Between rhetoric and reality

August 26, 2008

As you listen to the Republicans pilloried at the Democrats' Denver convention, pay close attention to what Obama says he'll actually do if he wins this election.

EVEN AS Barack Obama and the Democrats headed to Denver for a four-day, nationally televised campaign commercial--stage-managed down to the final detail and paid for with vast amounts of corporate cash--the question reared its ugly head.

Could nearly 72-year-old John McCain--heir apparent to the one of the most despised presidential administrations in history, presiding over a party of squabbling bigots, unable to remember how many homes he owns--actually win the White House?

Opinion polls in August showed McCain narrowing the lead that Obama has held since clinching the Democratic nomination in June--and even pulling ahead in one case. Overall, according to a polling trend estimate calculated by the Web site, Obama's lead has dropped from 5.4 percentage points to 1.4 points.

Polling experts admit that surveys this far in advance of an election may not mean much, particularly when the "shift" everyone is talking about is fairly small. And the media's obsession with the polls has a lot to do with the need to fill airtime on the 24-hour cable news channels.

Barack Obama speaks to a crowd in Portland, Ore.
Barack Obama speaks to a crowd in Portland, Ore. (Richard Clement | Reuters)

Nevertheless, plenty of Democrats were worried going into their party's convention, and it's easy to see why. The Democrats should be poised for a landslide victory in November, and instead, they're scrambling to keep the lead in the presidential race.

The Bush administration and the Republican Party, after enjoying one-party control over all the branches of the federal government for much of the decade, are discredited and openly despised, even among sections of the political and business establishment--which is why Obama has raised much more money than McCain, and corporate campaign contributions have shifted the Democrats' way.

The "war on terror" is failing. The economy is spiraling deeper into crisis. And on any number of social issues, the right wing is in retreat, after decades of dominating the mainstream discussion.

Thus, when it comes to Congress, with dozens of veteran Republican lawmakers retiring rather than face crushing defeat, the Democrats are certain to make major gains.

But in the presidential race, Obama is barely ahead of McCain. Why?

ONE REASON is the revving up of the Republican attack machine. In August, the McCain campaign unleashed a series of attack ads against Obama that seek to portray him as, at best, an empty-headed fame-seeker.

That's no surprise coming from the party of Karl Rove. But it should be noted that the McCain campaign is following the lines of attack opened up by Obama's primary opponent, Hillary Clinton.

As the "inevitable nominee" fell further and further behind, the Clinton campaign was first to portray Obama as a political novice infatuated with his own popularity--and, of course, first to play the race card.

One result is that Obama can't count on support from a hard core of voters who cast ballots for Clinton. According to a new USA Today/Gallup poll, fewer than half of the people who voted for Clinton in the primaries say they'll definitely vote for Obama in November. A previous CNN poll found the number of Clinton voters who say they'll vote for McCain climbed from 16 percent to 27 percent over the summer.

At the same time, however, Obama himself deserves a significant share of the blame. Since wrapping up the nomination in June, his campaign has shifted right at every available opportunity--from his flip-flop on the White House's wiretap bill to his rejection of the public campaign finance system to his embrace of Bush's failed "faith-based initiatives" for social programs.

Obama's victory in the primaries depended on building a sense of excitement about the historic character of his candidacy--the first African American with a serious chance to become president in a country founded on slavery--and a sense of urgency about changing the political system. His campaign invoked the icons of the great political and social struggles of the past.

That's over with, at least for now. Since becoming the presumptive nominee, Obama has tried to distance himself from issues of racism with screeds about personal responsibility and the supposed failings of Black men. As for the struggles of the past, Obama has been much more interested in fitting in with the political and business elite of the present.

The latest example is his choice of a running mate--Joe Biden. "The candidate of change went with the status quo," wrote Ron Fournier, the Associated Press' top political reporter. "He picked a 35-year veteran of the Senate--the ultimate insider--rather than a candidate from outside Washington."

Biden is supposed to bring "national security experience" to the ticket, but what he really brings is enthusiasm for the use of U.S. military power. As one blogger at Daily Kos wrote, "There are times, it seems, when Joe Biden can be damned near as dangerous as Dick Cheney."

The result of a summer of right turns is that the enthusiasm at the heart of Obama's campaign has leaked away. Most of his supporters from the primaries will still vote for Obama in November, but they're less likely to speak up for the Democratic nominee to the people they talk to every day, whether at work or at home or in their community.

The Democrats have made this mistake before--demobilizing their base of loyal voters by taking them for granted, while moving to the right to appeal to some mythical mother lode of "swing voters."

In explaining poll results showing that people trust McCain more than Obama to handle foreign policy issues, the media make a big deal of McCain's "experience." But how many of those people would trust McCain if they were hearing constantly from Obama and his campaign that McCain wants the occupation of Iraq to go on for decades, that he sounded ready a couple weeks ago for a back-to-the-Cold-War confrontation with Russia in Georgia and that his idea of a joke is singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb. Bomb, bomb Iran"?

But Obama has been so busy convincing the U.S. business and political elite that he would be a better manager of American imperial interests, McCain is getting a pass.

ACCORDING TO press reports, the Obama campaign hopes to use the Denver convention to turn a corner--and, in particular, come out on the attack on economic issues, where the differences with McCain are greater than foreign policy. So we can expect that the Democratic convention will feature a lot of tough talk about how Republican policies have caused a wrenching crisis for working people.

Of course, this is true. McCain himself has no answer to the economic disaster other than more of the same things that caused the crisis in the first place.

But as you listen to the Republicans being justly pilloried, pay close attention to what Obama and the Democrats say they'll actually do if they win this election. When it comes down to it, there's a big gap between the Democrats' rhetoric and their proposals for doing something about the crisis. When you strip away the rhetoric, the Democrats share much more in common than they differ with the Republicans--on every issue.

There are two independent presidential campaigns to the left of Obama whose political positions match their rhetoric. Ralph Nader is repeating his independent run from 2000 and 2004, and former Rep. Cynthia McKinney has won the presidential nomination of the Green Party.

On most every question--war, civil liberties, jobs, corporate power, health care, the environment--McKinney and Nader represent a stark alternative to the two mainstream parties.

Eight years ago, Nader was able to win millions of votes--and, more importantly, bring together people from different struggles to recognize their common commitment to an alternative to the political status quo. Unfortunately, this year, neither is likely to get a significant hearing.

McKinney and Nader do offer voters the chance to cast a protest vote against war, racism and corporate greed, even if they will not be able to break through the media blackout on their candidacies. That vote won't count for much in this year's electoral arithmetic, but it can be a marker for the future.

However, the more important task before and after the election will be building connections among people and organizations in preparation for the struggles to come--including among those who continue to be enthusiastic about Obama's candidacy.

Obama's campaign has raised the hopes of many people, but it should be recognized that the enthusiasm for the Democrats in this election is symptomatic of a larger change among growing numbers of people in the U.S.--a rejection of the right-wing dogmas that dominated mainstream politics for decades and a searching for answers and ideas about what could be different.

That's where the opportunities lie for rebuilding a left alternative in the months before and after the election.

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