Getting to the politics of ideas

That’s what people want. We’ve suffered from too much anger for too long. Hostility repels.

There are plenty of columns and articles out there now about the
Clintons’ anger and Obama’s rhetoric and McCain’s relationship with
conservatives. But this is the one I’ve been wanting to either write or read, and now that
Peter Wehner has done so - and engagingly - I gladly point to it as a
commentary on the appeal of Sen. Obama that shows both respect and
well-reasoned concern.

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.

It certainly is. Back to honorable politics and competing ideas.

… 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.

Everyone is attracted to calm, measured, respectful politicians. We
have so few. But the discussion of the issues has to come, and
respectfully engaged.

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.

This is such a reasonable, good idea that seems like a natural fit
for a candidate like Obama, as do others he hasn’t yet addressed. The
question is, will he, and what will be his response.

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.


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