Democrats need a fighter, not Obama's `post-polarization' politics

December 07, 2007|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- I am drawn to the brand known as Generation Obama. This presidential candidate has repeatedly offered himself as the post-boomer, the one person in the race who can take us past the great divides of the last 40 years.

In announcing his candidacy, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois used the word "generation" 13 times. In The Audacity of Hope, he described boomer politics with something close to disdain, as a psychodrama "rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago." On TV, he described Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and others as people who have "been fighting some of the same fights since the '60s."

This post-boomer theme is spun out in Andrew Sullivan's recent piece in The Atlantic, where he writes that "if you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the boomer generation and face today's actual problems, Obama may be your man." It can be found as well in the label that Ross Baker, a Rutgers political scientist, put on Mr. Obama: "the post-polarization candidate."

If Mr. Obama represents the "post-polarization" generation, what was the "pre-polarization" generation? The idea of some tranquil 1950s America is surely exaggerated. There were great struggles over McCarthyism and nuclear testing, to name just two issues. As for the consensus that existed in the 1950s? Columbia's Todd Gitlin says, "There was a consensus that nothing much ought to be done to yank the former Confederacy out of the age of Jim Crow. There was complacency about the position of women. Complacency about the belligerence with which the U.S. occasionally overthrew uncongenial foreign governments." Are we nostalgic for that?

The 1960s opened up huge and important conflicts. Issues surfaced around black and white relationships, male and female relationships, gay and straight relationships, all kinds of authority and our place in the world. These still go on, not because they are relics of old college dorm fights but because they are still important and unresolved.

Now we come to the 2008 primary season. Mr. Obama is an appealing icon of change. In reading Dreams From My Father, I was engaged by a description of his half-sister's dilemma - torn between the Western values of individual success and the African values of community. He has the capacity to turn a problem around, roaming across its many surfaces. He gets it.

His philosophical frame of mind appeals to the educated elite of the Democratic Party. His largest group of supporters are college-educated. But I am forced to ask, against my own grain, whether Democrats need a philosopher or a combatant.

Sometimes, I approach politics like a parent watching her children: "I don't care who's right and who's wrong; just stop fighting." But of course, I do care who's right, who's wrong, and who'll win.

Mr. Obama is a notoriously uneven performer. Alone on a stage, he is often eloquent and inspirational. But on the debate platform with his opponents, he is less impressive. Temperamentally, he prefers to be above the fray. But the campaign against any Republican will take place in the fray.

Mr. Gitlin says, "In a family situation, we need a healer." But in an era of ugly politics? "We don't need healing but resounding defeat."

Maybe I am suffering from too little "audacity of hope." Or an excess of experience. The Democratic nominee won't have the luxury of a do-good campaign. Even a post-polarization candidate would face a polarized politics.

There's still a difference between being an icon of change and an agent of change. And there is a difference between being a fine philosopher king and a strong presidential challenger.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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