Obama and the Rules

Democratic presidential primary contests often follow a familiar pattern: There is one candidate (usually the one I find myself supporting) with a high-minded pitch for "a new kind of politics" -- what the Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein recently called the "wine track" candidate -- and there is a "beer track" candidate who says things like "It's your fight, too!" (Dick Gephardt, 1988) or "The presidency [isn't] an academic exercise; [it] has to be a day-to-day fight for the American people" (Al Gore, 2000).

Usually, as Brownstein points out, the wine-tracker has a nice run in the odd-numbered year, because better-educated voters pay attention earlier. Then, when the real contest begins, the beer-track candidate picks up the union endorsements and the working-class voters, the results quickly resolve in his favor, and the rest of us take home our "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Bruce Babbitt" bumper stickers.

The difference between those early elite favorites and the eventual winners is not ideology. Sometimes the wine-trackers are a shade to the right of the Democratic median, like Paul Tsongas; sometimes, as in the case of Howard Dean, they're a bit more liberal. The big difference is that the fighter treats politics as a game with a defined set of rules, while his adversary tries to change them.

Senator Barack Obama's campaign might seem, as it did to Brownstein, to fit this pattern. Like my old boss Bill Bradley, who at this point eight years ago was being compared by New York magazine to a "hot IPO," Obama will enthrall the elites in 2007, but come New Year's Day, normalcy will return. The elegant diffidence of the wine-track candidate will be admired, but not rewarded.

Under the normal rules, a candidate using the "fighting" message appeals to working-class voters and the standard Democratic interest groups to win the primaries, then makes a move to the center for the general election. Under the rules that won two general elections for Democrats in the 1990s, candidates must target the small number of voters who are considered to be in play: fiscally conservative, socially liberal, fairly affluent. Those rules, however, lead to a narrowing, limited politics that, even if successful, creates none of the enthusiasm or energy that a new president will need in order to promote ambitious policy change.

But it's not the '90s anymore. The scorched-earth politics of the Bush era melted everything in its path. Democrats took a long time to understand the new rules. They should have been a better-organized, coherent, fighting opposition party in 2001 and 2003. Many of us will be angry about what happened in those years for the rest of our lives.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that the presidential candidate in 2008 should have the voice of pure opposition that we wish Democrats had had in 2002. The era of conservative domination has come to an end. George W. Bush and much of what he has stood for have been totally discredited. The political rules of the '90s are outdated, but so are the politics of Bush, and equally the politics of anti-Bush.

And this is where Obama comes in. He alone seems to have a theory about the next era of politics, not the last. His appeal to unity is not as soft or aloof as it may seem. What's most interesting about it is that he's calling for an engagement with ideological conservatism itself, rather than with powerful interests. There's a real difference between calling for bipartisanship, as Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain do, and calling for a mutual attempt to understand and respect the conservative worldview, as Obama does in The Audacity of Hope. At a time when conservatism is discredited, as a result of its alliance with the least-principled gang ever, Obama is calling it out and attempting to separate it from the narrow economic interests it has served. This is not just a standard accommodation to power and interest; it's an attempt to reground politics on questions of first principle -- in a way that will end to liberalism's advantage. And if the rules of the primary have changed, it's a strategy that just might work as well in the primaries as in the general election, avoiding that awkward turn in March or April that the standard rules require.

A call for unity and common ground can be a mark of naïvete about power or the grasping last bid of a failing candidate. But it can also be a profoundly smart political act, one very conscious of power, defining the scope of conflict in a way that defines us broadly and them narrowly. I'm willing to bet that an old Chicago community organizer has no naïvete about power and understands exactly why the rules have to change.

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