Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Obama phenomenon vs. the Dean phenomenon

There's been lots of talk about Barack Obama being a breakout candidate this year comparable to Howard Dean's breakout candidacy before the 2004 election. While both situations are interesting, they're very different, and really don't deserve to be considered in the same light. While there are a couple of superficial similarities between Obama '08 and Dean '04, they're really very different.

Obama's always been an appealing candidate, and there's always been an undercurrent to him that suggested that he was going to run for president sooner or later. Soon after Obama's election to the Senate, my mother, a lifelong Republican and western Pennsylvanian, said she'd like to vote for Obama. (She also said she liked Edwards, too. And swore she'd never vote for Hillary Clinton.) This is a far more common sentiment, I'm sure, than was felt toward Howard Dean four years ago.

The fact is that most of a candidate's appeal doesn't have anything to do with his or her ideas but how he or she comes across. Voters are drawn to some unmeasurable quality that surrounds a candidate. Maybe it's charisma; I don't know. Dean had it through 2003, but things fell apart, and I don't think it was his famous scream that really did him in. There was just something about Dean that didn't click with people. We tend to forget that on the day Dean did his scream, he'd just come in fourth place in the Iowa caucuses—hardly a promising sign for any candidate. Dean was already showing that he didn't have sufficient appeal to snag the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency. Me, I'd spent 2003 supporting Dean, and even campaigning for him, but by January 2004 I'd started to have my doubts. I realized I wasn't so enamored of Dean when I heard him say in an interview that he can't get his message across because the media are biased. While the media certainly were biased against Dean and for Bush, that's Republican-style whinging, and I couldn't respect him once he started falling back on such pathetic tactics. I expect a candidate to be stronger than that. My falling out of love with Dean probably started before then, but that was the last straw. I feel sorry for those who still felt strongly about Dean on the Day Fox News Endlessly Repeated the Scream; that must have been gut-wrenching. As it was, I fell out of love with Dean just in time to spare myself the anguish.

Obama is different. He's had national attention since the 2004 election, and people living in and outside Illinois have long talked about him as a presidential candidate. Obama is taken more seriously by more people than Dean, and Obama has less work to do to get his name out there than Dean did. The notion that Obama has any novel appeal for being the first viable black presidential candidate is ridiculous; I'm sure there aren't enough people out there who are willing to vote for a candidate just because he'd be the first black president. Or the first East Asian president. Or the first female president. The dominant attitude is that one needs more to go on. Personally, I haven't ruled out voting for Obama, but I'm currently leaning toward John Edwards.

I disagree with the oft-repeated meme that the novelty of Dean's net-based, "people powered" style of campaigning is what drove his campaign. The appeal came more from the fact that in 2003, we were still being told regularly that to criticize the president was tantamount to treason, and Howard Dean was the first politician to come along and say, boldly and loudly, that George W. Bush is screwing things up. It felt good to hear that! The fact that Howard Dean wasn't the strongest candidate didn't bear out until people actually started voting—unfortunately for Dean. He got most of his attention by saying things that a lot of people needed to hear but that too many politicians were afraid to say. These were scary times. I told a friend of mine that the "war" on terror was a sham and not actually a war, and he screamed at me, "You're saying that after you saw 3,000 people die in the World Trade Center? F*** you! You're not even an American!" I've been an American all my life, and sure, we almost came to literal blows over that, but my point is that the Bush administration had whipped up so much unhealthy fear that a lot of otherwise reasonable people were prone to act really really crazy. Dean, with his courage to finally sling rocks at Goliath, was the first audible voice of sanity coming from an elected official. God bless Howard Dean for this crucial work.

Whatever becomes of Barack Obama—whether he's our next presidential nominee or president or not—will follow a more traditional arc, more like wunderkind candidates who seem to come from nowhere have done in the past. FDR, Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton—Obama follows this mold. Whether he's got the chops to pull it off remains to be seen. But whatever it is, Obama's no novelty—which is certainly going to work in his favor.

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