. Obama has an almost magical ability to gain the confidence of those around him. Perhaps it was the adaptation of a bright and sensitive young boy who was abandoned by three parents – his Kenyan father Barack Obama Sr, who left his pregnant young bride; his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetero; and by his mother, Ann Dunham, who sent 10-year-old Obama to live with her parents while she pursued her career as an anthropologist.
Combine a child’s response to serial abandonment with the perspective of an outsider, and Obama became an alien species against which American politics had no natural defenses. He is a Third World anthropologist profiling Americans, in but not of the American system. No country’s politics depends more openly on friendships than America’s, yet Obama has not a single real friend, for he rose so fast that all his acquaintances become rungs on the ladder of his ascent. One human relationship crowds the others out of his life, his marriage to Michelle, a strong, assertive and very angry woman.
If Novak’s report is accurate, then Michelle’s anger will have lost the election for Obama, as Achilles’ anger nearly killed the Greek cause in the Trojan War. But the responsibility rests not with Michelle, but with Obama. Obama’s failure of nerve at the cusp of his success is consistent with my profile of the candidate, in which I predicted that he would self-destruct. It’s happening faster than I expected. As I wrote last February:
It is conceivable that Barack Obama, if elected, will destroy himself before he destroys the country. Hatred is a toxic diet even for someone with as strong a stomach as Obama … Both Obama and the American public should be very careful of what they wish for. As the horrible example of Obama’s father shows, there is nothing worse for an embittered outsider manipulating the system from within than to achieve his goals.
By all rights, the Democrats should win this election. They will lose, I predict, because of the flawed character of their candidate.