Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Politics, part 2: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Obama

(Hey, I got an audience last time! Neat!)

When I left off, I was talking about how I had developed an emotional connection to Barack Obama.

Well, this was not good. One of the fundamental points of being a cynical, wounded-idealist leftist is that you are convinced that all politicians are corrupt, are "scum until proven human" (as I saw it put in a blog comment somewhere). How can a person be a good person, a person deserving of your trust and support, if they pursue a career in politics?

So for me, liking Barack—and I have always liked Barack: as I write this, there is a Obama-Democrat-U.S. Senate sticker within viewing distance, plastered on my printer—was always kind of a guilty experience. “Sure,” I told myself, “you may think you like him, but he's still, at the end of the day, a politician, like all the rest, and not worthy of respect.”

"You need to stay critical, Matt," I would tell myself. "Watch out. Don't let him pull the wool over your eyes."

So I tried not to get involved. Though I felt so proud to have voted for him—my first senator!—I tried not to follow him too closely. I didn't want to get my hopes up. And it hurt, too. Whenever I heard things about him in the Senate, it was almost invariably things pointing about how he wasn't the Great Liberal Hope that we had thought he would be. He was just too damn conciliatory! Sure, I told myself that he had to strike a low-key tone in the Senate, because no one can show up in the Hall of One Hundred Kings with buzz of being the Future High King and have that go over well. So you better be quiet and be modest and work at not rocking the boat. Because the Kings would love to just freeze you out and skirt those vaunted prospects. At that point, you can get more done by working within the system, than by getting up and taking a stand. The political realm is a realm of pragmatism and strategy, not of ideals. I understood that.

Unfortunately, not everyone seemed to understand that. In fact, a lot of people with a lot more info on politics seemed to conclude the exact opposite thing (these people being bloggers). They concluded that Obama had amounted to nothing, let the side down. He had taken no heroic stands. Never mind that there taking heroic stands never accomplished anything in electoral politics; it just would have meant something to them if he had put his head on the chopping block for a lost cause at some point. But he didn't so he was same old, same old. Which really, it was hard to argue with. What had he done for me lately?

Then the motherfucker announced he was running for president. For 2008.

"Too soon!" I thought. "He needs more experience! He's just going to make an ass of himself now, and ruin his chances for later. Besides, Hillary has this thing in the bag. He should just wait it out, and run in 2016."

Even thought I thought this, I had a pretty good idea why he was running. And it was all our fault. By "we," I mean "people from Illinois." For all those people who live outside Illinois, or supported Hillary, sorry. We fucked it up for you.

There's an anecdote that I feel conveys this phenomenon pretty well. It was Thanksgiving 2004, at my aunt's house. Obama had just been elected to the Senate. Kerry had lost the election. We were talking about politics. Now, Mom's side of the family is very Democratic, as far as I know. In fact, the only person there who I knew to have ever bothered to identify was Republican was my Uncle Rick. Rick had been a pretty proud Republican, and still, I think, carries some of the knee-jerk assumptions of a standard Republican. But then Enron happened, and Uncle Rick followed that thing after it fell off the front page, and it made him livid. It was obvious to him that those guys were all crooks, and the Republican Party was complicit in their crimes. And after that, Uncle Rick stopped identifying as a Republican. (I believe my dad's line had always been, "He doesn't earn enough to be a Republican.")

Anyways, it was Thanksgiving, and the conversation turned to politics, and the lost election, and what to do next, and without prompting or mention from anyone, my Uncle Rick said "You know who could be president, is Obama."

And that was when I felt, for sure, that it wasn't all in my head. It wasn't just me. There really was a desire, writ large, for this man to be president. I imagined people all over Illinois having similar experiences, talking to each other, telling each other they wanted this man to be president. Then I imagined Barack, the elected official, talking to groups of people, all of them spontaneously telling him, "We want you to run for president!" That kind of thing can go to your head.

Now, I am not sure exactly when I wanted Barack to run for president. I didn't have it fit into any kind of schedule. I just knew I wanted it to happen at some point, and I knew I couldn't wait.

And then he went and declared himself for the next bloody election.

I thought this was a huge misstep. "No!" I thought. "Barack, what are you doing? Don't you know you have to build up a head of experience first, get some legislative successes under your belt? Otherwise they will treat as some punk kid who doesn't know what he is doing. And you might even damage your chances for later!"

So I was not optimistic. In fact, I kind of didn't even want him to run. I wanted to save him for later, like some sweet from Easter that I was hoarding.

Plus there was that whole Hillary Clinton thing going on. But I'm not ready to speak of Hillary Clinton.

And there was another thing. I had been, have been, am, a pretty heavy reader of political blogs. I don't think it's so much that I care about the world of politics. I don't really have a stomach for organizing and activism and stuff like that, to my detriment. I think I am just too hermetic in character to go for that whole "engaged in the world" thing. But I respect the people who are, lord knows the rest of us need them.

Anyways, the bloggers seemed to be downright skeptical of Barack Obama. "Where is this coming from?" I thought. "Why are you getting down on Barack? Can't you see how he is awesome? Ok, he hasn't done much in the senate, and he's not really taking any out-there stances but, but ... Damn it, why can't you just get behind him like I want you to?!" (There are some pretty good reasons why I don't try to be more politically engaged.)

So eventually I relented. Maybe he just wasn't the Great Liberal Hope. I let it go.

This all happened before he actually entered the race, incidentally. Another reason I didn't really care when he jumped in. And so, I didn't really pay attention to the election coverage for a while. But I was still kind of rooting for Obama, for old time’s sake, even though the bloggers I was reading were going for Edwards en masse. The only refuge I really had was talking to my sister, Anne, every so often, about Obama, and how he would be awesome, and we really preferred him to anyone else. (Unless Gore decided to enter, in which case, history just had to be corrected, ya know?)

Then Anne and Mary just had to watch those fucking debates and switch to Hillary. Hillary! (I and not ready to speak of Hillary.) I was alone again. And Obama seemed like a lost cause. And well, I noticed that, you know, he really wasn't as far to the left as I was, so really I should support someone like Dennis Kucinich, right? Someone closer to my end of the spectrum? So I said I was for Kucinich. But really, that was just despair talking. I didn't really know Kucinich from Adam. I never looked up his specific positions. I never watched him speak. (I saw Obama speak the night before the 2004 election in a Unitarian Church in Champaign. Dick Durbin was there too. Only elected officials I have ever seen in person.) I didn't find him inspiring at all, and didn't really think he had the political skills to pull off anything I wanted done. I was just grumbling. I might as well have just supported Ron Paul or said I would write in Eugene V. Debs.

And that's were I was, disaffected, angry, and just wanting it to be January 2009 already so that that cocksucking motherfucker would not be in office.

Then Iowa happened.

The day of the Iowa caucuses, I spent the entire day sitting in my apartment. I had only recently gotten back home from my Christmas visit. I was on anti-depressants, waiting to feel somewhat different, unemployed, and basically working at actually getting out of bed in the morning. I can't really remember what I did that day, but I do remember occasionally thinking about how somewhere, nearby, there were people caucusing, including my sister and her boyfriend, and feeling a little bad about not being out there too. I also remember that the polls showed a nearly three-way tie between Edwards, Clinton, and Obama. Iowa was likely to not actually even matter, despite the hype.

Late in the day, I checked some blogs to see what the outcome was. Obama had won with an 8 point margin of victory.

Where the fuck did that come from

And then it all came back. I was happy. My guy had won! Wait, my guy? Yes, yes, I suppose he was my guy! I mean, here I was, telling myself he had been my second choice, but, realistically, I had been rooting for him all along.

Now, the thing about the result in Iowa was, the victory in and of itself was not important. It was the margin. All the polls showed a dead heat, and here he was with an 8-point margin? In Iowa? The black guy?

That changed the narrative of the race. Suddenly, he had a chance. Suddenly, it was a competition between Hillary and Barack.

I don't have any interest in rehashing the ups and downs of the next couple of months, with New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina and Super Tuesday, and beyond. That way madness lies. So let me just say that after Iowa I started really following the campaigns, and as time went on, I found myself getting farther and farther into the tank for Barack Obama.

See, what the Iowa caucus did, what it did for me, and what I think it did for other people, was prove as a kind of validation. Whatever it was Obama was trying to do—and I will talk about that later—he had shown that he could pull it off. He wasn’t just some empty suit with a lot of charisma, because charisma is not something that wins you a dead heat caucus state. Obama actually had serious political skills, skills that no one was paying attention to, skills that, for me, encapsulate why it is that he is the best candidate for the presidency, not just for someone like me, for anyone who is restless about the state of America.

I’ll get to that next time.