The Audacity of Selling Hope
There's no better path to success than getting people to buy a free commodity. Like the genius who figured out how to get people to pay for water: bottle it (Aquafina was revealed to be nothing more than reprocessed tap water) and charge more than they pay for gasoline. Or consider how Google found a way to sell dictionary nouns-- boat, shoe, clock -- by charging advertisers zillions to be listed whenever the word is searched.
And now, in the most amazing trick of all, a silver-tongued freshman senator has found a way to sell hope. To get it, you need only give him your vote. Barack Obama is getting millions.
This kind of sale is hardly new. Organized religion has been offering a similar commodity -- salvation -- for millennia. Which is why the Obama campaign has the feel of a religious revival with, as writer James Wolcott observed, a "salvational fervor" and "idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria."
"We are the hope of the future," sayeth Obama. We can "remake this world as it should be." Believe in me and I shall redeem not just you but your country -- nay, we can become "a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, and make this time different than all the rest."
And believe they do. After eight straight victories -- and two more (Hawaii and Wisconsin) almost certain to follow -- Obama is near to rendering moot all the post-Super Tuesday fretting about a deadlocked convention with unelected superdelegates deciding the nominee. Unless Hillary Clinton can somehow do in Ohio and Texas on March 4 what Rudy Giuliani proved is almost impossible to do -- maintain a big-state firewall after an unrelenting string of smaller defeats -- the superdelegates will flock to Obama. Hope will have carried the day.
Interestingly, Obama has been able to win these electoral victories and dazzle crowds in one new jurisdiction after another, even as his mesmeric power has begun to arouse skepticism and misgivings among the mainstream media.
ABC's Jake Tapper notes the "Helter-Skelter cult-ish qualities" of "Obama worshipers," what Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times calls "the Cult of Obama." Obama's Super Tuesday victory speech was a classic of the genre. Its effect was electric, eliciting a rhythmic fervor in the audience -- to such rhetorical nonsense as "We are the ones we've been waiting for. (Cheers, applause.) We are the change that we seek."
That was too much for Time's Joe Klein. "There was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism," he wrote. "The message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is."
You might dismiss as hyperbole the complaint by the New York Times's Paul Krugman that "the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." Until you hear Chris Matthews, who no longer has the excuse of youth, react to Obama's Potomac primary victory speech with "My, I felt this thrill going up my leg." When his MSNBC co-hosts tried to bail him out, he refused to recant. Not surprising for an acolyte who said that Obama "comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament."
I've seen only one similar national swoon. As a teenager growing up in Canada, I witnessed a charismatic law professor go from obscurity to justice minister to prime minister, carried on a wave of what was called Trudeaumania.
But even there the object of his countrymen's unrestrained affections was no blank slate. Pierre Trudeau was already a serious intellectual who had written and thought and lectured long about the nature and future of his country.
Obama has an astonishingly empty paper trail. He's going around issuing promissory notes on the future that he can't possibly redeem. Promises to heal the world with negotiations with the likes of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Promises to transcend the conundrums of entitlement reform that require real and painful trade-offs and that have eluded solution for a generation. Promises to fund his other promises by a rapid withdrawal from an unpopular war -- with the hope, I suppose, that the (presumed) resulting increase in American prestige would compensate for the chaos to follow.
Democrats are worried that the Obama spell will break between the time of his nomination and the time of the election, and deny them the White House. My guess is that he can maintain the spell just past Inauguration Day. After which will come the awakening. It will be rude.