In its totality, though, Obama's rhetoric tells a story of politics that is distinct from both the one told by Beltway devotees of bipartisanship and comity and from the progressive activists' story of a ceaseless battle between the forces of progress and those of reaction. If it differs from what I like to hear, it is also unfailingly targeted at building the coalition that is the raison d'être of Obama's candidacy. Consider this passage from Obama's stump speech:
I've learned in my life that you can stand firm in your principles while still reaching out to those who might not always agree with you. And although the Republican operatives in Washington might not be interested in hearing what we have to say, I think Republican and independent voters outside of Washington are. That's the once-in-a-generation opportunity we have in this election.
Obama makes a distinction between bad-faith, implacable enemies (lobbyists, entrenched interests, "operatives") and good-faith ideological opponents (Republicans, independents and conservatives of good conscience). He wants to court the latter and use their support to vanquish the former. This may be improbable, but it crucially allows former Republicans (Obama Republicans?) to cross over without guilt or self-loathing. They are not asked to renounce, only to join.
Obama's diagnosis of the obstacles to progress is twofold. First, that the division of the electorate into the categories created by the right's culture warriors is the primary means by which the forces of reaction resist change. Progress will be made only by rejecting or transcending those categories. In 1971 a young Pat Buchanan urged Richard Nixon to wield race as what would come to be known as a wedge issue. "This is a potential throw of the dice," he wrote, "that could...cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half." Obama seeks to stitch those halves back together.
Second, that the reason progressives have failed to achieve our goals over the past several decades is not that we didn't fight hard enough but that we didn't have a popular mandate. In other words, the fundamental obstacle is a basic political one: never having the public squarely on our side and never having the votes on the Hill. In this respect the Obama campaign is uniquely circular: his political appeal is rooted in the fact that he's so politically appealing. This means that when he loses, the loss affects him worse than it would other candidates, since it also cuts against his message. But when he wins, particularly when he wins big, as he did in Iowa and South Carolina, the win means more because it reinforces the basic argument of his campaign.
The question of who can best build popular support for a progressive governing agenda is related to, but distinct from, the question of electability. Given a certain ceiling on Clinton's appeal (due largely to years of unhinged attacks from the "vast right-wing conspiracy"), her campaign seems well prepared to run a 50 percent + 1 campaign, a rerun of 2004 but with a state or two switching columns: Florida, maybe, or Ohio. Obama is aiming for something bigger: a landmark sea-change election, with the kind of high favorability and approval ratings that can drive an agenda forward. Why should we think he can do it?
The short answer is that Obama is simply one of the most talented and appealing politicians in recent memory. Perhaps the most. Pollster.com shows a series of polls taken in the Democratic campaign. The graphs plotting national polling numbers as well as those in the first four states show a remarkably consistent pattern. Hillary Clinton starts out with either a modest or, more commonly, a massive lead, owing to her superior name recognition and the popularity of the Clinton brand. As the campaign goes forward Clinton's support either climbs slowly, plateaus or dips. But as the actual contest approaches, and voters start paying attention, Obama's support suddenly begins to grow exponentially.
In addition to persuading those who already vote, Obama has also delivered on one of the hoariest promises in politics: to bring in new voters (especially the young). It's a phenomenon that, if it were to continue with him as nominee, could completely alter the electoral math. Young people are by far the most progressive voters of any age cohort, and they overwhelmingly favor Barack Obama by stunning margins. Their enthusiasm has translated into massive increases in youth turnout in the early contests.
Finally, there's the question of coattails. In many senses there's less difference between the two presidential candidates than there is between a Senate with fifty-one Democrats and one with fifty-six. No Democratic presidential candidate is going to carry, say, Mississippi or Nebraska, but many Democrats in those states fear that the ingrained Clinton hatred would rally the GOP base and/or depress turnout, hurting down-ticket candidates. Over the past few weeks a series of prominent red-state Democrats, most notably Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, have endorsed Obama. When I asked a Democratic Congressional candidate in the Deep South who he preferred at the top of the ticket, he didn't hesitate: "Obama is absolutely the better candidate. Hillary brings a lot of sting; he takes some sting out of them."
Whoever is elected in November, progressives will probably find themselves feeling frustrated. Ultimately though, the future judgments and actions of the candidates are unknowable, obscured behind time's cloak. Who knew that the Bill Clinton of 1992 who campaigned with Nelson Mandela would later threaten to sanction South Africa when it passed a law allowing the production of low-cost generic AIDS drugs for its suffering population--or that the George W. Bush of 2000, an amiable "centrist" whose thin foreign-policy views shaded toward isolationism, would go on to become a self-justifying, delusional and messianic instrument of global war? In this sense, Bill Clinton is right: voting for and electing Barack Obama is a "roll of a dice." All elections are. But the candidacy of Barack Obama represents by far the left's best chance to, in Buchanan's immortal phrasing, take back the bigger half of the country. It's a chance we can't pass up.