There are two theories about Barack Obama, who last Saturday won Wyoming’s primary, 60-40, netting himself an extra — woo-hoo! — seven delegates to Hillary’s four.
The first is that he is a babe-in-the-wood: a bright, distinctive person who has fashioned himself through successive identities – Hawaii stoner, undergrad lefty, thinker, community organiser and then legislator – into exactly the sort of person who could win the 2008 election, based on a distinctive take on America today.
America, in this take, is so bewildered, with so many people outside of the political system, so distanced from a basic sense of power, that a different type of political discourse – essentially a pre-political discourse – is necessary to win them.
Thus, there is no point talking about what sort of health system should be achieved, before you remind people that it is something that can be done, and that they can play a part in doing it. No point talking about class in a world where so many float in a hazy social flux, with very little sense of identity coming from work. No point talking more than vestigially about race, at a time when race consciousness has diverted into the fantasy world of wealth and power portrayed by rap, movies, P. Diddy merchandising. And so on.
Obama, it is said, has understood this, but he also never understood that it would hit a brick wall at some point in the process, as it went up against the no-holds-barred politics and personae of Clinton and McCain.
On this reading, Obama will either lose the nomination or the presidential campaign, and go down in history as one of the great quirky moments in American politics, before normal service resumed.
The second version has Obama developing same as the first, with the addition that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and come the campaign proper, on the base of a changed political discourse, will add a bit of old style politics and throw a whole display-village worth of kitchen sinks at McCain, nailing him to war and recession and as the candidate of the old world, with an unstable temper to match.
Obama’s history would suggest the latter is true. He moved into politics via the south side of Chicago, and you don’t get a bigger or older machine than that.
Prior to that, his community organising had taught him that you had to apply radically different methods to different constituencies. Among the disenfranchised poor, some people have to be put together from broken pieces lying on the ground, while a more organised opposition has to be shirt-fronted right back down to the other end of the street. Obama, by this assessment, is smarter than a bag of geeks.
However, his current performance has many people leaning to the former. Outflanked by Hills in the firewall/Super Tuesday II (i.e. Ohio and Texas) primaries, with a lack of drive, poor tactics and a fuzzy message, this loss has been Bama’s “tell”, according to some. No Lenin of the stockyards, he – Mr Yes We Can is more Hamlet, with a program conceived in a bounded nutshell, eaten up by a movement facing nothing better than the anti-inspiration of a Hillary coronation. Facing the resistance of the real, he collapses into diffidence, the very opposite of the audacity he’s trying to summon up in others. More of a sniff of that, and party heavies and superdelegates will chance just about any grassroots revolt to seat Hillary as the nominee, convinced that only she has what it takes to destroy McCain.
Many of those wavering will be making their decision over the next few weeks. The Pennsylvania primary on April 22 will be a test not only as the last big delegate haul, but as to whether Obama can give the sort of campaign that would indicate he has the guts to go all the way.
There is now no possibility that either candidate can get over the line on pledged delegates alone, and precious little chance of Hillary overtaking Bama, given the proportional nature of the voting. However if it were possible to somehow include Michigan and Florida in the race that could change. Time ran out today to call an actual primary proper, but some sort of mail-in primary – with its exciting possibilities of fraud on an elephantine scale – is being mooted by guess who.
Camp Clinton is also keen on the idea of a dream joint ticket – Hillary’s almost exact quote being “I think it’s a good idea as long as I’m President” – the sort of dream, for Obama, from which you wake up screaming.
The point is that there has never been any doubt about Hillary’s ability to tear the joint up – but Obama is being tested at every moment, as to how he stands up to a whirlwind of aggression, i.e. McCain.
And here is where my theory of Obama’s psychic judo comes in, because I think he would play McCain like a cheap fiddle. It’s been five days since he got the nomination, and he’s already had one classic snap moment when a reporter asked him a complicated question about his 2004 discussions with John Kerry about being the latter’s vice-presidential candidate. The conversation was basically “no”, but once McCain knocked it on the head, he had to bludgeon it around a bit, laying into the reporter in a way that looked to a lot of people like an uncontrollable outburst. All Obama would need to do is to tickle that reflex – which you have to say may not be unrelated to six years in a jungle prison – a few times, and present himself as Mr Cool versus the man who wants to blow up the world.
Or be ridden over. For which, it must be said, he is getting a lot of practice. Mississippi primary on Tuesday, which he can’t lose. In theory.