Jim Sleeper: Why It Should Be Obama vs. McCain

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale and a writer on American civic culture and politics, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997).]

Mario Cuomo drew the distinction between “the poetry of campaigning” and “the prose of governing” in 1982, but he embodied it a bit too well: He electrified the Democratic National Convention of 1984 but never made his own bid to govern nationally.

That has made Barack Obama the first likely liberal-Democratic nominee to tap the mystic chords of memory and destiny since 1980, when Ted Kennedy, conceding defeat in the primaries, vowed, “The cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Kennedy has endured, but even if his passing the torch to Obama last week propels the latter’s nomination, we’ll be only halfway to the convergence of mythic currents that would have occurred in 1980 had Kennedy faced that other poet of the republic, Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter did that, but even as an incumbent he was no more a poet than is the quasi-incumbent Hillary Clinton.

Two great American crosscurrents -- of liberal communal provision, without which conservative individuality can’t flourish, and of conservative personal responsibility, without which even the best liberal social engineering produces clients, cogs, or worse – can converge only if John McCain and Barack Obama face off.

It will be an Oedipal struggle, too: a national father-figure reminiscent of Dwight Eisenhower facing an upstart national son, like candidate Jack Kennedy, a keeper of some traditions but breaker of others, a child of the new world which conservatives can’t quite admit that their own investments have made. Old Ike and young Jack never faced off, but our hunger for such a reckoning now makes it likely that McCain and Obama will.

McCain is no poet, but his endurance amid disaster and sloughs of despond is poetry in action that most Americans warm to. Only the un-American among us don’t get it -- religious zealots and global capitalists who’ve made very clear by now what their piety, governing ability, and business acumen can offer.

It was against them that McCain -- without money, priestly blessings, or pundits-- went door to door to the American people. He wavered in 2004, wrapping George W. Bush, whose campaign had smeared him four years earlier, in a bear hug that left my heart cold. But while his pilgrimage was flawed, anything like it was wholly inconceivable to the operatic and invincible Rudy Giuliani and to the moneybags, mountebanks, and blowhards, and most Americans recognized the difference.

The good things about America that Ronald Reagan played to perfection in movies and photo-ops, John McCain has played with his life. Reagan gave us the theater of our yearnings, his “Morning in America” a glorious euthanasia to a fading civic-republican hopes; McCain has slogged on. Americans who once thought themselves Reaganites have recognized that difference, too.

No less than McCain, Obama has reached deep inside himself and gone door to door, and he embodies something America represents to itself and the world – a capacity to vindicate those who enter the golden door tired, poor, and yearning to breathe free, even when they come here despised.

Obama’s shucking off ancient blood feuds and fears offers something inestimable to blacks: Precisely because they were abducted, stripped of cultural coordinates, and plunged into an endless nightmare of non-recognition here, African Americans have had the highest stakes imaginable in the republic’s living up to its creed and have nurtured its most eloquent champions.

Because their struggle to belong fully is also the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world, some have also been America’s most nihilist assailants, sometimes refusing even “yes” for an answer. Obama vows, “Yes, we can,” with a faith as compelling as McCain’s.

But is either man’s faith enough?

While McCain has brought character and faith to egislating, he’s as confused as Reagan about how to help those who aren’t quite so heroic or dreamy. Courage and generosity haven't yet shown him what they showed Eisenhower – the real costs of our military-industrial juggernaut in a world where corporations are becoming so much more powerful and corruptible than governments that the real dangers to liberty are no longer taxestaxestaxes. Trapped in making war for laissez faire, conservatives can’t reconcile their yearnings for a sacred, ordered liberty with their obeisance to every whim of a global capitalism that is abandoning America and republican institutions. Can McCain reconcile these strains?

Can the poetic Obama bring his character to governing at all? He remains untested against the dark dominions that surround any executive lacking a coalition and inner circle stronger than the electoral majority or plurality that sent him. Can this fine orator, community organizer, and lawyer -- and, yes, a great listener and learner – govern a coalition of fractious constituencies that is no beloved community?

Liberals like Obama who’ve done well by what they once called “the system” have not seriously addressed the inequities it is now spawning between blacks and blacks and women and women, let alone between the cool and the tools. They have't found it in themselves to defend “the system” wholeheartedly, either.

Instead they grasp at compensatory, symbolic gestures and grace notes, including support for Obama himself, a Ivy alum who (unlike most of them) took his Columbia core humanities curriculum seriously enough to go down and out in Chicago. In a crisis, he might even redistribute some of this cohort's unearned income and second homes. Or he might not.

Cuomo was right to warn that poetry isn’t prose; in office, McCain or Obama would lose many of their supporters. But both have lived in ways that make them strong enough to expect that, and, unlike Cuomo, to run, anyway.

So let poet confront poet; let the mythical crosscurrents converge; let distinctions between them blur in the mythmaking. And, for now, at least, let the ranters, ravers, and know-it-alls who have given us so much grief look as foolish as they truly are.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/7/2008

1. Victory or surrender in the war.
2. Lower or higher taxes.
3. Border fence or open borders.
4. Private or public medicine.
5. Face Iran or kick the can ahead.
6. Save Medicare or let it bankrupt.
7. Save SS or let it bankrupt.
8. Save Medicaid or let it bankrupt.
9. Conservative or Liberal judges.

Not much blur so far...