Barack Obama, the yuppie candidate

April 16, 2008|By Jonah Goldberg

Sen. Barack Obama is finally coming into focus.

For a while now, the Obamaphiles have insisted that their candidate represents a profound break with the past. No more culture wars. No more "relitigating the 1960s," in Mr. Obama's own words.

But what about relitigating the 1980s?

There's always been a certain cultural lag time to Barack and Michelle Obama, a kitschiness that's been hard to pinpoint. But I think I've got it: They're self-hating yuppies straight out of the 1980s, which was to the Obamas what the 1960s were to the Clintons.

For those too young to remember, "yuppie" was shorthand for young urban professionals - think Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton in the TV series Family Ties or Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone's Wall Street - who allegedly represented the collapse of '60s values and the triumph of '80s greed. Yuppies sold their souls for a BMW and a condo.

Ironically, the biggest complaints about yuppie materialism came from self-loathing liberal yuppies - like the Obamas.

The Obamas still seem stuck in that time warp, clinging to '80s-style resentments and political assumptions. Michelle Obama is never so eloquent as when she's complaining about the burden of student loans for her two Ivy League law degrees and covering the high cost of summer camp and piano lessons for her kids on her family's half-million-dollars-a-year income.

It's Ronald Reagan - the president of the 1980s - who seems to loom so large in Mr. Obama's world. (Recall how last year, Mr. Obama caught some flak for suggesting he might be a new Ronald Reagan.) Mr. Reagan restored confidence in the nation while reducing confidence in government as the solution to our problems. He put a stake in the heart of the "Vietnam syndrome" and the blame-America-first ethos of the Democratic Party, as diagnosed by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick at the 1984 Republican convention. The Reagan Revolution moved the country durably to the right - so much so that even Democrats saw the writing on the wall.

As countless commentators on the left and right have chronicled, Bill Clinton's 1992 victory stemmed from the fact that he was a "different kind of Democrat" - that is, one who understood the lessons of Reaganism, or at least claimed to, and rejected the "brain-dead policies" of the old Democratic Party. He was a pro-death-penalty free-trader who oversaw the triumph of the Reaganite critique of welfare.

It's as if Barack Obama spent the 1990s in some kind of Democratic Brigadoon - I guess Cambridge, Mass., and the South Side of Chicago might qualify - and didn't keep up with his party, let alone the nation. Mr. Obama, the man of the future, in fact stands athwart that history yelling, "Stop."

This is the best way to understand his recent comments at a San Francisco fundraiser as he explained his challenge of connecting with rural and small-town voters.

"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania," he said, "and ... the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. ... It's not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Later, when his comments sparked a controversy, he dismissed it as a "little typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true."

But everybody doesn't know anything of the sort. Not in this decade, anyway. Mr. Obama is merely recycling the liberal cliches of the 1980s, namely that Pennsylvania's "bitter" voters have been duped by "wedge issues" such as guns, religion and racial resentment. New Democrats recognized that wedge issues are legitimate concerns. Old Democrats remain in denial.

"My rival in this race," he said early in 2007, "is not other candidates, it's cynicism." And, of course, Mr. Obama is against "division." This treacle was once dismissed as naive idealism, a.k.a. "the politics of hope." But the code has been broken. His real opponent is the "division" that made Mr. Reagan, the Bushes and the Clintons possible and brought politics to the center, where the country was all along.

Slate columnist Mickey Kaus has been waiting for Mr. Obama to "pivot" to the center as Mr. Clinton did in 1992. But it may be that America's most reliably liberal senator doesn't think he has to. He isn't a unifier. He's a counterrevolutionary. And waiting for him to pivot is like waiting for Godot.

Jonah Goldberg is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this article originally appeared. His e-mail is jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com.

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