The short version of the Democratic Party primary campaign is that the media fell in love with Barack Obama but the Democratic electorate declined to.
"I felt this thrill going up my leg," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews after one of the senator's speeches. "I mean, I don't have that too often." Au contraire, Chris and the rest of the gang seem to be getting the old tingle up the thigh hairs on a nightly basis. If Obama is political Viagra, the media are at that stage in the ad where the announcer warns that, if leg tingles persist for more than six months, see your doctor.
Out there in the voting booths, however, Democrat legs stayed admirably unthrilled. The more the media told Hillary she was toast, and she should get the hell out of it and let Obama romp to victory, the more Democrats insisted on voting for her. The more the media insisted Barack was inevitable, the less inclined the voters were to get with the program. On the strength of Chris Matthews' vibrating calves, Sen. Obama raised a ton of money – over $300 million – and massively outspent Sen. Clinton, but he didn't really get any bang for his buck. In the end, he crawled over the finish line. The Obama Express came a-hurtlin' down the track at 2 miles an hour.
But what does he care? Sen. Obama has learned an old trick of Bill Clinton's: If you behave like a star, you'll get treated as one. So, even as his numbers weakened, his rhetoric soared. By the time he wrapped up his "victory" speech last week, the great gaseous uplift had his final paragraphs floating in delirious hallucination along the Milky Way:
"I face this challenge with profound humility and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people … . I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal … . This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation."
It's a good thing he's facing it with "profound humility," isn't it? Because otherwise who knows what he'd be saying. But mark it in your calendars: June 3, 2008 – the long-awaited day, after 232 years, that America began to provide care for the sick. Just a small test program: 47 attendees of the Obama speech were taken to hospital and treated for nausea. Everyone else came away thrilled that the Obamessiah was going to heal the planet and reverse the rise of the oceans: When Barack wants to walk on the water, he doesn't want to have to use a stepladder to get up on it.
There are generally two reactions to this kind of policy proposal. The first was exemplified by the Atlantic Monthly's Marc Ambinder:
"What a different emotional register from John McCain's; Obama seems on the verge of tears; the enormous crowd in the Xcel Center seems ready to lift Obama on its shoulders; the much smaller audience for McCain's speech interrupted his remarks with stilted cheers."
The second reaction boils down to: "'Heal the planet'? Is this guy nuts?" To be honest I prefer a republic whose citizenry can muster no greater enthusiasm for their candidate than "stilted cheers" to one in which the crowd wants to hoist the nominee onto their shoulders for promising to lower ocean levels within his first term. As for coming together "to remake this great nation," if it's so great, why do we have to remake it? A few months back, just after the New Hampshire primary, a Canadian reader of mine – John Gross of Quebec – sent me an all-purpose stump speech for the 2008 campaign:
"My friends, we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world. I hope you'll join with me as we try to change it."
I thought this was so cute, I posted it on the Web at National Review. Whereupon one of those Internetty-type things happened, and three links and a Google search later the line was being attributed not to my correspondent but to Sen. Obama, and a few weeks after that I started getting e-mails from reporters from Florida to Oregon, asking if I could recall at which campaign stop the senator, in fact, uttered these words. And I'd patiently write back and explain that they're John Gross' words, and that not even Barack would be dumb enough to say such a thing in public. Yet last week his demand in his victory speech that we "come together to remake this great nation" came awful close.
Speaking personally, I don't want to remake America. I'm an immigrant, and one reason I came here is because most of the rest of the Western world remade itself along the lines Sen. Obama has in mind. This is pretty much the end of the line for me. If he remakes America, there's nowhere for me to go – although presumably once he's lowered sea levels around the planet there should be a few new atolls popping up here and there.
Marc Ambinder is right. Obama's rhetoric is in a different "emotional register" from John McCain's. It's in a different "emotional register" from every U.S. president – not just the Coolidges but the Kennedys, too. Nothing in Obama's resume suggests he's the man to remake America and heal the planet. Only last week, another of his pals bit the dust, convicted by a Chicago jury of 16 counts of this and that. "This isn't the Tony Rezko I knew," said the senator, in what's becoming a standard formulation. Likewise, this wasn't the Jeremiah Wright he knew. And these are guys he's known for 20 years.
Yet at the same time as he's being stunned by the corruption and anti-Americanism of those closest to him, Obama's convinced that just by jetting into Tehran and Pyongyang he can get to know America's enemies and persuade them to hew to the straight and narrow. No doubt if it all goes belly-up, and Iran winds up nuking Tel Aviv, President Obama will put on his more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger face and announce solemnly that "this isn't the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad I knew."
Every time I hear an Obama speech, I start to giggle. But millions of voters don't. And, if Chris Matthews and the tingly-legged media get their way and drag Obama across the finish line this November, the laugh will be on those of us who think that serious times demand grown-up rhetoric.