“Now what you’ve all been waiting for….”
In the Huskies basketball stadium, all regal purple banners and white-painted girders, they’re already on their feet and cheering, before the MC can finish the sentence…”would you please welcome…”
Ten thousand people steeply banked to the ceiling, students, Seattle folk, out-of-towners, some from Canada (“dude, he’s not even your President”). The kids are freshers and sophomores, girls with brown hair and baby fat, guys with college tops and peach-fuzz. The adults? Farmers, ex-hippies, old draft dodgers, dockers, timberworkers. Short hair and salt-and-pepper ponytails, grey sweats and Jimi Hendrix tie-dye.
Up in the gods, there’s half a dozen guys in t-shirts for ‘Rossi’, the challenger, standing in a wall, politely ignored. Everyone else is holding shining red signs for Senator Patty Murray, “helping people solve problems”, the room’s a spray of blood.
We’ve had two hours of the usual for a stadium appearance, one hour wait time, a nu-style gospel choir — Amazing Grace, Somebody To Lean On — Congressman Jim Ansley, who played for the college team, “Go huskies”, huge roar, another Congressman, an old Irish dock-bar fighter, and Christine Gregoire, the state’s junior senator.
We’d started with the Pledge of Allegiance and Star-spangled banner, the type of revolutionary anthem I’d give my left hand to be able to put my right hand over my heart for. Country rock filled the gap, aural Starbucks, functional and inoffensive. The Mexican waves had a langorous air, folks throwing up one hand, without getting up or even shifting in their seat, much.
But now it’s the main event, and all reserve goes. The signs wave furiously, the diminutive Murray bounces on stage, and Obama follows her in an impossibly crisp white shirt. After a tilt to the crowd, “wassup Seattle!” and the roar back, he has to stand tilted towards Murray listening attentively as she gives the spiel. Barely able to be seen over the podium, she’s nevertheless in command.”Volunteer at the phonebank, walk the precinct….update your Facebook status page!'”
“The senator in tennis shoes” — an old community activist, she was elected to a school board and kept on going — has a fight on her hands for the first time since taking office in 1992. Though she’s regarded as a tireless worker for the state and its people, the anti-Obama, anti-Pelosi, anti-incumbent wave has hit her hard.
Rossi’s a former senator in the state assembly, and head of ways and means. Balancing the budget in 2002 gave him a reputation for bipartisanship, which he’s now running hard away from, trumpeting his low-tax, anti-abortion credentials. Patty Murray beat back all comers by ten per cent or more each previous time out. She campaigned for and got student grants, for and got big air force contracts, for and got a clean-up of Puget Sound. Through the 90s and 2000s she was seen as Washington state first and Democrat second by a lot of people who wouldn’t have much time for the likes of her otherwise.
But now she’s leading by one or two per cent. Washington state would be a disastrous loss for the Democrats, and the past week has seen Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and now Obama come through town. This last one’s the best. The atmos is near embarrassing. Kids are shouting out “I love you Barack!”
“Well, I love you too,” he tells them back, on the third go. He’s filled out a little since oh eight; there were times that year when he looked twenty-six. Now, there’s more heft, and some grey in the tight curls of his hair. Speech-wise, he’s broadened also. Either his impossibly young writing team got tougher, or others were drafted in, because this is a harder sell than any I heard last time around. He begins by rousing them up — “Everyone’s telling us, no we can’t, and you’re saying…” and the crowd roars back, “Yes we can.” That’s only to let them down:
“When I took office we were losing three hundred, five hundred thousand jobs a month. We lost eight million jobs before my economic plan even got started. I hoped that when I got to Washington we could put aside our differences work together…we’re proud to be Democrats but prouder to be Americans!”
Big roar on that, but:
“The Republicans want to pretend they had nothing to do with. The Republicans are betting on amnesia. Seattle it’s up to you to tell them you haven’t forgotten.”
After that, he’s got a shaggy dog story, a two line gag — “The Republicans drove the car into the ditch, we got it out, now they want the keys back” — which he’s turned into a five minute extravaganza… “an we’re down there, Patty Murray and I in the ditch, and Patty’s small but she’s strong, and the Republicans are up there on the road, telling us we’re getting their car out wrong…”
For this crowd, it goes over hugely, but he steps on the punch line a little, his conviction failing perhaps. Maybe he’s done this sort of thing as a community organiser, but it sounds more like an adopted Bill Clinton style, to get him out of the realm of abstraction and wonkery.
“See it’s just like in a car — you hit the ‘D’ when you want to go forward and the ‘R’ when you want to go in reverse!”
Another huge roar. So why the hell didn’t they use a simple image like that in the campaign, in the ads. It’s a great non-sequitur, like the line by Tea Party women — Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell — to their opponents to “man up”, or, even better, “get your man-pants on”. There’s only two responses to that: either “Why don’t you grow a brain you dangerous psycho-bimbo” or pure spluttering.
Obama ramps it up by getting on to the campaign finance thing, and then onto the argument from failure: “…the Republicans say they want to do the exact same thing that already failed. Nothing is more certain than that that would fail again.”
Then getting out the volunteers: “…because of what you did last time, people don’t have to choose which medicine to buy; because of you more kids will go to college, because of you … and if as many people vote in this election as last we will win!”
By which he means of course, lose less badly than presumed, and retain both Houses. He ends with the Revolution, and its triumph through audacity: “…thirteen colonies, if they’d listened to the doubters it never would have happened, we wouldn’t be here! The slaves wouldn’t have been freed, women wouldn’t have gained equal rights.”
The cheering starts, and it ramps up, and by the time he’s urging everyone to make a hundred phone calls and walk a precinct, we can’t hear him but we know what he’s saying.
He exits, working the barrier. The crowd keeps waving a sea of placards. The deaf-sign interpreters, in the stands not on stage, lean back exhausted. The pool press descend on the crowd, notebooks in hand. More country rock, Only in America by Brooks and Dunn from 2001, enough description for you to know it, without hearing it ever, and the morning’s one concession to this exceptionalism, the crack habit of American politics.
Out in the University grounds, I look for the Dino Rossi boys, but they’ve gone. There’s the LaRouchites, with their Obamahitler posters, and their “Biden 2010 — impeach Obama” posters, but I don’t want to kill the buzz. Beside the stadium, the wheelchair-bound, the becrutched, the dog-led blind (“don’t pet me, I’m at work” the sign reads) are getting out first.
I pick a black kid. Cameron, in a wheelchair with an Obama t-shirt, being wheeled out by his mom, Robin.
“I work in telecoms, my husband in sales.”
And has anything Obama’s done made a difference?
“Oh yes, now insurers can’t exclude us for a pre-existing condition.”
I’m conscious I’m talking across the kid. I ask him “…what do you want to do when you leave school?”
“Ah, I don’t know.”
“And if you don’t mind me asking what is your condition?”
Robin prompts him, gently “tell him.”
Second question should have been first, and the first question wouldn’t have been asked.
Should the healthcare bill be repealed, they would sell their house as Cameron’s condition worsened, and declare bankruptcy when the funds ran out.
There would be better ways to assuage this than mandating insurance, with a more perfect healthcare bill, but perhaps this comes down to the good and bad compromises thing.
For some there is no waiting.