12 July 2008

No Weak Sister

Well, it’s been a big week for the Politics of Parsing. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it seems that the type of non-news news stories that dominate the daily coverage of the presidential race take on particular prominence during stretches when nothing substantial is happening. In other words, the less is actually going on in the race, the louder the media chatter becomes. This became clear during the six-week death march between the Mississippi and Pennsylvania primaries, dominated by crazy-pastor news and the like, and we’re currently in the middle of another slow stretch, with running-mate announcements likely still over a month away. Just in the past week, we’ve seen minor flare-ups over such pressing national issues as whether the Obama children should have been allowed to appear in a TV interview, what McCain’s apparently newfound affinity for the Pittsburgh Steelers might say about his character, and (slightly more substantial) some truly asinine comments by McCain senior economic adviser Phil Gramm.

But there was one interesting incident, involving the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who in a careless hot-mic moment, expressed his desire to do some intimate bodily harm to Barack Obama, apparently over his allegedly “talking down” to the black community (Jackson would know, I suppose) in an otherwise noncontroversial Father’s Day speech exhorting black men to be more involved in the lives of their children. The media, rightly I think, portrayed the incident as a political boon for Obama (you just can't buy this kind of publicity), with some even comparing it to Bill Clinton’s hallowed “Sister Souljah moment,” much beloved by the MSM. For those who don’t remember this transcendent act of statesmanlike courage, the phrase refers to an incident in the spring of 1992 when Clinton used a Jackson-hosted conference as an occasion to browbeat the rapper and political activist Sister Souljah over some comments she’d made about the Rodney King riots (and which Clinton had shamelessly ripped out of context). Jackson was furious, but the incident was widely seen as giving Clinton some street cred with white voters nervous about rioting black city-dwellers.

Obama has shown himself to be a far less cynical politician that Clinton, and his Father’s Day speech was largely on point, but Jackson probably wasn’t wrong in thinking that its intended audience included white people, some of whom may have taken an unseemly delight at the sight of a black politician talking tough to people of his own race. Which brings me to a central truth about Barack Obama: He is, in fact, a politician, and a shrewd and skillful one at that. (One doesn’t become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review without being a shrewd and skillful politician.) To paraphrase Bill Parcells: this is a good thing, not a bad thing. Hence, the genius of Obama’s feints toward the center in recent weeks and the misguided nature of the overheated liberal response (although, of course, the elicitation of such a response was part of the point). With the exception of his disappointing cave-in on the FISA legislation, Obama has been able to broaden his appeal without conceding any substantive ground, an exceedingly difficult feat for a Democrat. In the 40 years since the departure of Lyndon Johnson, one of the truly great operators in American political history, Democratic presidential nominees have too often come off as cynical (Clinton) or weak (Dukakis, Kerry), if not both at once (Gore).

Like all politicians, Obama will disappoint even his admirers from time to time; the FISA vote was one such time and, if he’s elected president, there will doubtless be others. But he is a different kind of Democratic politician and not just because he’d never stoop to using a young activist as a punching bag. We’ll also never see him getting his picture taken in a tank, hiring a consultant to teach him how to be a man, or sitting by idly for a month while a bunch of hired thugs assassinate his character.

Here’s the first electoral-map update. I can’t believe I’m even writing this, but North Dakota, a state that’s only gone Democratic in three presidential elections and none since 1964, appears to be in play, with a new poll showing a dead heat. Everything else stays put for now.

STRONG OBAMA (200): California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (15), New York (31), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (11)

WEAK OBAMA (55): Iowa (7), Michigan (17), Pennsylvania (21), Wisconsin (10)

TOSS-UPS/TRUE SWING STATES (62): Colorado (9), Missouri (11), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20), Virginia (13)

WEAK MCCAIN (67): Alaska (3), Florida (27), Indiana (11), Montana (3), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), North Dakota (3)

STRONG MCCAIN (154): Alabama (9), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Georgia (15), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3)

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