Sunday, January 6, 2008

The race I’d like to see

One of the first things transplants learn about Iowa City - which trumpets itself as the mecca of the Midwest - is that it’s not like the rest of the Hawkeye State.

As a University of Iowa freshman in the ‘90s, I was confronted by hills banned in most corners of corn-fed territory, a vibrant theater scene and a disturbing nickname.

Yes, in some unenlightened hamlets, I.C. is known as “N-town” for its rather unremarkable diversity. But the Big Ten town is an aberration from 95 percent white Iowa, which is enough to make some folks squeamish about sending their kids there.

So am I surprised that Iowans fell in love with Barack Obama on Thursday?
In a word, no.

The brilliant senator and former constitutional law professor has a commanding, yet thoughtful timbre that dances on the edge of evangelical zeal but never succumbs. For the most jaded among us, it’s jarring to see Obama and a crowd dissolve into a deafening mutual admiration society, as I witnessed in Chicago this summer.

A wunderkind whose presidential hopes were dismissed for months by pundits as a pipe dream, Obama flourished in the intimacy Iowa offers by hitting barbecues and fire halls, inspiring folks and hustling for every vote.

There’s a clear parallel with former Gov. Mike Huckabee, the big winner on the Republican side, who followed a similar strategy. When both men speak, they shed the Washington glad-handling dialect and appear to be (gasp) genuine people.

In a cynical age in which everyone professes to hate politics, Obama connects with people one-to-one, tempting them to believe in “hope” – or at least something greater than themselves.

That’s led many a media-type to crown him as the “next Kennedy,” a tired rite of passage since 1968. Of course, every progressive claims to be RFK’s heir (John Edwards currently is the most boisterous pretender).

Now I have a long, unbridled love affair with the speeches of Robert F. Kennedy. Politicians could learn a lot from his lifelong quest against injustice and tortured immersion into the Brooklyn slums and California migrant camps.

But Kennedy comparisons are usually overly simplistic, aggrandizing or just plain wrong. Obama may be a spellbinding speaker, but his measured persona is quite different than that of a populist streetfighter.

Though a Democrat through and through, Obama ditched the partisan rubric while devising plans for health care, the economy and Iraq based on meticulous research, reaching out to the other side of the ideological divide.

That’s one key to Obama’s stunning nine-point upset of Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Turnout was huge – more than double than the GOP’s – and 59 percent were new caucus-goers. The Illinois senator nabbed them, as well as independents and crossover Republicans.

For that reason, Obama could turn out to be a far more formidable general election candidate than anyone thought – if he makes it that far.

But there’s always the issue of race. Remember the 2006 Michigan Civil Rights Initiative that effectively killed affirmative action? Polling was neck and neck, but no one was shocked when it passed 60 percent. Why? Because people lie about race.

Still, the majority of caucus-goers made a public statement (literally – there’s no such thing as a secret ballot) that they were going with the man with a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother.

That, in and of itself, is remarkable. Iowa, to my knowledge, has never elected an African-American (or a woman) to either house of Congress or the governor’s mansion.

Here’s what did surprise me: People didn’t surrender on the second ballot to the safe choice of Edwards, the down-home, union-loving (white) guy thought to be the runner-up for many. When the vote-trading starts at precincts, electability becomes the watchword and southern pols get a Democratic edge.

Let’s not forget that some cynical liberal columnists have declared the surest way for the Dems to lose the White House three times straight is to go with a chick or a black guy.

But Thursday showed things are definitely changing in Iowa (which no one has noticed has become more urban and less white). For Obama to be the newly anointed national frontrunner does send a powerful message around the globe about race – be it conscious or unconscious.

And it sets up the tantalizing possibility of a real race in November with folks we’re not yet irritated by.

I’ll leave you with one increasingly likely scenario: Obama vs. John McCain, the now odds-on favorite in New Hampshire and Michigan. This could be the first substantive campaign in decades between two independent-minded candidates, a respectful clash of generations, plans and worldviews.

My money’s on the wily POW who survived the Hanoi Hilton, but like any political analyst, I’m paid to be wrong.

Either way, I’d sure like the chance to find out.

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