By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, May 5, 2008
Of all the strange features of this presidential race, the tarnishing of Barack Obama has got to be the most ridiculous. First Obama was accused of anti-religious elitism. Then he was accused of identifying with the underclass anger of his spiritual mentor. Excuse me, but which is it? Am I supposed to believe that Obama is a supercilious elitist or a menacing ghetto radical? Is he contemptuous of religion or too close to a religious leader? Obama's critics don't bother to say. Meanwhile, real character issues go relatively unheeded.
Start with Obama's turbulent preacher. Yes, Jeremiah Wright says some disgraceful things. But can anyone explain how that changes Obama's qualities as a candidate? Is anyone suggesting that an Obama administration would view AIDS as a government plot to kill African Americans? Or that it would govern from the perspective that the United States is a terrorist nation? Obviously an Obama administration would do no such thing. Which makes the storm over the preacher an absurd digression.
The Wright affair tells us that Obama bonded with someone whose political views are sometimes toxic. But as a young man trying to make sense of his mixed heritage, Obama looked to Wright for spiritual guidance, not political tutorials; as a community organizer, Obama focused on Wright's admirable social work, not his resentment of the white establishment. Indeed, Obama's own views on race and politics were diametrically opposed to those of his pastor. This is the candidate who campaigned for as long as possible as though race were irrelevant -- as though the tantalizing prospect that the United States might elect its first black president were merely incidental. A few months ago, there were those who suggested that Obama was not black enough. Now he is too black? This is preposterous.
If Obama clearly does not share Wright's views, of what precisely is he guilty? Of befriending someone with repugnant opinions? Anyone who condemns Obama on that basis should examine his own circumstances. Real human beings present one another with complex social choices: The dependable work buddy may be unfaithful to his wife; the salt-of-the-earth neighbor may despise Hispanic immigrants. How many Obama critics have themselves been friendly with someone with misguided views? What about Bill Clinton, who counted the one-time segregationist William Fulbright among his mentors?
George W. Bush has taught us that "you are with us or you are against us" is not a good basis for a foreign policy, and the same is true of much human endeavor. It would be impossible for people to join a political party if they had to agree with everything it stood for. It would be impossible for liberal Catholics to worship if they had to storm out of the church the moment they disagreed with something uttered from the pulpit. As a matter of political tactics, Obama should have avoided tying himself to Wright. But, rather refreshingly, Obama is not one of those politicians who obsessed about his presidential viability from the moment he entered college.
Which brings us to that other attack on Obama: that his comment about blue-collar voters "clinging" to guns and religion makes him an elitist. The remark may have been untactful, as Obama himself said. But what did it tell us about Obama's fitness to be president? Would he use his power to discriminate against churchgoers? His own churchgoing suggests not. Would he control guns? One hopes so. And is he really an elitist snob? After Harvard Law School, Obama could have pursued a career that involved contact only with hypereducated brainiacs like him. But by working as a community organizer and in state politics, he chose a life that put him among ordinary folk. The elitist label is ridiculous.
The real character issue, in this campaign as in others, comes down to one thing: Does a candidate have the guts to espouse positions that are not politically expedient? Here there are serious questions about Obama, who pledges to pull out of Iraq no matter what, and who promises both to increase spending and not to raise taxes on anybody making less than $200,000 to $250,000 a year, ensuring the perpetuation of crippling federal deficits. For that matter, there are serious questions about Hillary Clinton, who proposes an irresponsible gas-tax holiday, and about John McCain, who couples gas pandering with a flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts, which he once (correctly) viewed as unaffordable. But these genuine character issues have been shunted aside by the spectacle of Obama's falling-out with his preacher.
The Obama-Wright "revelations" are really a revelation about our political culture: About its failure to distinguish the important from the trivial and about the inevitability that the race card will eventually be played against a black candidate. If the once formidable Obama campaign is knocked off course by these "revelations" in tomorrow's primaries, it will be a travesty.