In politics there are perils attending meteoric rise. It’s one thing, if one is a Warren Harding or a Rutherford B. Hayes or a Millard Fillmore to be plucked from near absolute obscurity and seemingly overnight ensconced upon the throne. These men, after all, planned to do nearly nothing in office once they grasped the scepter of power, and fully expected to return to nearly absolute and well-deserved obscurity. These men were destined to take their places as mere questions in the historical game of ‘trivial pursuit’. But for those with an overarching vision of the office, or those unlucky enough to reside in the White House during troublesome years, to govern without the determined support of the attending political coalition is nearly impossible.
The problem with the election of 2008 was that for differing reasons the Republican nominee came to the table with equally suspect support. Having spent nearly two decades in the Senate as the Senator of K street, the conservative stalwarts of the party, as their Democratic liberals on the other side of the isle, would search in vain for any demonstrations of support not to mention the championing of any issues of consequence. Obama because of his all-to-brief presence on the national political stage and McCain, with the possible exception of campaign finance reform—anathema to Conservative ideologues and Capitalists alike—his only contributions involved burnishing his so-called ‘bi-partisan’ credentials. The term “Maverick” meant not strong conservative leadership to most Republicans, but his predilection to dance with the Democrats instead of the one who brought him to the party to begin with. Clearly, whoever took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 2009 would have major elements of his own party looking over his shoulder watching, suspiciously, his every move.
There were further complications. The first involved race. I remember during the campaign a conversation I had with a co-worker concerning the nature of Obama’s liberalism. Whatever his liberal leanings, I intoned, Obama once elected could not be seen as champion of a massive jobs bill or the raiser of new taxes. He would be charged not only with the usual nonsense about leading a ‘class war’, but would also been seen by a significant part of the electorate—perhaps a majority—of effecting reparations for America’s sin of slavery. There is ample precedent for this. Because of the alleged abuses of the Reconstruction Era after the Civil war, for instance, many white Southerners see any economic or social initiatives through the dark lens of race. And, in fact, it wasn’t long before the likes of Limbaugh and Beck were raising precisely this issue as the administration struggled to pass the stimulus package. No, I told my friend Robert, lacking the latitude brought by long acquaintance and hemmed in by the everlasting issues of Race in America, this would be no New Deal. Obama would prove not to be a ‘socialist’, or even a liberal but would instead govern from the center. As he gathered about him the remnants of the old guard I felt the air go out of the balloon that was the inflated rhetoric of “change we can believe in” to meet “the urgent necessity of now”.
This was further exasperated by the Senate leadership who, seeing in the young man from Illinois the next presidential contender, worked to keep the young Jedi from association with any legislation that could in any way be seen as ‘controversial’. Arriving late to the dance and prevented from showcasing any leadership on behalf of any of the constituent elements within the party, Obama emerged as a broadly appealing alternative to the mess in Washington but with no record of having waded in to clean it up. It was left to rhetoric, not deeds, to define this candidacy.
When reaching the point where patience runs out my father would say “don’t tell me what you’re going to do, show me what you’ve done”. Talk is cheap he was saying in his own inimical way. It is one’s actions that define, in the last analysis, who one is and what one is about. By heeding the counsel of the party leadership and avoiding the trenches he could appear to be ‘above the fray’ and speak eloquently of ‘transcending’ the divisions of our nation’s capitol but such a stratagem did nothing to define who he is.
When emerging on the national political stage it is incumbent on the party’s nominee to stand before the assembled and claim a political tradition. Who are you? that is the lingering question answerable by words and deeds. By words in that the newly anointed speaks of the long political tradition that is his party and what it stands for, highlighting through the emphasis of this or that part of the historical record where in the spectrum he stands. Likewise his or her actions: Has he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the unions in their fight for a living wage? Has he fought rescumlican efforts to gut the 40 hour work week? Has he stood with the environmentalists? Through word and deed each party assesses its candidate. In terms of direction is he a Teddy Roosevelt or a Chester Arthur; is he an FDR or a James Buchanan. Judging administrative ability is he a Dwight Eisenhower or a Richard Nixon; is he an FDR or a Jimmy Carter. Simply put does he represent reform or is he a stalwart, and underlying is the question of whether he is competent enough for it to matter anyway. These were the lingering questions facing the voters in 2008 and the answers from either camp were not forthcoming.
We were left grasping at straws; for both candidates were, in effect, straw men whose substance, such as they were, were well hidden beneath layers of Madison Avenue imaging countered by the misrepresentations and outright smears attendant every political campaign. And into the breach the rescumlicans moved to fill the void by hurling as much shit as they could in an effort to besmirch the young Jedi. First there was the Reverend Wright Broo-ha-ha. Then the attempt to brand him a Muslim and all that implies in post 9/11 America. Then after the election a full-fledged assault labeling him by degrees a socialist, a fascist, a Stalin, a Hitler. Finally, when all else failed they would question his very legitimacy to the office claiming that he was a foreign born citizen of Kenya, and so the midwife Orly Taitz gave birth to what became known as the “Birthers”. A few months later they would complete the bookend by introducing the concept of “ObamaCare” “Death Panels” creating a so-called “Deathers” movement. The purpose of this organized and well-heeled campaign was to not only smear the otherwise pristine image of the new president but in so doing attribute a “foreignness” and, therefore, sinister “un-American” quality to his administration. In other words, to de-legitimize this presidency. Cries to “take our country back” arose giving voice the full-throated fear of howling citizens made more menacing in that he is our first African American president. Back from whom one might ask. Given the nearly lily-white nature of the aging boomers that swelled the “Tea-bagger” movement the answer is as menacing as it is obvious. Take it back from the carpet-baggers and scalawags who have hijacked our government for the purpose, presumably, of introducing a new era of Jim Crow.