The Democratic Party's new liberal star
By Eric Ruder | August 6, 2004 | Page 5
AMONG LIBERALS, Barack Obama's sudden emergence as a star of the Democratic Party is cause for jubilation. Obama--an African American Illinois state senator from Chicago's South Side, with a progressive voting record--was selected as the keynote speaker of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, catapulting him from relative obscurity to the center of a national media frenzy.
Even before he gave his speech, the convention was abuzz with Obama's name, and a variety of pundits and Democratic Party insiders had anointed him "the future of the party"--even throwing his name around as a probable vice presidential or presidential nominee in years to come. Part of his appeal is that Obama is a sure bet to replace Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) in November, moving the Democrats one seat closer to taking away the Repulicans' razor-thin majority.
Obama's leap to the Senate, where he'll become only the third Black senator since Reconstruction, was facilitated by the disastrous campaigns of his leading opponents in both the Democratic primary and the general election. Ironically, both collapsed after stories about their messy divorces grew into full-fledged scandals. With three months to go before the general election, the Republicans still haven't found a replacement to run against Obama.
For those hoping for an alternative to Bush's war on the world, Obama's rise has raised many hopes. In 2002, Obama spoke at an antiwar rally in Chicago, and as the convention neared, he reiterated his view that the U.S. war on Iraq was a defining campaign issue.
Nevertheless, his performance before and at the convention confirmed that even the party's new liberal star would fail to oppose the U.S. occupation of Iraq in any meaningful way. Like Kerry, he only quibbled over the hows.
The day before his speech, Obama told reporters, "On Iraq, on paper, there's not as much difference, I think, between the Bush administration and a Kerry administration as there would have been a year ago." He added, "There's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who's in a position to execute."
The speech itself took Bush to task for lying about the reasons for war and for invading and occupying "without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world." In other words, Obama, the great liberal hope, thinks that Bush should have sent more troops--and that the Democrats are more capable of seeing the war on Iraq through to victory.
Obama is a gifted politician. Like Bill Clinton, he knows how to encourage people of opposite political beliefs to see what they want to see in his speeches and policy prescriptions. Thus, even Rich Lowry, a right-wing booster of the Bush gang, praised Obama's speech for its "hawkish attitude," its "rallying cry of unity" and its "authentic, unashamed" embrace of "an awesome God."
This method carries through on other issues. Obama finds a way to talk left--but makes it clear that he will never pose a threat to corporate interests or make a policy proposal that would carry a hefty price tag. In Illinois, where it's obvious that the death penalty system is too flawed to fix, Obama is celebrated by liberals as a crusader for death penalty reform--but he continues to support capital punishment for "punishing the most heinous crimes."
Obama calls for tax breaks for American workers and government measures to create jobs. But he's a supporter of Corporate America's "free trade" agenda, and his convention speech praised Kerry because "instead of offering tax breaks to companies shipping jobs overseas, he'll offer them to companies creating jobs here at home."
Obama claims to be a defender of the public school system who will campaign to put more teachers in classrooms. But he also trumpets charter schools--with their record of union-busting and siphoning funds from public schools.
In his convention speech, Obama didn't make the case for Democrats fighting for new government programs for poor and working people--or even defending existing ones. Instead, he echoed conservative themes attacking big government--but with a seductive liberal wrapper.
"[People] don't expect government to solve all their problems," Obama said. "They know they have to work hard to get ahead, and they want to. Go into the [suburban] collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon. Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn."
No wonder Democratic Party officials are thrilled about Obama. With his liberal credentials and ability to appeal to a range of audiences, he can sell the kind of victim-blaming rhetoric and conservative policy proposals that establishment Democrats can't.