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100 unsexiest men 2009

Outsmarting himself

Can race trump the egghead factor in Obama’s bid for the nomination?
By STEVEN STARK  |  July 20, 2007


Much of Barack Obama’s appeal is rooted in his promise to bring a new style of thoughtful politics to Washington. “[I]t’s not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most,” he said when he declared he was running. “It’s the smallness of our politics.”

Ironically, Obama’s “new” intellectual and reasoned candidacy is part of a long modern-Democratic tradition. And that is both its strength and much of its weakness.

Obama has been fond of subtly comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln — announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, for instance, and equating his relative inexperience with that of Lincoln. Alas, at least politically, the better comparison is to another son of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, who had a similar scholarly approach and promised an end to politics as usual. “Let’s talk sense to the American people,” he said in his 1952 Democratic acceptance speech, which could have been delivered by Obama today. “Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains.”

The tack has been repeated several times since. Eugene McCarthy, who nominated Stevenson for president in 1960, picked up the torch in ’68, igniting the idealistic, the young, and the intellectuals within the party. McCarthy was then followed by George McGovern in 1972, Jerry Brown in 1976 (who, running at age 38, makes Obama, 46, look like a senior citizen), Gary Hart (McGovern’s old campaign manager) in 1984, Paul Tsongas in 1992, and Bill Bradley in 2000.

The good news for Obama is that all of these Democrats appealed strongly to Independents and young voters. Most were embraced by the press for their attempts to uplift the dialogue; many were even noted for their attempts to write or quote poetry. (The poems of Obama’s youth have surfaced; McCarthy traveled with Robert Lowell, and a book of Brown’s Zen-like proverbs — “Why is the governor like a shoemaker?” — surfaced during his campaign.) Plus, most did better than expected in the New Hampshire primary, a state where more than half the electorate in the Democratic primary now has a college degree. (Oregon used to be a good locale for this brand of candidate, as well.)

But the bad news is that only two such candidates won the nomination, and both were beaten decisively in the general election. Being the favorite of the egghead or wine-and-Brie set (two negative characterizations of this constituency through the years) doesn’t win you enough voters, you see. Thus the famous story about Stevenson being approached by a voter who told him that he had the support of every thinking American.

“Thank you,” he supposedly replied. “But I need a majority to win.”

The same kind of comment echoed in 1968 from Bobby Kennedy, who wryly noted that he had the support of all the “C” students, while McCarthy had the “A” students.

Better start drinking beer
Already, one can see impending pitfalls of Obama’s thinking-man’s effort. His speaking style, especially in debates, is professorial. Much of his fundraising base is said to be built around his contacts at his alma mater, Harvard Law School. Obama even had his former professor, Larry Tribe, praise him in his first ad.

That’s symptomatic of a larger concern yet to be addressed: all the candidates in the Stevenson tradition have, generally speaking, ranked poorly in the black community and among the less wealthy voters in the Democratic Party. Kennedy swept the black vote against McCarthy. Ditto for Jimmy Carter against Brown, Walter Mondale against Hart, and Bill Clinton against Tsongas.

There was talk in 2000 that Bradley might be different, since he’s more recognizable in the black community, having played for a New York Knicks championship team. But Bradley chose to run as a kind of tweedy Princeton don rather than a former All-American; as a result, he was narrowly beaten by Al Gore in New Hampshire — a state Bradley had to carry, given his profile. The rest of the campaign was a foregone conclusion.

Thus, if Obama doesn’t change his campaign approach to focus more on the concerns of lower-income voters, history has shown us he, too, may soon run out of luck.

There’s still hope for the Illinois senator, though, given two advantages that the previous candidates in this tradition didn’t have. The first is that the Democratic primary electorate continues to get wealthier as the less well-off — who are less likely to vote for Obama — are less likely to vote at all.

The second, and more important, advantage is Obama’s race. And that likely will determine whether he ends up like his predecessors or transcends their efforts. There is an understandable pride among voters whenever “one of our own” seeks the nation’s highest office. Obama should be able to capitalize on that.

It wouldn’t hurt, of course, if he were to win New Hampshire, either, or come very close, à la McCarthy in 1968. The state is essentially made-to-order for Obama’s type of campaign, and the flood of his student volunteers trekking up to New Hampshire next January should be considerable. Let’s not forget, either, that Obama’s fundraising efforts show he has already built a powerful campaign, which gives him a good head start. But the well-to-do in the Democratic universe have always liked candidates like Obama.

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Related: That’s what he said, Hope restored, The Granite State’s last hurrah, More more >
  Topics: Stark Ravings , Abraham Lincoln, Adlai Stevenson, African-American Issues,  More more >
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Outsmarting himself
Nobody votes for someone based on whom they want to have a beer with. That is just a conoction of the media to explain their support for the White House bum in 2000. As for Obama nothing is going to help him. Americans are not going to vote for someone who is inexperienced, black, with Muslim connections, who is unknown quantity and belongs to an Afro centric church whose leader is a black militant extremist whom Obama had to disinvited to his presidential anncouncement. As for your odds Obama has a snowball`s chance in hell of getting the nomination. Are you aware that Hillary is trouncing him in the polls where Obamam is falling like a rock.
By reba shimansky on 07/19/2007 at 10:26:53
Outsmarting himself
Barack Obama has to fight a number of stereotypes in order to get to the Presidency. For one, he has to fight the notion that someone with only two years in the Senate is too inexperienced; to do so he has to convey (to use a buzzword from elections past) "gravitas", a depth of knowledge of the issues. He has to fight the preconception that blacks as candidates are only concerned with black issues, or that black Presidential candidates are deft orators lacking in substance. He is doing a remarkable job of navigating these waters. Yes, he can be "professorial"--after all, he was a professor of constitutional law. But the speech that made him a national figure was anything but aloof or professorial. He comes across as considerably more genuine, less pretentious and more likeable than either of the two previous Democratic standardbearers, or Hillary Clinton. If Hillary leads in the polls right now among lower-income blacks, it is not because Barack is too intellectual for them, or because he doesn't speak to their issues, but because they are not yet convinced he is a viable candidate. They don't know him as well as they know Hillary. It is only July, and these polls-and analyses like the above- are virtually meaningless. If Barack comes out of Iowa with any momentum at all, those figures are going to change in a hurry.
By maxxwell on 07/19/2007 at 12:19:00
Outsmarting himself
Another gambling related site has Ron Paul at much higher odds of winning than Steven Stark. // The odds makers I have checked that take bets for a living have Ron Paul anywhere between 7-1 and 15-1 to win the GOP nomination. With the strongest growing campaign on the web Stark has moved Paul up from 1,000,000 to 1 down to 250,000 to 1. Again I implore him to take my $100 wager on Ron Paul. If Paul wins Stark's line would pay out $25,000,000 that's alot better than Vegas who would only give me $1500. Who's Presidential odds are out of whack, the bookies in Vegas or Steven Stark with the Boston Phoenix? I'm willing to bet my $100 that it is Stark that is way off mark.
By Mike C on 07/19/2007 at 8:56:46
Outsmarting himself
if mr. obama didn't exist, white americans would have invented him. who else would lonely, middle aged white women swoon over, al sharpton?
By jeffery mcnary on 07/25/2007 at 6:58:52

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