The Big Idea

Obama’s New Rules

In the past 10 days, he has turned American politics upside down.

Sen. Barack Obama

Political assumptions can remain constant for long periods and then change very quickly. And so they have in the approximately 10 days since the publication of Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope. In the brief time he’s been on book tour, Obama has overthrown much of the reigning conventional wisdom about what’s likely to happen in the 2008 campaign, how shrewd politicians ought to behave, and what the informal rules of the American system really are. Consider the following statements thought true by the political class in early October but called into question by month’s end.

1. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
There was a basis for thinking this until Oct. 18, the day Obama appeared on Oprah. Hillary has raised a formidable amount of money, lined up extensive backing, and has the Democrats’ best political thinker for a spouse. Obama’s bigger advantage is that the party is actually excited about him and thinks he could win. Based on an unscientific reading of Democratic enthusiasm, Obama, not Hillary, will be the de facto Democratic front-runner the day he declares himself a candidate. If Obama chooses not to run, he could still sap Hillary’s strength, the way Colin Powell did Bob Dole’s in 1996, by reminding primary voters that their most promising candidate isn’t in the race.

2. John McCain can beat anyone the Democrats put up.
“Our sense right now is that McCain would beat any Democrat including Hillary Clinton, and Clinton would beat any Republican except for McCain.” Thus spake political guru Mark Halperin of ABC News and John Harris of the Washington Post in their book, The Way to Win. Obama upsets that equation because of his crossover appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. Like John McCain, the candidate he would be most likely to face in 2008 if he won the Democratic nomination, Obama attracts support more through his style, personality, and biography than by his specific positions. Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks, a long-standing McCain fan, nearly announced his defection to Obama in an admiring column ($). As for McCain himself, he would evidently prefer to run against Clinton than Obama.

3. Democrats have a problem with religion.
In 2000 and 2004, evangelical Christians and regular churchgoers voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry was comfortable talking about his faith or employing a religious idiom, leading many to conclude that Democrats were doomed to function as the secular party in a still-religious nation. Obama is the rare Democrat who talks easily about faith and values, and who does so without upsetting those offended by the mixture of religion and politics. In a thoughtful speech last summer that also forms the basis of a chapter of his book, Obama explained his own religious motivation and defended the use of spiritual language in a political context. He argues that his party should explicitly try to win over the spiritual followers of more moderate evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes. Obama hasn’t closed the Democrats’ religious gap, but he has initiated a productive conversation about how to narrow it.

4. Old liberalism is dead.
Closely allied to the assumption that Democrats can’t win because they’re too secular is the view that they can’t win if they’re too liberal. This assumption has steered Hillary Clinton toward the center, following her husband. I tend to share this view myself. But somehow it doesn’t seem to apply to Obama, who has excited centrist Democrats and many moderate Republicans while steering clear of the Democratic Leadership Council and earning a perfect-100 score from Americans for Democratic Action in his first year in the Senate. Obama began his political career as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer in Chicago. He is close to unions and voted against CAFTA, the most recent free-trade agreement to come before Congress. His domestic policies are consistently liberal on issues like national health care and affirmative action (though he supports the death penalty in certain circumstances and has not come out for gay marriage). He was a big dove on the Iraq war. None of this seems off-putting to people who would dismiss almost any other candidate with Obama’s views.

5. Extreme partisanship works.
Obama can thrive as a liberal because of another paradox: the resonance of his moderate, deliberative style and calls for “common ground.” The lesson of recent elections seemed to be that bipartisanship was dead. Congressional gerrymandering, the rise of the Section 527 loophole, and a more partisan media have all contributed to the current, polarized environment. Obama rejects all of this. The main theme of his book is that something has gone wrong with American politics because of how divided, absolutist, and bitter it has become. He invariably tries to see issues through the eyes of his opponents, sometimes to the point of self-parody. Though the call for bipartisanship is the quintessential Washington platitude, it doesn’t sound that way coming from Obama. He somehow makes civility, moderation, and compromise into rallying cries.

6. Politicians must tread carefully.
Watching a Hillary Clinton or a Bill Frist, you could get the idea that a single miscalculation or misstatement is fatal to American political careers. But like McCain in 2000, Obama simply declines to play a cautious and calculating game. His approach in the many television and public appearances he’s been making around his book is one of disarming frankness. (McCain, meanwhile, has made his peace with Bush, the Republican establishment, and the religious right.) At a magazine conference this week in Phoenix, I watched David Remnick of The New Yorker interview Obama on a stage. Obama declined to deeply regret his much-publicized youthful indiscretions with drugs. He suggested that believing in angels is a sign of irrationality. And he acknowledged that his wife doesn’t like his choice of careers. He disarms challenges with grace, humor, and unexpected candor.

7. The bubble must pop.
Skeptics note that we’ve been through swoons like this before—including for McCain in 2000. Obama could turn out to be just another liberal fad, like Howard Dean in 2004. Once he decides to run, the cynics assure us, his halo will tarnish or crack. And maybe so. But this time, maybe not.