She threw the kitchen sink at him. Accused Barack Obama of plagiarism. Mocked his eloquence. Questioned his truthfulness about NAFTA.
Wasn’t enough. Hillary Clinton still faced extinction in Ohio and Texas. So what do you do when you have thrown the kitchen sink? Drop the atomic bomb.
Hence that brilliant “phone call at the White House at 3 a.m.”commercial. In the great tradition of Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad, it was not subtle — though in 2008 you don’t actually show the nuclear explosion. It’s enough just to suggest an apocalyptic crisis.
Ostensibly the ad was about experience. It wasn’t. It was about familiarity. After all, as Obama pointed out, what exactly is the experience that prepares Hillary to answer the red phone at 3 a.m.?
She was raising a deeper question: Do you really know who this guy is?
After a whirlwind courtship with this elegant man who rode into town just yesterday, are you really prepared to entrust him with your children, the major props in the ad?
After months of fruitlessly shadowboxing an ethereal opponent made up of equal parts hope, rhetoric, and enthusiasm, Clinton had finally made contact with the enemy. The doubts she raised created just enough buyer’s remorse to convince Democrats on Tuesday to not yet close the sale on the mysterious stranger.
The only way either Clinton or John McCain can defeat an opponent as dazzlingly new and fresh as Obama is to ask: Do you really know this guy?
Or the corollary: Is he really who he says he is? I’m not talking about scurrilous innuendo about his origins, religion, or upbringing. I’m talking about the full-fledged man who presents himself to the country in remarkably grandiose terms as a healer, a conciliator, a uniter.
This, after all, is his major appeal. What makes him different from the other candidates, from the “old politics” he disdains, is the promise to rise above party, to take us beyond ideology and other archaic divisions, and bring us together as “one nation.”
It’s worked. When Americans are asked who can unite us, 67 percent say Obama versus 34 percent for Clinton, with McCain at 51. How did Obama pull that off? By riding one of the great non sequiturs of modern American politics.
It goes like this. Because Obama transcends race, it is therefore assumed that he will transcend everything else — divisions of region, class, party, generation and ideology.
The premise here is true — Obama does transcend race; he has not run as a candidate of minority grievance; his vision of America is unmistakably post-racial — but the conclusion does not necessarily follow. It is merely suggested in Obama’s rhetorically brilliant celebration of American unity: “young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Asian — who are tired of a politics that divides us.” Hence “the choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It’s not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white. It’s about the past versus the future.”
The effect of such sweeping invocations of unity is electric, particularly because race is the deepest and most tragic of all American divisions, and this invocation is being delivered by a man who takes us powerfully beyond it. The implication is that he is therefore uniquely qualified to transcend all our other divisions.
It is not an idle suggestion. It could be true. The problem is that Obama’s own history suggests that, in his case at least, it is not. Indeed, his Senate record quite belies the implication.
The Obama campaign has sent journalists eight pages of examples of his reaching across the aisle in the Senate. But these are small-bore items of almost no controversy — more help for war veterans, reducing loose nukes in the former Soviet Union, and the like. Bipartisan support for apple pie is hardly a profile in courage.
On the difficult compromises that required the political courage to challenge one’s own political constituency, Obama flinched: the “gang of 14” compromise on judicial appointments, the immigration compromise to which Obama tried to append union-backed killer amendments, and, just last month, the compromise on warrantless eavesdropping that garnered 68 votes in the Senate. But not Obama’s.
Who, in fact, supported all of these bipartisan deals, was a central player in two of them, and brokered the even more notorious McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform? John McCain, of course.
Yes, John McCain — intemperate and rough-edged, of sharp elbows and even sharper tongue. Turns out that uniting is not a matter of rhetoric or manner, but of character and courage.
© 2008, The Washington Post Writers Group