Monday, January 21, 2008

A Clinton Supporter Sidles Up to Obama

Ok, here it is two weeks from February 5th, "Super Tuesday," and I find myself in a most unusual position: I have not yet decided who I will vote for.

It is unusual for me, for a number of reasons. First, it is turning out that my vote may actually matter. That's rare for a primary - I don't think I've ever yet lived in a state where the nominee hadn't been decided well before my opportunity to vote. This year, the horse race between Clinton and Obama is coming to my town, New Jersey, and good old New Jersey will probably be one of a few states on Super Tuesday where the choice between the two will be hotly contested, and where, with good probability, the Democratic nominee will be decided. And given the dispirited Republicans and floundering economy, the odds are good that this decision will also determine who will be our next President.

So there is actually something riding on my vote. Not that I don't think that either Clinton and Obama would be a breath of fresh air from Bush. Not that I don't think that either one would be historic both for the country and the world, and repair all sorts of damage. But like a kid taken to the ice cream store after a terrible doctor's appointment, something good may be coming, but I still have a choice to make. Which flavor most tickles my fancy? Which flavor will taste best after this terrible ordeal?

For months, I've been a Clinton supporter. I've resisted the nay-sayers who say she will unite the Republicans against her, that her negatives are too high, that she is scarily imperial. None of that bothers me. I've loved her, all these years, and I think she's brilliant. Her policies are my policies. She is my surrogate, and a woman whom I admire, and her meme about her experience certainly resonates.

So why my drift? What's started to dissuade me?

Like all good primary politics, it started in Iowa. I admit, Obama's victory forced me to take a second look. My second look has persuaded me that my first opinion about his positions is probably correct: he is really the most conservative of the Democrats, his policy ideas are the least formed, his debating style is underwhelming. But Obama has one quality that I've started to count more heavily than I did in the past. There are many terms that have been used for it, but I'd like to use the term "vision." Obama has a vision that is both progressive, and at the same time, really does get beyond partisanship. It is there in his speeches, and in the way he talks. It is a quality that I have started to count more heavily than I did before.

It was Iowa that made me do it. Not Iowa, exactly, but the press reaction to Iowa. When Obama looked like he could roll Iowa right into an early victory, the press began a story, a narrative. Call it the "Camelot" narrative: an Obama presidency would tranform, rejuvenite, not just America, but America's role in the world, certainly in a way that a Billary Presidency (or any of the Republicans) could not.

I must say, I do not personally buy this narrative. Obama is a politician, just like the rest of them, and he will do what he has to. But if the country believes this narrative...and Obama is certainly smart enough to play into it, to cultivate it...then perhaps this narrative is what the country needs, right now. We do need something to lift us out of the fear and loathing of the last eight years. We need a narrative like the Obama narrative.

The question is, do I vote for a narrative? Or do I vote for someone I personally like whose policies I admire, but who has large political "negatives." Oddly, I'm starting to think...maybe I should vote for the narrative. Not because I'm cynical. But because the narrative makes me feel, well, excited. Maybe, with this narrative, Obama could really do something with this country that Clinton or McCain could not. Maybe with who he is, and who the country wants him to be, President Obama could make America once again a moral leader of the world - not just in economic or military terms, but in terms of the vision our country gives the world, and ourselves, about transcending the categories of race, religion, politics, and sexual orientation that have sundered us for so long. Maybe President Obama would get Americans able to once again believe in the unlimited human possibility.

I like this narrative, I really do. Maybe I like it more than I like Hillary and Bill Clinton. After all, Bill and Hillary gave us a great economy. Bush squandered it. And Hillary could restore it. But Obama may be able to give us something better than a great economy again. He may be able to give us a great country. It's a chance - he's new on the scene, and the odds will be against him - but maybe it's a chance worth betting on.