THE Democrats are so brilliant at yanking defeat from the jaws of victory that it still seems unimaginable that they might win on Nov. 7. But even the most congenital skeptic has to face that possibility now. Things have gotten so bad for the Republicans that were President Bush to unveil Osama bin Laden’s corpse in the Rose Garden, some reporter would instantly check to see if his last meal had been on Jack Abramoff’s tab.
With an approval rating of 16 percent — 16! — in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Congress has matched the Democrats of 1994 or, for that matter, Michael Jackson during his own version of Foleygate. As for Mr. Bush, he is once more hiding behind children in an elementary school, as he did last week when the monthly death toll for Americans in Iraq approached a nearly two-year high. And where else could he go? Some top Republican Congressional candidates in the red state he was visiting, North Carolina, would not appear with him. When the president did find a grateful campaign mate at his next stop, Pennsylvania, it was the married congressman who paid $5.5 million to settle a lawsuit by a mistress who accused him of throttling her.
Maybe the Democrats can blow 2006 as they did 2004, but not without herculean effort. As George Will memorably wrote, if they can’t at least win back the House under these conditions, “they should go into another line of work.”
The tough question is not whether the Democrats can win, but what will happen if they do win. The party’s message in this campaign has offered no vision beyond bashing Mr. Bush and pledging to revisit the scandals and the disastrous legislation that went down on his watch. Last spring Nancy Pelosi did promote a “New Direction for America” full of golden oldies — raising the minimum wage, enacting lobbying reform, cutting Medicare drug costs, etc. She promised that Democrats would “own August” by staging 250 campaign events to publicize it. But this rollout caused so few ripples that its participants might as well have been in the witness protection program. Meanwhile, it was up to John Murtha, a congressman with no presidential ambitions, to goad his peers to start focusing on a specific Iraq exit strategy.
Enter Barack Obama. To understand the hysteria about a Democratic senator who has not yet served two years and is mainly known for a single speech at the 2004 convention, you have to appreciate just how desperate the Democrats are for a panacea for all their ills. In the many glossy cover articles about Obamamania, the only real suspense is whether a Jack or Bobby Kennedy analogy will be made in the second paragraph or the fifth. Men’s Vogue (cover by Annie Leibovitz) went so far as to say that the Illinois senator “alone has the potential to one day be mentioned in the same breath” as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Why not throw in Mark Twain and Sammy Davis Jr.?
This is a lot to put on the shoulders of anyone, even someone as impressive as Mr. Obama. Though he remains a modest and self-effacing guy from all appearances, he is encouraging the speculation about seeking higher office — and not as a coy Colin Powell-style maneuver to sell his new book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Mr. Obama hasn’t been turning up in Iowa for the corn dogs. He consistently concedes he’s entertaining the prospect of a presidential run.
There’s no reason to rush that decision now, but it’s a no-brainer. Of course he should run, assuming his family is on the same page. He’s 45, not 30, and his slender résumé in public office (which also includes seven years as a state senator) should be no more of an impediment to him than it was to the White House’s current occupant. As his Illinois colleague Dick Durbin told The Chicago Tribune last week, “I said to him, ‘Do you really think sticking around the Senate for four more years and casting a thousand more votes will make you more qualified for president?’ ” Instead, such added experience is more likely to transform an unusually eloquent writer, speaker and public servant into another windbag like Joe Biden.
The more important issue is not whether Mr. Obama will seek the presidency, but what kind of candidate he would be. If the Democratic Party is to be more than a throw-out-Bush party, it can’t settle for yet again repackaging its well-worn ideas, however worthy, with a new slogan containing the word “New.” It needs a major infusion of steadfast leadership. That’s the one lesson it should learn from George Bush. Call him arrogant or misguided or foolish, this president has been a leader. He had a controversial agenda — enacting big tax cuts, privatizing Social Security, waging “pre-emptive” war, packing the courts with judges who support his elisions of constitutional rights — and he didn’t fudge it. He didn’t care if half the country despised him along the way.
The interminable Iraq fiasco has branded the Democrats as the party of fecklessness. The failure of its leaders to challenge the administration’s blatant propaganda to gin up the war is a failure of historic proportions (as it was for much of the press and liberal punditry). When Tom Daschle, then the Senate leader, presided over the rushed passing of the war resolution before the 2002 midterms, he explained that the “bottom line” was for Democrats “to move on”; they couldn’t wait to campaign on the economy. The party’s subsequent loss of the Senate did not prevent it two years later from nominating a candidate who voted for the war’s funding before he voted against it.
What makes the liberal establishment’s crush on Mr. Obama disconcerting is that it too often sees him as a love child of a pollster’s focus group: a one-man Benetton ad who can be all things to all people. He’s black and he’s white. He’s both of immigrant stock (Kenya) and the American heartland (Kansas, yet). He speaks openly about his faith without disowning evolution. He has both gravitas and unpretentious humor. He was the editor of The Harvard Law Review and also won a Grammy (for the audiobook of his touching memoir, “Dreams From My Father”). He exudes perfection but has owned up to youthful indiscretions with drugs. He is post-boomer and post-civil-rights-movement. He is Bill Clinton without the baggage, a fail-safe 21st-century bridge from “A Place Called Hope” to “The Audacity of Hope.”
Mr. Obama has offended no one (a silly tiff with John McCain excepted). Search right-wing blogs and you’ll find none of the invective showered on other liberal Democrats in general and black liberal leaders in particular. What little criticism Mr. Obama has received is from those in his own camp who find him cautious to a fault, especially on issues that might cause controversy. The sum of all his terrific parts, this theory goes, may be less than the whole: another Democrat who won’t tell you what day it is before calling a consultant, another human weather vane who waits to see which way the wind is blowing before taking a stand.
That has been the Democrats’ fatal malady, but it’s way too early and there’s too little evidence to say Mr. Obama has been infected by it. If he is conciliatory by nature and eager to entertain adversaries’ views in good faith, that’s not necessarily a fault, particularly in these poisonous times. The question is whether Mr. Obama will stick up for core principles when tested and get others to follow him.
That’s why it’s important to remember that on one true test for his party, Iraq, he was consistent from the start. On the long trail to a hotly competitive senatorial primary in Illinois, he repeatedly questioned the rationale for the war before it began, finally to protest it at a large rally in Chicago on the eve of the invasion. He judged Saddam to pose no immediate threat to America and argued for containment over a war he would soon label “dumb” and “political-driven.” He hasn’t changed. In his new book, he gives a specific date (the end of this year) for beginning “a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops” and doesn’t seem to care who calls it “cut and run.”
Contrast this with Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, who last week said that failed American policy in Iraq should be revisited if there’s no improvement in “maybe 60 to 90 days.” This might qualify as leadership, even at this late date, if only John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, hadn’t proposed exactly the same time frame for a re-evaluation of the war almost a week before she did.
The Democrats may well win on Election Day this year. But one of their best hopes for long-term viability in the post-Bush era is that Barack Obama steps up and changes the party before the party of terminal timidity and equivocation changes him.