August 28, 2008
Now that the pieces of the Democratic presidential puzzle have been put together, the picture turns out looking like a Picasso portrait: No part of the face is in the right place.
A year ago — or was it two? — when the pieces were all jumbled around, you may have expected that by convention time you’d see Hillary Clinton assuming the mantle of the beloved Bill, with the young and charismatic Barack Obama by her side, eager to be tested and tutored for the top spot eight years hence — the makings of an enduring Democratic dominance. Surrounding them, you’d see Senator Joe Biden, ready to lead the State Department, and the host of other eminently qualified primary candidates — John Edwards now excepted — poised to compose an illustrious, coherent cabinet.
Instead, you see the callow Obama at the center, the hoary Biden at his side, and the Clintons in the corner, relegated to symbolic votes and prime-time speeches.
Amidst the confetti and the roar of the crowd, the array on display in the Denver stadium may prick a pang of doubt in more than one Democratic heart. After all those debates and the retail politicking and the profligate campaign ads, could the (slim) majority of primary voters have gotten it wrong? Were they so absorbed in the intra-party drama that they could not see the realities of the national fight?
The picture only began to seem seriously out of whack at the Obama-Biden photo op last Saturday. Seeing them locked in the stereotypical candidates’ embrace, the elder statesman and the junior Senator, you couldn’t help wondering whether the Clintons were right. Months and months of allusions to Obama’s inexperience, supposedly disposed of by the results of the primaries, came haunting the brain like a 3 a.m. nightmare. So it might be true after all: Do the Democrats need a Cheney of their own to mentor their Decider? Will all the talk of new-generation politics and that stand-alone word "change," always more rhetorical than real, sparkle like fireworks in the Colorado sky — and vanish?
Obama’s own section of the puzzle is itself composed of many pieces which voters, even after two years of trying, still can’t assemble. Incredibly, the pollsters continue to find that large numbers of the electorate "don’t know who he is." Why? — His life’s journey has been spread before them insistently by the campaign and the media. Partly it may be insidious, subconscious racism, the kind that makes Whites look through Blacks instead of at them: the Invisible Man. But partly it may be Obama’s particular personality, where the fiery charisma he displays on the stump turns to a stutter in the interview or debate. Unlike the ironic and impish John Kennedy, the ebullient and engaging Bill Clinton, or the alliterative and incisive Jesse Jackson, Obama’s off-the-cuff presence is distant and humorless, almost robotic. In that respect, even many Blacks can’t figure him out: the color is right, but where is the soul?
Given the level of national disgust at the Bush administration and the general sympathy toward Democratic positions on major issues, Obama should now have a runaway lead in the polls; as it is, he’s neck-and-neck with McCain. Will the campaign emerging out of Denver be able to overcome the sense that somehow the arrangement is askew? Unless the Democrats, like a good art teacher, can reveal the beauty and the genius of their Picasso portrait by election day, people may end up voting for the devil they think they know.