The Obama Newness

By Harold Meyerson
Saturday, December 8, 2007

The economy may be slowing, but the stock of newness is on the rise. The crises that the administration found and made and exploited for political advantage do not loom quite so large; the public's eagerness to move past the Bush wars, both foreign and domestic, is palpable. In this election cycle, newness, I think, will have its own distinct appeal, and advantage goes to the candidate who can most clearly signal a break from those controversies and idiocies of our public life of which most of the public has wearied.

Andrew Sullivan, in the current Atlantic, argues that Barack Obama, by virtue of his age, his outsider status, his faith, his against-the-political-system rhetoric, his race and his very identity, is the first credible candidate who promises to move the nation beyond the cultural-political wars of the '60s. To Sullivan, Obama is a candidate who transcends our 40-year conflict over cultural identity -- if not absolutely, at least by contrast with such figures as Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton -- and perhaps even enables us to leap that greatest of American rifts, the one between white and black. Obama's identity, Sullivan almost seems to say, could free us from our crippling identity politics.

That's a tall order, to put it mildly, for any one public figure to live up to. But the promise of Obama's newness could prove potent with voters eager to put the Bush years behind them, and the idea that an Obama presidency could move the nation beyond its original racial curse could be more potent yet.

I've seen a version of this story play out twice in the city where I've spent most of my life: Los Angeles. In 1973, a time when no American mega-city had yet elected an African American mayor, L.A. voters installed Tom Bradley, a black former police officer and city councilman, in the mayor's office. This was not because the city's population was largely black; on the contrary, Los Angeles wasn't even one-fifth black, and on Election Day, African Americans constituted just a quarter of the electorate. But Bradley had long been a fixture in the city's emerging black-Jewish liberal coalition, and in a city still scarred by the Watts riots eight years earlier and still afflicted by a thoroughly racist police force, he seemed -- particularly to white, professional upper-middle-class voters -- precisely the candidate to move the city beyond its chasms and racial phobias. (The mayor whom Bradley ousted, Sam Yorty, campaigned almost entirely by stoking those phobias.) And for several years after Bradley's initial election -- he ultimately was mayor for 20 years -- Los Angeles, and its professional middle class most particularly, felt itself to be something of a city on a hill, rising over a still-benighted nation.

In 2005, the story repeated itself. Los Angeles became the first major American city to elect a Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, even though on Election Day, Latinos constituted just a quarter of the electorate. Like Bradley, Villaraigosa campaigned as the candidate of the city's multiracial future, a message that the professional middle class found particularly appealing. As with Bradley's victory, Villaraigosa's election had the effect of reawakening L.A.'s long-dormant civic pride.

Would that were all there was to these stories. In fact, both Bradley and Villaraigosa were defeated in their initial campaigns for mayor, succumbing to rivals who played the race card against them, depicting them as dark, dangerous characters. Linking Bradley, ludicrously, to the Black Panther party, Yorty mobilized a huge white working-class turnout that returned him to the mayor's office in 1969. Just as ludicrously, Villaraigosa's 2001 opponent, Jim Hahn, linked him to drug dealers through a televised ad that deliberately darkened Villaraigosa's skin color. Bradley and Villaraigosa came back four years later to defeat Yorty and Hahn, respectively, but they needed those four years to convince swing voters that they weren't menacing characters.

Obama's challenge, then, is to accomplish in one election what it took Bradley and Villaraigosa two elections to pull off. Were he to win the Democratic nomination, Obama would probably win support not only among independents but also among some moderate Republicans -- the Christie Todd Whitman wing of the party -- for whom his election would signal a renewed American pluralism and promise, and a surcease from old divides. He would also lose support among voters for whom his race and his promise of a new national direction would pose a threat to their vision of an older America. My hunch is that there would be more of the former than the latter, but this isn't the kind of hunch I bet on -- at least, not yet. Newness is always hard to handicap.

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