The Audacity of Hope

The fact that Obama's had this kinda sorta wrapped up since March 5 has tended to obscure the fact that his primary victory has got to be the greatest upset in the history of American presidential politics. In retrospect, whatever happens looks obvious and somewhat inevitable, but back in the day all that was obvious was that Clinton had the party locked down. Obama's entire meteoric ascent from the State Senate to the cusp of the presidency is just a very, very, very unlikely story. And it's a story driven by the fact that unlike a lot of other promising young politicians, Obama's been consistently willing to take risks. In both his 2004 Senate campaign and his 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama would have to count as a longshot. And, indeed, he was a longshot in his failed challenge to Bobby Rush. A lot of "promising" guys horde their promise so jealously that they never manage to actually deliver. It took a good deal of luck for Obama to make it to the top of the pack, but nobody succeeds without some luck, and nobody gets lucky unless they're in the arena.

It's a fundamentally bold, hopeful brand of politics. And I think it's no coincidence that that theme's been at the center of his campaign. Relative to Clinton, you see two people with similar policy agendas. But Clinton comes from a school of politics that says liberalism can't really win on the questions of war and peace, identity and authenticity, crime and punishment. It says that we live in a fundamentally conservative nation, and that the savvy progressive politician kind of burrows in and tries to make the best of a bad situation. It's an attitude very much borne of the brutally difficult experience of organizing for McGovern in Texas and running for governor in Arkansas at the height of Reaganism. Relative to McCain, Obama thinks it's possible to accomplish things in the world. He thinks the United States faces a lot of serious international challenges, but doesn't see them as primarily driven by menacing and implacable foes. Obama thinks that a combination of visionary leadership and shrewd bargaining can greatly improve our ability to tackle key priorities without any great expenditure of our resources.

All in all, the pessimist in me sees it as an approach to politics designed to set us up for a hard fall when it fails. But in a deeper sense I find it incredibly appealing. To me, it's incredibly frustrating to hear that ideas "can't be done" not because they won't work, but because people know -- just know -- that they're not politically possible, even though they're things that have never been tried. I think almost every worthwhile accomplishment of progressive governance -- from the UN and NATO and the NPT to Medicare and Medicaid and Title I school aid to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to the ongoing feminist revolution that's completely transformed American society in a generation and a half with no sign of slowing down -- is the kind of thing that before it happened, a lot of people would have said that it couldn't happen. And of course sometimes the pessimists are right, but unless you sometimes assume they're wrong then nothing's ever going to happen.