In The News
Thinking out loud: Why Obama's winningEven the Moderates Are Moving to His Camp
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
What a curious race for the White House and the Congress. At this point it seems that Republicans can only win November 4 by discouraging voter turnout while the Democrats must strive for record turnout to guarantee a mandate for change.
Six months ago, there were Democratic strategists who were counting on conservative coolness to John McCain to keep his party from the polls. Some even called it the key to a Barack Obama victory. They were as wrong then as the McCain forces are now to try to counter Obama’s gains by pursuing phantoms of voter fraud. Related stories will appear in October’s Labor Press.
The surprise in this election is the goodly portion of moderate Republicans and religious conservatives actually listening favorably to Obama.
So they tell pollsters. So they told me not only in Waukesha and Ozaukee counties but also on an October visit to New York City, where I shared airports, Wall Street visits and restaurant meals with a number who identified themselves as “lifelong Republicans,” “diehard conservatives” and even “former McCain admirers.”
Not just financial crisis has forced them to rethink. So has a growing understanding of the record. Obama, they conceded, had proved neither as liberal nor as tax-happy as painted -- and perhaps more in touch with traditional American optimism and frugality and even broader family values than his main opponent for the presidency. His response to financial crisis also reassured them that he had the experience and temperament.
They didn’t say this easily. Several remained cautious about sharing these views because they grew up disliking Democrats – and because McCain forces were telling them to either back their original candidate or stay home.
But the changing trend is not the one union leaders feared most (and are continuing to address) -- white working-class voters who may use Obama’s color and background to vote against their own economic interests. They exist, but it’s hard to see them gaining traction in, say, Ohio, when unemployment jumped to 7.4%. Still, it’s a delicate topic.
But consider this: The statistics as well as the anecdotes suggest there are more Obama Republicans emerging than Reagan Democrats.
Obama has been up 10% in recent polls of battleground states. He is ahead or competing in 10 states that went for Bush in 2004. He is also up 10% among women in polls, up among college-educated suburban white voters including soccer moms, and probably hockey moms, too, if there are such things.
He’s gaining the majority among white males and definitely Latinos; he’s attracting anxious financial managers -- including the $40,000 a year front office novices on Wall Street who can’t believe their CEOs were that stupid.
He’s raising more money than McCain from Republican strongholds, enough to plan half an hour of prime time on major networks Oct. 29. Through small Internet contributions he has been outspending the GOP two or three to one, allowing him to respond quickly to personality attacks and still have money to tell his personal story and outline his plans. It is a clever adroit campaign, the best in memory of presidential politics.
The anger among McCain diehards is not just because their candidate is behind and their own privileged status is falling away. It’s because he looks so bad in the process. (Of course, polls are fluid and no one dares to relax in this election but the polls as I write were all in the same range.)
Obama has been a balanced steady voice with practical ideas through the economic disaster. McCain can only attack him by ignoring him, questioning his acquaintances or “alien appearance” or aloofness or “not one of us” – all innuendo dangerously close to racism.
But Obama is right there in front of McCain, who has hurt himself badly by pretending not to see him. Both Democrats and Republicans obviously do see him. McCain can dismiss the blacks who take this avoidance as a personal affront– he was never getting their votes. But he has also raised doubts about his own temperament on the world stage. Most Americans seem to be appreciating Obama’s grace and calm under this sort of fire. And his lack of campaign stunts.
He didn’t try as McCain did to pull an Eisenhower (“I will go to Korea”) by announcing he would suspend his campaign and solve the Wall Street-Main Street crisis. McCain, you will recall, wound up doing neither – one reason he moved in the public’s mind from “maverick” to “ineffectual maverick.”
Then he shot a $300 billion blank rather than a magic bullet with his mortgage buy-up rescue. Was it money already given to the treasury secretary or new money? McCain wasn’t sure, but it certainly wasn’t thought out, and would mainly benefit the creators of the disaster, not the families facing foreclosure.
And meanwhile Obama was also winning debates in the foreign policy arena McCain expected to dominate.
Demeaning Obama has made McCain look deceptive, which raise questions about the main strength he brings to the contest -- genuineness built around those years as a Vietnam POW. Perhaps, as a Rolling Stone profile now intimates, it was McCain himself who revealed to his captors that he was the son of an admiral and got treatment for his horrible wounds, but really, who can blame that instinct to survive? If he succumbed to torture, who doesn’t understand? None of that diminishes his personal tale of courage. But he can’t hide deception or miscalculations today by wrapping himself in yesterday’s flag. Obama, to his credit, has not said a word about this, but Republicans sure have.
They are also disturbed – while Democrats mostly just laugh -- to see McCain running away from the enemy. In this case that’s Bush and Cheney. To pretend he didn’t support their programs -- to act as if he didn’t lead the charge on deregulation and warmongering in Iraq -- simply doesn’t work.
Beyond that, Obama’s analysis of the US financial woes has resonance in both parties -- that the stagnant wages of the middle class are a big factor in America’s recession and potential depression, as is the growing income gap between rich and poor and the bloated reliance on deregulation in every aspect of society.
(There is a profound irony in the labor community that many in middle and middle-of-the-road America now nod in agreement with Obama over these issues.
So noted the AFL-CIO’s new executive vice-president, Arlene Holt Baker, speaking in Milwaukee at the state AFL-CIO convention. For years unions complaining about just these things were accused by conservatives and Republicans of creating a “psychological recession,” she noted with amusement. “Today they know there was nothing psychological about it.”)
McCain’s free-fall has helped turn the campaign ugly, as has his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. Her celebrity status has turned demonstrations overly emotional -- it certainly put two hysterics in Waukesha on the national media map, though they weren’t as outlandish as middle Florida and southwest Pennsylvania where Obama expected some cultural trouble, and where Palin crowds have screamed invectives against the media and minorities (shades of macaca)!
But every time Palin speaks she seems to galvanize the more liberal communities around the nation to go to work for Obama.
Labor leaders at the state AFL-CIO gathering at the Wyndham Hotel were actually not unhappy about how Palin was stirring up union Democrats and independents. When you combine the undertone of what she says with her lack of readiness for this job, more of their members were lining up behind Obama because she “took them off the shelf by her attitudes,” said one steelworker, who made a face when he was reminded that Palin’s husband was in his union.
It was an echo of the response a few days earlier at a Milwaukee roundtable with New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse. He was trying to see if racism was at play and if Palin was making a difference in Wisconsin. “Out in the open is better,” responded one labor organizer.
Democrats and labor leaders are sheepish about one thing – that Obama was smarter than they were and rejected their advice. It was Democrats several months ago who were urging Obama to get tougher and nastier to match McCain, pointing out how vulnerable McCain was in his lifelong reliance on financial insiders and lobbyists, his addiction to gambling and desperate schemes, his dubious record on veteran affairs, health care and on, dare we say it, marital stability.
Some of those concerns were relative to the campaign, some were not, but Obama just took on the important ones indirectly in ads and resisted all calls within his own camp to take the debate low road to the high office. Some think he may still have to get sharp with McCain just in self-defense. In the final weeks many expect McCain to attack in personal terms even Obama can’t ignore. But to this point he’s proved wiser than many advisers. And he’s scoring points with how optimistically he handles things.
Something more than unflappability has emerged in Obama’s approach. Something more than a better organization with more ardent believers.
Obama focuses on issues. What makes him an effective speaker also makes him more cautious and believable in a debate – he thinks before he reacts.
And it is the way he thinks – “more like what leaders do” – that impressed one of those “lifelong Republicans” in New York. Added another in the conversation: “No, it’s not just that he’s more articulate, and it’s not because I believe in all his policies. I just trust him to work things through.”
Has Dr. King’s day finally come? When people are judged not for “the color of their skin but the content of their character”?
“I don’t know about that,” said the Republican, “but I do know that Obama is far more comfortable in his own skin.”