E.J. Dionne's column in the Washington Post asked this question about Barack Obama: "Is he Adlai Stevenson or John F. Kennedy?" In the New Republic online, John Judis wondered if Obama might be "the next" George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee who lost in a landslide. Both are interesting questions. But there's a more relevant and important one: Is Obama who he says he is?
This matters because Americans choose an individual, not a party, to fill the presidency. If voters elected the next president by party preference, the White House successor to George W. Bush would almost certainly be a Democrat. But we don't. And in 2008, as political scientist James Ceaser has noted, "the choice of the person will loom large"--indeed, larger than usual.
Senator Obama, the most exciting presidential candidate in decades and the likely Democratic nominee, is the main reason. He's running a strikingly personal campaign that places far less emphasis on ideology or a partisan agenda than on the man himself, Obama the person. He's running as a new kind of national leader who rejects "the same old politics" and intends to change the way Washington works and the country is governed.
This self-description is idealistic, lofty, and extravagant. He further characterizes himself as someone who unites political foes, rejects partisanship, will end polarization, and is neither a liberal nor an elitist. If what he says is true, he comes close to being what most Americans say they seek in a president. But is he telling the truth?
Let's look at Obama's claims for himself without either flyspecking them for flaws or setting the bar too high. No one should expect a politician to be brutally candid in talking about himself. That's asking too much. Exaggeration is acceptable. Dishonesty isn't.
Is it fair for Obama to call himself a uniter who brings people together? That depends on whether you're talking about his presidential campaign or his three-plus years in the Senate. An impressive coalition of liberal (John Kerry, Chris Dodd) and moderate Democrats (Sam Nunn, Oklahoma governor Brad Henry) has come together to support Obama's candidacy. He's also proved attractive to independents and to a surprising number of Republicans.
But as a senator--and this surely is a more important test--Obama has been anything but a uniter. Instead, he's a reliable Democratic vote. He infuriates Republican senators when he campaigns as a Democrat willing and eager to compromise with them. It's practically never happened.
The most notable instance of bipartisanship since Obama entered the Senate was the Gang of 14, seven Republicans and seven Democrats who reached agreement on judicial nominations. Obama lauded the group but didn't join it. Why not? Because the senators allowed several conservative nominees to be confirmed.
Obama was a minor player in the bipartisan Senate bill on immigration that failed last year. But he violated the spirit of the compromise. After authors agreed to put an item in the bill at Obama's request, he proceeded to vote for poison pill amendments favored by liberal groups, amendments that, if passed, would have killed the bipartisan deal.
Despite polarization, the Senate is an opportunity-rich environment for bipartisan compromise. But Obama has never been a leader in crossing the aisle. His most famous stab at compromise was a lobbying reform bill he cosponsored with John McCain. But Obama eventually backed out, prompting an angry response from McCain.
Ideology? The National Journal rated Obama's voting record the most liberal in the Senate, but he says he's not a liberal. "Oh, he's liberal, he's liberal," he said last month, making fun of his critics. "Let me tell you something. There's nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics. That is common sense. There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home. There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure everybody has health care." He didn't mention his voting record.
Obama uses the phrase "okey-doke" to characterize the old-fashioned politics he opposes. One of his responses to the liberal charge is: "Don't let them run that 'okey-doke' on you."
But it's Obama's insistence he's not a liberal that's closer to being an okey-doke. On every major issue, foreign or domestic, he votes the liberal line. And he has yet to defy the wishes of a single major liberal pressure group. He's supposedly waiting for the fall election to do so. Moderates and conservatives await that moment.
Obama is equally emphatic in denying he's an elitist. To be fair, "elitism" is a somewhat amorphous charge, based particularly on his comment at a San Francisco fundraiser last month that small town Pennsylvanians are "bitter" about their circumstances and "cling" to issues like guns and religion as a result. Obama has said he was misunderstood, but he hasn't repudiated his statement.
He took Hillary Clinton to task for saying, "I'm elitist, out of touch, condescending. Let me be absolutely clear. It would be pretty hard for me to be condescending towards people of faith since I'm a person of faith and have done more than most other campaigns in reaching out specifically to people of faith. . . . The same is true with respect to gun owners. . . . They have supported me precisely because I have listened to them and I know them well."
Obama told a gathering of veterans in Washington, Pennsylvania, he's "amused at this notion of elitist." He noted he was "raised by a single mom," was "on food stamps for a while," and "went to school on scholarship. . . . So when somebody makes that argument, particularly given that I've spent my entire life working with workers, low-income communities, to try to make people's lives a little better, then that's when you know we're in political silly season."
He has a point. Growing up and then as a young lawyer, he wasn't an elitist. But the issue now, for what it's worth, is whether Obama belongs to the educated, sophisticated upper class of urban America, and reflects the attitudes of this class. At least in stolen moments, he does.
So is Obama who he says he is? Of course not. He's a liberal, a bit to the left, and, like most graduates of Harvard Law, a member of America's meritocratic (but nonetheless elite) upper class. He's seized on a big idea--bringing Americans together in a rebirth of national unity--to frame his campaign. Does this make him a phony? I don't think so. But it does make him something else he insists he's not, a conventional politician with a clever spiel.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.