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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

With His Mad Campaigning Skillz, Obama Gains...A Cult of Personality

There has been a lot of research done about how people vote, and the accepted conclusion appears to be that we vote primarily with our emotions, and not our brains. I don't see that changing too much in the near future, especially not with the current state of media coverage in our beloved country. I saw one of the cable news channels yesterday referring to the primaries as a "political bowl," as if the candidates were competing quarterbacks on the way to the playoffs.

To me, it was quite obvious in 1999 that candidate George W. Bush was not qualified to be President. This was not just a matter of party loyalty - it was also a gut check. I could not stand to either look at or listen to the man, because it was obvious that he was lying, stupid, or both - none of which were desirable qualities in a Deciderer-In-Chief.

At the same time, however, I recognized that if you had a less sensitive gut than mine, George W. Bush was a much better campaigner than Al Gore. He spoke in short, simple sound bytes that the TeeVee could easily digest. His platform had a nice bumper-sticker quality to it, designed to appeal to the maximum amount of people (remember how he was a "compassionate conservative?") while secretly telegraphing his right-wing evangelical credentials to his base. And I bemoaned, as I have done for many years, the seeming inability of intelligent, progressive Democrats like Al Gore to translate their superior governing abilities into superior campaigning abilities; to gather enough votes that even election fraud or an appealing third-party candidate would not matter; and to make their case that they, not the radical right-wing Republics, represent the majority in America. (I understand that authors Drew Westen and Thom Hartmann have recently written excellent books about this phenomenon.)

Well, file those complaints under the "be careful what you wish for" department, because what we got...was Barack Obama. And he is so good at campaigning that he's gone too far: he's grown a cult of personality, and is encouraging it to a dangerous degree.

Look who he took on the campaign trail with him: Oprah Winfrey, one of the most popular figures in American culture, and a woman watched by millions of viewers who hang on her every word. She tells her followers to buy a book, for example, and they do. Obama is exploiting Oprah's power to gain votes based on her enthusiasm, not his qualifications.

Witness the current sniping among the three front-runners, greatly exaggerated by the right-wing noise machine. Bill Clinton was 100% right when he called Obama's anti-war claims a "fairy tale," since Obama himself admitted that had he been in the Senate at the time, he didn't know how he would have voted. Yet the media has chosen to cut, splice and distort everything Bill Clinton said in order to take Obama's side. Nothing will interfere with the narrative of the Anti-War Saint Obama!

And of course, no criticism can be leveled at the Senator without accusations of racism. I'm sorry, but I've been following the Clintons for decades now, since Hillary is my Senator - and I just don't believe that there is any evidence whatsoever that they are racist. Barack Obama's latest statement seems to defuse the racial tension a bit, but nonetheless manages to push his prime narrative that Clinton is a clueless Washington insider and he is an agent of change. Man, is he good at this or what?

If Barack Obama became President, I certainly don't think it would be a disaster for the nation...but I don't think it would be a real change, either. I don't like the fact that he espouses policies that do not go with his impressive rhetorical skills (for example, his health care plan covers fewer people than Edwards' or Clintons'). I don't like that he panders to the anti-gay religious right in the African-American community, and I don't like that he refers to the "Social Security crisis," when there isn't one. Finally, I don't like that he says "can't we all just get along" with the elected Republics, when clearly, we cannot. If we could, they would stop the damn filibustering and let some of the Democratic agenda pass through the Senate; but unlike Democrats, Republics are perfectly content to accomplish nothing in service of their political agenda. Obama does not seem to realize that, and it worries me.

Don't get me wrong. I will vote for Senator Obama, or any Democrat that makes it through the endless primary process. But is it too much to ask for that a Democratic Presidential candidate be both progressive AND a master of campaigning techniques?

Apparently, for now, the answer is yes. But I do have hope that if Barack Obama can be a great campaigner, perhaps someday soon a progressive like Dennis Kucinich or Chris Dodd can be a great campaigner as well...without the attendant cult following. Since no candidate is perfect, we should be able to be enthusiastic about our candidates without worshiping them as if they were the Second Coming.

Won't that be a wonderful day for American democracy?

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