Reporting from the Arenal Hot Springs, January 3, 2008
Hunter S. Thompson always believed that capturing the mood of an event was more important than being there (He didn’t attend or even watch the fight when he was covering Ali-Foreman), but perhaps it’s taking things too far covering the Iowa Caucuses from a poolside bar in the Costa Rican jungle. Hunter may be gone, but I can say this with certainty, he would have been a happy man tonight. Obama is the once in a generation candidate of our time, and if Hunter got excited watching Jimmy Carter, lord knows how he would have reacted to this.
For him, Washington experience was the last thing on his mind when he was looking for a candidate. In 1988, speaking about George H.W Bush, he pointed out, “He’s got a great resume: Congressman, Ambassador, Vice-President…the last time I heard of a resume that good was Richard Nixon.” Tonight was a victory for the Weird. Not because Obama himself is weird, though his UFO-spotting supporter Dennis Kucinich certainly is. Tonight was a victory for man over machine, which is weird. It was a win for the weird because once you’re in politics long enough, as elected official, operative or media talking head, you cease to be a real human being, and begin to believe that anyone who talks, acts or feels like a human being is weird. ‘You want lobbyists to have less influence in Washington? What are you, crazy?’ ‘You want the troops out of Iraq now? Even Hillary Clinton doesn’t want that! Trust us, we checked- there are only two points of view on this issue, the White House press release and the musings of a centrist Democratic think tank.’ Obama is a real human being. You can see when you watch him, when he chuckles at how silly the theater of politics can be, when he rolls his eyes at inane debate questions, when he interacts with his wife like he loves and respects her as more than just a useful campaign prop.
In a gesture that means a lot to me, Obama is also effusively appreciative of his organizers and volunteers, because he knows it was them, and not the aging B-list of political VIPs usually adorning victory podiums, that carried the day for him.
“I know how hard it is,” he said. “It comes with little sleep, little pay and a lot of sacrifice. There are days of disappointment. But sometimes, just sometimes, there are nights like this.” To me, that said two things. One, he still fucking remembers, which is great. Two, he doesn’t think he’s better than the people who support him. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton thanking her paid organizers before she thanks some useless local dignitary who ‘endorsed’ her? I know John Kerry wouldn’t, because I was there when he didn’t.
The talking heads who bring you ‘coverage’ of this stuff recall the Will Hunting theory: with a few websites, a dose of the real world, and a few bucks on used books from Amazon, we amateurs can become far more informed than the hacks paid to do this every night. How about when the legendary Bob Woodward tried to compare Hillary Clinton’s 29% to Bill Clinton’s 3% in 1992. How convenient to leave out that in 1992, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin was running for president, causing all the major candidates to skip the Iowa Caucus and focus on New Hampshire while Harkin pulled in 75% of the vote. Not exactly an apt comparison, but any fifth grader can tell you that most ‘political scientists’ have never heard of the scientific method.
The biggest ball drop of the new year was probably the drive-by media’s assessment of the “Clinton Political Machine,” recalling their assessment of “Saddam’s Elite Republican Guard.” A blogger pointed out in 2003 that Google generated about 10 times as many results for Iraq’s Elite Republican Guard than it did for the “Elite U.S Marine Corps” that routed it in 2 weeks of fighting. Let’s take a real look at the Clinton Machine. In the 1992 primary, Clinton’s main two opponents were a stale Senator from Massachusetts the election cycle after Dukakis got crushed (Paul Tsongas) and a guy who had been out of office for a decade nicknamed ‘Governor Moonbeam,’ running for president for the third time (Jerry Brown). How he ever got to being the ‘Comeback Kid’ in the first place is stunning. After winning the presidency, Clinton-led Democrats suffered their biggest defeat of the 20th century during the Congressional mid-term elections. Your Machine at work. They then figured out that by selling out the core principles and values of the Democratic Party through ‘triangulation’, dooming the party for a decade, they would beat Bob Dole by 9 points in November. Praise Allah, it’s genius! As fellow Hope, Arkansas resident Mike Huckabee (and also Jesus) would say, “What does it profit it man to gain the world and lose his soul?”
And then on to Hillary. The Machine was so brilliant they were able to score her successive Senate victories over Rick Lazio and John Spencer. Who? Exactly.
What is the Clinton Machine really about? Power. The 50% plus 1 formula. Shift and spin. Shift and spin. Wag your finger no while shrugging your shoulder yes. Their tactics are no different than those employed by Karl Rove, except he had the courtesy to look for the 50% plus 1 vote among his base, instead of the most politically convenient place he could find it.
This article’s not about Bill’s legacy; I’m sure history will remember him fondly as president of the feel-good 90s who didn’t fuck anything up, which is more than they’ll ever be able to say for his successor. Tonight wasn’t a referendum on whether the Clinton years were good or not. For many the Clinton years were a lot like pledge term, a great time, but nothing we ever want to go through again. Besides, any campaign that has to spin their candidate into ‘seeming more human’ is destined to fail. As any marketer will tell you, nothing is more important than framing the question, and while their doing so is only natural, the Machine framing of ‘experienced robot’ versus ‘inexperienced human’ was going to come crashing down eventually. Their pinpoint pollsters should have figured out that America likes human beings for their presidents.
Obama understands framing. What do you think his whole “there are no blue states, there are no red states,” meme is about? It’s about strategy folks, it’s about the first Democratic candidate not to let the media concede any states for him since Franklin Roosevelt.
At the end of the day, Obama only won by 8 points, so let’s not go crazy. The day after I won re-election to Student Body President with 74% of the vote, I passed an old administrator on the street. He shook his head at me and said, “I hope you’ve started thinking about why those 26% didn’t vote for you.” Obama’s got a long way to go before he unites the country and solves the world’s problems. But this is the best first step anyone could have hoped for. For supporters of the Gonzo, happy times are here again.