Published February 3, 2008
Barack Obama is not only popular among Democrats, he's also an appealing figure to many Republicans. Former GOP House member Joe Scarborough, now a host on MSNBC, reports that after every important Obama speech, he is inundated with e-mails praising the speech — with most of them coming from Republicans. William Bennett, an influential conservative intellectual, has said favorable things about Obama. So have Rich Lowry of National Review and Peggy Noonan. And so have I.
A number of prominent Republicans I know, who would wage a pitched battle against Hillary Clinton, like Obama and would find it hard to generate much enthusiasm in opposing him.
What is at the core of Obama's appeal?
Part of it is the eloquence and uplift of his speeches, combined with his personal grace and dignity. By all accounts, Obama is a well-grounded, decent, thoughtful man. He comes across, in his person and manner, as nonpartisan. He has an unsurpassed ability to (seemingly) transcend politics. Even when he disagrees with people, he doesn't seem disagreeable. “You know what charm is,” Albert Camus wrote in “The Fall,” “a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.” Obama has such charm, and its appeal is not restricted to Democrats.
A second reason Republicans appreciate Obama is that he is pitted against a couple, the Clintons, whom many Republicans hold in contempt. Among the effects of the Obama-Clinton race is that it is forcing Democrats to come to grips with the mendacity and ruthlessness of the Clinton machine. Conservatives have long believed that the Clintons are an unprincipled pair who will destroy those who stand between them and power — whether they are political opponents, women from Bill Clinton's past or independent counsels.
When the Clintons were doing this in the 1990s, it was viewed by many Democrats as perfectly acceptable. Some even applauded them for their brass-knuckle tactics. But now that the Clintons are roughing up an inspiring young man who appears to represent the hope and future of the Democratic Party, the liberal establishment is reacting with outrage. “I think we've reached an irrevocable turning point in liberal opinion of the Clintons,” writes Jonathan Chait of the New Republic. Many conservatives respond: It's about time.
A third reason for Obama's GOP appeal is that unlike Clinton and especially John Edwards, Obama has a message that, at its core, is about unity and hope rather than division and resentment. He stresses that “out of many we are one.” And to his credit, Barack Obama is running a color-blind campaign. “I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina,” Obama said in his victory speech last weekend. “I saw South Carolina.” That evening, his crowd of supporters chanted as one, “Race doesn't matter.” This was an electric moment. Obama's words are in the great tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. Obama, more than any figure in America, can help bind up the racial wounds of America. In addition, for the past eight years, one of the most prominent qualities of the American left has been anger, which has served it and the country very poorly. An Obama primary win would be a move away from the politics of rage.
The one thing that will keep Obama's appeal from translating into widespread support among Republicans is that he is, on almost every issue, a conventional liberal. And while rhetoric and character matter a lot, politics is finally and fundamentally about ideas and philosophy. Whether we're talking about the Iraq war, monitoring terrorist communications, health care, taxes, education, abortion and the courts, the size of government, or almost anything else, Obama embodies the views of the special-interest groups on the left. In this respect, he should borrow from the Clinton strategy in 1992, when Bill Clinton ran as a “New Democrat,” championed free trade, promised to “end welfare as we know it” and criticized, on hawkish grounds, the “butchers of Beijing.”
Bill Clinton ran an intellectually creative race whose ideas appealed to non-Democrats. Barack Obama has shown no such inclination so far (his speeches, while inspiring, mostly avoid a serious discussion of policies). If he wanted to demonstrate his independence from liberal orthodoxy, for example, he could come out in favor of school choice for low-income families, which would both help poor families and demonstrate support for some of the best faith-based institutions in America: urban parochial schools.
If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and fails to take steps such as this, his liberal views will be his greatest vulnerability. Obama will try to reject the liberal label — but based on his stands on the issues, at least so far, the label will fit, and it will stick.
Barack Obama is among the most impressive political talents of our lifetime. If he defeats Hillary Clinton, the question for the general election is not whether he can transcend his race but whether he can reach beyond his ideology.
The writer, formerly deputy assistant to President Bush, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.