The Done Deal

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

If politics is the art of saying nothing, then Barack Obama is sure blowing it, isn’t he?

His latest “gaffe,” to proclaim at a private fundraiser in San Francisco (of all places) that small-town Americans are bitter and cling to guns and God in lieu of financial security — these words purveyed to the American public by way of a scratchy, Osama-quality recording — triggered such heartfelt hypocrisy from his opponents.

“It is hard to imagine,” said John McCain, “someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans.”

I almost agree with this. Obama is definitely out of touch with something. However, it isn’t “average Americans” — who, it turns out, really are bitter in large numbers — so much as what I would call “the tacit covenant of presidential politics.”

Serious presidential candidates aren’t supposed to go there, see. That’s what makes them “serious” — their understanding that American politics is settled, a done deal. The deal is this: While real Republicans can drift, unchecked, to the dark side of empire and neofascism, Democrats are supposed to campaign and govern as moderate, “responsible” Republicans.

We live, in other words, in a corporate state, the basic terms of which are no longer open to debate. The “class struggle” is over. What about this do you not understand, Candidate Obama?

All hail the (invisible) corporate state and its sacred fetishes: God, guns, flag. All hail the cliche that is America, with its hard-working little people who get the job done. All hail the McWorkers of the new economy, who roll up their sleeves and vote for one smiling liar or another on their way to their second job. All hail the dearth of health care, the children left behind, the endless billions for war and most of all the fact that these matters are not — I repeat, NOT — open for discussion in this presidential election year or, God willing, the next one or the next.

Well, hmm.

Obama, as a serious presidential candidate, has given plenty of indication along the way that he is indeed in touch with the tacit covenant of presidential politics and has compromised himself accordingly. Skeptical progressives have any number of examples of this they can point to in his record: his voting to renew the PATRIOT Act; his tutelage under and campaign work for out-of-the-closet darksider Joe Lieberman; his support for increasing the size of the U.S. military.

The signals Candidate Obama has sent out are sufficiently mixed that we should certainly temper our Obamamania with a side order of reality. But I nonetheless confess that I find myself among those getting drawn in, warily, to be sure, by the sense of “hope” his campaign is generating. I say this as someone who pretty much thinks hope is for suckers, especially if it’s part of a campaign slogan. But here’s the thing. We’re not going to get anywhere without it.

Those of us who feel shut out of the corporate state, who fear the direction it’s headed and the damage it will do, need more than just our anger and our ideological purity. We need an ally in the corridors of power — more than an ally, really. What we need is an instrument of history, on the order of FDR or Lincoln.

While Obama may certainly turn out to be somewhat less than that, he gives evidence of representing not just change but maybe greatness as well. What’s indisputable is that, if elected, he would be the first African-American U.S. president, and this in and of itself is a remarkable sort of change for a country whose roots in racism go deep. He doesn’t need to “promise” this, just as Hillary doesn’t need to promise us she would be the first female president.

What I’m getting at is that rational hope for political change must be based on something other than campaign promises. We all know how much those are worth. And so just as Obama is unalterably African-American, it may be — so his predilection for what the media can only call gaffes because they aren’t perceptive enough to know the difference between shards of truth and verbal slips on the banana peel — he is also unalterably . . . on our side.

I know this much. He’s not courting the “Reagan Democrats” in the manner of three decades of Democratic candidates, and in the manner of Hillary, by jettisoning the values of his party and trying to lure them back with pathetic Republican-lite verbiage that doesn’t fool anyone.

My hope is that Obama continues to stand up to history and speak with impolitic courage — on race, on economic justice, on war and peace — where others have tried to wriggle off the hook. My hope is that he challenges the historically left-out and ignored to shed their bitterness and help him undo the done deal of American politics.