Saturday, June 7, 2008

Fears About the Future

Kurt Anderson has written an interesting article about the Barack Obama campaign's chances against John McCain in New York Magazine.

Anderson is an Obama supporter, but he has a list of 10 factors that, far from making Obama seem invincible, clearly make the presumptive Democratic nominee appear vulnerable in November.

I don't intend to recite all of his concerns here. I will merely discuss a few of them. But I encourage you to read the article in its entirety.

I don't think Anderson's intention is to discourage Obama's supporters. I believe he wants Obama to win the election.

But, with a pedigree that goes back to his work for the George McGovern campaign in 1972, Anderson has some insights to share. To ignore them is to ignore the lessons of history -- and human nature.

One of Anderson's concerns is stated this way: "Presidential elections are Civil War re-enactments -- in which the North can lose."

I grew up at the same time as Obama did, in the 1960s, when blacks -- and white civil rights activists -- were murdered in the South and in bordering states.

The mentalities of the people who committed those acts had their roots in the Reconstruction period a century earlier, and that thinking still lives in many of their descendants. It isn't overt, but it's there.

Today's South isn't the South of 40 years ago, when segregation continued to exist in spite of federal law and disciples of Jim Crow perpetrated acts of homegrown terrorism (for which most were later acquitted by all-white juries). Today's South has assumed a different shape, one that may appear reasonable, even pleasing, to the naked eye.

The proof is in the pudding, the saying goes. If Obama is able to carry even one or two Southern states in the fall, I will begin to believe the region is truly being transformed. But history tells me that calling the struggle to win Southern states an "uphill battle" is being kind.

Moreover ...

Lyndon Johnson believed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were essential pieces of legislation. But the Democrats' support of those bills, he also believed, would deliver the Southern states to the Republican Party for decades to come. He confided as much to his closest advisers.

Johnson died about four years after leaving office. He didn't live to see how prophetic his words were. But, in the more than 30 years that have passed since Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, Southern states have repeatedly voted for the Republican tickets, many of them continuing to do so when a Southerner named Bill Clinton was at the top of the Democratic ticket and the economic conditions were far from favorable for the Republicans.

There have been times when that tendency has truly contradicted logic -- as in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore failed to carry his home state of Tennessee, making Gore the only major party presidential nominee since McGovern to lose his home state.

(I expect Obama to carry Illinois and McCain to carry Arizona, so I believe Gore will continue to hold that distinction after this election is over.)

Of the five Southern states that voted for George Wallace's independent candidacy against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in 1968 (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi), all five supported Carter in 1976 but only one (his home state of Georgia) supported Carter's bid for re-election in 1980. Since that time, Arkansas and Louisiana backed Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and Georgia supported Clinton in 1992.

Clinton also carried Tennessee twice in the 1990s, and he carried Florida in his bid for re-election in 1996.

The Southern states unanimously endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 and in 2004, in spite of the fact that Gore was the Democrats' presidential nominee in 2000 and John Edwards (from North Carolina) was the party's vice presidential nominee in 2004.

The Southern states also unanimously endorsed Bush's father in 1988, even though a Texan was on the Democratic ticket -- and the revival of that "Boston-Austin" connection was widely believed by Democrats to be the prescription they needed to recapture the White House.

Individual congressional districts have occasionally elected black Democrats (typically in districts with large black populations), but blacks have consistently lost statewide races in the South.

In Gore's home state, for example, a black Democrat with 10 years' experience in the House of Representatives was nominated for the Senate two years ago. The voters in that state elected a white Republican (whose only previous electoral success was his election as mayor of Chattanooga) in what was clearly a Democratic year.

The Republicans in Tennessee turned the race in their favor in the final days mostly by characterizing the Democrat's background -- prep school, Ivy League college -- as one of elitism and privilege.

The only black Democrat I know of who has won a statewide race in the South (excluding party primaries) was Doug Wilder, who was elected governor of Virginia in 1989.

Interestingly, Wilder's campaign suffered from what has been dubbed the "Bradley effect," which was named for a black politician named Tom Bradley, the former Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, who ran for governor of California in 1982 -- a year that tended to favor Democrats -- and lost despite leading in the polls in the closing days of the race.

The Bradley effect has been seen in other elections involving blacks and other minority candidates. It refers to white voters being more likely to tell pollsters that they will support minority candidates than they are to actually vote for them.

In 1989, Wilder's comfortable lead in the late polls evaporated by Election Day and the results were close enough to prompt a recount. Unlike Bradley, Wilder managed to win his race -- perhaps because he took positions that haven't been associated with most Democratic politicians, like his support for the death penalty.

And, as governor, Wilder backed up his support for the death penalty by overseeing more than a dozen executions. He also supported cuts in higher education to help bring the state budget into balance.

(As a postscript, Wilder launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1992 and considered running for the Senate in 1994 because state law prohibits a governor from serving in successive terms. He became an independent and was elected mayor of Richmond in 2004 but announced this year that he would not seek re-election.)

Since I've mentioned the use of "elitism" as an argument that helped the Republicans in the Senate race in Tennessee two years ago, I guess that brings me to another of Anderson's concerns -- "Is [Obama] 'elitist,' too condescending and glib and remote and full of himself?"

Anderson writes, "I don’t find him so -- but then again, I myself am an elitist who can seem condescending and glib and remote and full of himself, so who am I to judge?"

Americans of all races made TV's Frasier Crane perhaps the country's most beloved elitist, first in his supporting role on the series "Cheers" and then in his popular spinoff series, "Frasier."

That didn't necessarily mean they would like to have someone like Frasier Crane in the Oval Office. Americans seem to prefer to have someone like themselves in the White House.

Elitists aren't in the majority. I guess that's part of what makes them elitist.

A president doesn't have to "feel your pain," although that apparently worked for Clinton. But a president who seems to understand what ordinary Americans are facing is preferable to one who appears remote.

It remains to be seen if middle-class, white Americans -- most of whom did not attend Ivy League schools -- prefer Obama (a Harvard graduate) over McCain. Perhaps in his own way, McCain can be viewed as every bit as elitist, with his Naval Academy education, although he may be able to mitigate that impression with his experience as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict.

Anderson also worries about what he calls "the evil in men’s hearts." Given the country's history, he has good reason.

"Every time I watch him work the crowds, I cringe a little, dreading the lurching nut and pop-pop," Anderson writes. "Any assassination is horrific; the murder of Obama could be a national trauma beyond reckoning. ... It would amount to a national statement concerning our racial divide: Nah, we can’t."

Of course, there are many precautions that can be taken to try to prevent an assassination. But it is clear that, at a time when suicide bombers have become distressingly commonplace, if someone is intent on doing harm, such precautions can be overcome.

There are many arguments, pro and con, to be made about the Obama candidacy. Some of those fears are legitimate, some are baseless. They're largely the result of the eternal tension between the known and the unknown.

A great president will help his people deal with that tension.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Franklin D. Roosevelt told the country in 1933.

A fearful America still had to endure the pain of the Great Depression. It trampled some, but most got through it because they recognized fear for the enemy it was -- and their president helped them have the faith that better days were ahead.

To become president, Obama's challenge is to help a majority of his countrymen have that faith in him.

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