DENVER - Senator Barack Obama's acceptance speech last week seemed vastly
different from the stands of this city's Invesco Stadium than it did to the 40
million who saw it on television. Melancholy hung like thick smog over the
reserved seats where I sat with Democratic Party staffers. The crowd, of
course, cheered mechanically at the tag lines, flourished placards, and even
rose for the obligatory wave around the stadium. But its mood was sour. The air
carried the acrid smell of defeat, and the crowd took shallow breaths. Even the
appearance of R&B great Stevie Wonder failed to get the blood pumping.
The speech itself dragged on for three-quarters of an hour. As David S Broder
wrote in the Washington Post: "[Obama's] recital of a long list of domestic
promises could have been delivered by
any Democratic nominee from Walter Mondale to John Kerry. There was no theme
music to the speech and really no phrase or sentence that is likely to linger
in the memory of any listener. The thing I never expected did in fact occur: Al
Gore, the famously wooden former vice president, gave a more lively and
convincing speech than Obama did."
On television, Obama's spectacle might have looked like The Ten Commandments,
but inside the stadium it felt like Night of the Living Dead. The longer
the candidate spoke, and the more money he promised to spend on alternative
energy, preschool education, universal health care, and other components of the
Democratic pinata, the lower the party professionals slouched into their
seats. The professionals I sat with were Hillary Clinton people, to be sure,
and had reason to sulk, for an Obama victory might do them little good in any
The Democrats were watching the brightest and most articulate presidential
candidate they have fielded since John F Kennedy snatch defeat from the jaws of
victory. And this was before John McCain, in a maneuver worthy of Admiral
Chester Nimitz at the Battle of Midway, turned tables on the Democrats'
strategy with the choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Speaking to Obama supporters on the periphery of the big event, I was startled
by the rapturous devotion elicited by the junior senator from Illinois. He is
no symbol for identity politics, no sacrifice on the altar of white guilt, but
the most gifted persuader of individuals that I have encountered in any
country's politics, as well as a powerful orator on the grand stage. This is
not a crowd phenomenon nor a fad, but the response of hundreds of people to an
I sat in on a session with three leaders of Veterans for Obama, a group of
retired young officers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, courtesy of the
New Republic's writer on the scene, David Samuels. With passion and enthusiasm,
these young people spoke of their hopes for nation-building in Iraq. The George
W Bush administration should have put twice the resources into the beleaguered
country, they harangued me - not just soldiers, but agronomists, traffic cops,
lawyers, judges, and physicians. The Department of Agriculture should have
mobilized, along with the Department of Justice.
Nation-building? Doubling down on the US commitment to Iraq? Isn't that trying
to out-Bush the Bush administration, while Obama campaigned on getting out of
Iraq and spending the money on programs at home? Unblinking, one of the
soldiers said, "That's what we think Barack will do." They believed in a more
expensive version of the administration's program, and faulted Bush for half
measures - and somehow they believed that Obama really agreed with them, all
the public evidence to the contrary. And they believed in Barack with perfect
Gandalf's warnings about the irresistible voice of the wizard Saruman in J R R
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings come to mind. If these battle-hardened
veterans of America's wars fell so easily under the spell of Obama's voice, who
can withstand it? Obama's persuasive powers, though, are strongest when
channeled through the empathy of his interlocutor. Everyone believes that Obama
feels his pain, shares his dream, and will fight his fight and heal his ills.
But that is everyone as an individual. Add all the individuals up into a
campaign platform, and it turns into three-quarters of an hour worth of
promises that echo all the ghosts of conventions past.
Obama will spend the rest of his life wondering why he rejected the obvious
road to victory, that is, choosing Hillary Clinton as his vice presidential
nominee. However reluctantly, Clinton would have had to accept. McCain's choice
of vice presidential candidate made obvious after the fact what the party
professionals felt in their fingertips at the stadium extravaganza yesterday:
rejecting Clinton in favor of the colorless, unpopular, tangle-tongued
Washington perennial Joe Biden was a statement of weakness. McCain's selection
was a statement of strength. America's voters will forgive many things in a
politician, including sexual misconduct, but they will not forgive weakness.
That is why McCain will win in November, and by a landslide, barring some
unforeseen event. Obama is the most talented and persuasive politician of his
generation, the intellectual superior of all his competitors, but a fatally
insecure personality. American voters are not intellectual, but they are
shrewd, like animals. They can smell insecurity, and the convention stank of
it. Obama's prospective defeat is entirely of its own making. No one is more
surprised than Republican strategists, who were convinced just weeks ago that a
weakening economy ensured a Democratic victory.
Biden, who won 3% of the popular vote in the Democratic presidential primary in
his home state of Delaware, and 1% or less in every other contest he entered,
is ballot-box poison. Obama evidently chose him to assuage critics who point to
his lack of foreign policy credentials. That was a deadly error, for by
appearing to concede the critics' claim that he knows little about foreign
policy, Obama raised questions about whether he is qualified to be president in
the first place. He had a winning alternative, which was to pick Clinton. That
would have sent a double message: first, that Obama is tough enough to make the
slippery Clintons into his subordinates, and second, that he is generous enough
to extend a hand to his toughest adversary in the cause of unity.
Why didn't Obama choose Hillary? The most credible explanation came from
veteran columnist Robert Novak May 10, who reports that Michelle Obama vetoed
Hillary's candidacy. "The Democratic front-runner's wife did not comment on
other rival candidates for the party's nomination, but she has been sniping at
Clinton since last summer. According to Obama sources, those public utterances
do not reveal the extent of her hostility," Novak wrote. If that is true, then
Obama succumbed to the character weakness I described in a February 26 profile
of (Obama's women
reveal his secret). His peculiar dependency on an assertive and often
rancorous spouse, I argued, made him vulnerable, and predicted that Obama "will
destroy himself before he destroys the country".
Alternately, Obama might have chosen a rising Democratic star like Virginia's
50-year-old governor Tim Kaine. A weaker choice than Hillary, Kaine (or someone
like him) would have made a bold statement of self-confidence. Obama could have
said with credibility that he would bring to Washington a new generation of
outsiders who would change the old system. Instead, Obama saddled an old and
unpopular Washington warhorse.
Curiously, Obama ignored the rising stars of his own party, offering the prime
time speaking slots to familiar faces, including Senator Edward Kennedy and
Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as his own wife, the first prospective First
Lady to take the keynote spot in the history of American party conventions.
McCain doesn't have a tenth of Obama's synaptic fire-power, but he is a nasty
old sailor who knows when to come about for a broadside. Given Obama's
defensive, even wimpy selection of a running-mate, McCain's choice was obvious.
He picked the available candidate most like himself: a maverick with impeccable
reform credentials, a risk-seeking commercial fisherwoman and huntress married
to a marathon snowmobile racer who carries a steelworkers union card. The
Democratic order of battle was to tie McCain to the Bush administration and
attack McCain by attacking Bush. With Palin on the ticket, McCain has
re-emerged as the maverick he really is.
The young Alaskan governor, to be sure, hasn't any business running for vice
president of the United States with her thin resume. McCain and his people know
this perfectly well, and that is precisely why they put her on the ticket. If
Palin is unqualified to be vice president, all the less so is Obama qualified
to be president.
McCain has certified his authenticity for the voters. He's now the outsider,
the reformer, the maverick, the war hero running next to the Alaskan amazon
with a union steelworker spouse. Obama, who styled himself an agent of change,
took his image for granted, and attempted to ensure himself victory by doing
the cautious thing. He is trapped in a losing position, and there is nothing he
can do to get out of it.
Obama, in short, is long on brains and short on guts. A Shibboleth of American
politics holds that different tactics are required to win the party primaries
as opposed to the general election, that is, by pandering to fringe groups with
disproportionate influence in the primaries. But Obama did not compromise
himself with extreme positions. He did not have to, for younger voters who
greeted him with near-religious fervor did not require that he take any
position other than his promise to change everything. Obama could have allied
with the old guard, through an Obama-Clinton ticket, or he could have rejected
the old guard by choosing the closest thing the Democrats had to a Sarah Palin.
But fear paralyzed him, and he did neither.
In my February 26 profile, I called Obama "the political equivalent of a
sociopath", without any derogatory intent. A sociopath seeks the empathy of all
around him while empathizing with no one. Obama has an almost magical ability
to gain the confidence of those around him. Perhaps it was the adaptation of a
bright and sensitive young boy who was abandoned by three parents - his Kenyan
father Barack Obama Sr, who left his pregnant young bride; his Indonesian
stepfather Lolo Soetero; and by his mother, Ann Dunham, who
sent 10-year-old Obama to live with her parents while she pursued her
career as an anthropologist.
Combine a child's response to serial abandonment with the perspective of an
outsider, and Obama became an alien species against which American politics had
no natural defenses. He is a Third World anthropologist profiling Americans, in
but not of the American system. No country's politics depends more openly on
friendships than America's, yet Obama has not a single real friend, for he rose
so fast that all his acquaintances become rungs on the ladder of his ascent.
One human relationship crowds the others out of his life, his marriage to
Michelle, a strong, assertive and very angry woman.
If Novak's report is accurate, then Michelle's anger will have lost the
election for Obama, as Achilles' anger nearly killed the Greek cause in the
Trojan War. But the responsibility rests not with Michelle, but with Obama.
Obama's failure of nerve at the cusp of his success is consistent with my
profile of the candidate, in which I predicted that he would self-destruct.
It's happening faster than I expected. As I wrote last February:
conceivable that Barack Obama, if elected, will destroy himself before he
destroys the country. Hatred is a toxic diet even for someone with as strong a
stomach as Obama ... Both Obama and the American public should be very careful
of what they wish for. As the horrible example of Obama's father shows, there
is nothing worse for an embittered outsider manipulating the system from within
than to achieve his goals.
By all rights, the Democrats should
win this election. They will lose, I predict, because of the flawed character
of their candidate.