Thoughts on the improbable

As the dust settles in Iowa and the field of contenders begins to dwindle, Jeff Zeleny offers this analysis for the New York Times:

Whether it was because they were eager to leave behind the bitter divides of the last two decades or because they wanted to send a message that a small white state could transcend the issue of race, Iowa voters handed Senator Barack Obama a victory here Thursday and supported his improbable candidacy in defiance of those who warned he was too inexperienced in world affairs.

Now, I admit there is a good feeling about Obama’s Iowa victory, in no small part because Hillary Clinton is, essentially, my bottom-shelf candidate. I’ll support her in the general election without doubt, but I would prefer the Democratic Party put up almost any other candidate. I have my reasons. Some of them have to do with her womanhood. Some have to do with her name. And some have to do with the fact that I can barely tell she’s a Democrat.

But this isn’t about Hillary Clinton. This is about Barack Obama and his “improbable candidacy”.

Those two words—improbable candidacy—strike me oddly, because it was after the rising star from Illinois delivered his now-famous “Audacity of Hope” speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that I first started hearing about the idea of Barack Obama for president. His election to the U.S. Senate seemed a mere stepping stone, a prerequisite to satisfy those who wanted a candidate with federal experience. Indeed, we can take a strange sort of comfort in John Kerry’s befuddling defeat in 2004 because it brings us the Obama run this year, instead of in 2012.

The idea seems almost silly, but the truth is that the party has been grooming Obama for this run, and Democratic supporters have been nearly salivating over the last four years at the thought of being able to send a black man to the White House.

And the press has played along. As the conservative shills over at mourned in the wake of the 2004 convention, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews exclaimed that he had just seen the first black President.

And perhaps we did. Perhaps it was our misplaced confidence in the Kerry campaign that pushed away those thoughts of President Obama. Foolishly thinking there was no way the country could possibly endorse a second term for George W. Bush, the idea of President Obama seemed something to talk about for the 2012 election.

But a second Bush term is what we ended up with, and what we have suffered through, and while there is certainly a list of suspects to blame—very few of whom are Muslim, foreign, or classified as terrorists—in the end the People can only blame themselves. Democrats and liberals can complain all they want about whether or not Ohio was stolen, but the truth of the matter is that it never should have been so close in the first place. Iowa Caucus turnoutMr. Zeleny credits the Obama candidacy with nearly doubling the turnout at this year’s Iowa caucuses, although a graphic accompanying the story reminds that the 2004 election also saw a doubling of the prior cycle. So while Obama fever is an impossible phenomenon to deny, we might also look to the suggestion of the first female president as contributing to the increased enthusiasm.

And what of the real improbability here, which is not a candidacy but the ongoing disaster of the Bush administration? I do not know how Iowans regard our northern neighbors, but reports of parity between American and Canadian currency and the subsequent woes of Canadian booksellers unsettled more than a few in some border states where transnational commerce is almost second nature. It seems fair to wonder if the state of the union, as such, contributed any to the Iowa turnout. The Bush debacle has been such that the economy has moved to the fore, and more than the war in Iraq presidential candidates seem to be playing to voters’ concerns about health care.

Indeed, the Bush Wars, once a vital theme of GOP discourse, has begun to cost the party dearly. Jackie Calmes and Michael M. Phillips reported last month, for the Wall Street Journal:

For months, Dale Albright, a 30-year-old Tampa, Fla., bankruptcy lawyer, has watched as his clients buckle under mortgage and credit-card debts. After an expensive recent hospital stay, he’s worried that a run of bad luck could leave him in financial straits, too.

“I care about bringing our troops home…and for the most part, I believe as far as domestic terrorism goes, I think we’ve got that pretty much under control,” Mr. Albright says. “But the economy really scares me.” A longtime Republican, this election he says he’s voting Democrat ….

…. Fifty-two percent of Americans say the economy and health care are most important to them in choosing a president, compared with 34% who cite terrorism and social and moral issues, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. That is the reverse of the percentages recorded just before the 2004 election. The poll also shows that voters see health care eclipsing the Iraq war for the first time as the issue most urgently requiring a new approach.

The figures partly reflect the better news from Iraq, where security has improved since the U.S. added troops and cut deals with Sunni Muslim tribal leaders. Some voters link the issues of the economy and Iraq. Richard Scown, a 61-year-old equipment-lease broker in Las Vegas, frets about “all the money we’re spending there, and all the issues we have here.”

Mr. Scown, a lifelong Republican, says he and his wife probably will vote for the Democratic nominee. “The Republicans haven’t shown anything yet to suggest they’ve got a clue about the direction we’re going with the economy,” he says.

The United States is enduring a precipitous slide many would have thought improbable at the start of the Bush years. Indeed, even those who sneered that Gore would have handled the Enron collapse better did not seriously predict we could find the nation in such a slump six years later. Politically, there is only so much ill will one can wish upon the opposition. Those of us who shrugged at the 2004 outcome and said, “This is what the people want,” did not imagine they asked for this.

While there is much focus on sex and skin color, and the question of the Boomer generation hangs over the cycle, it seems difficult to justify the focus on any one candidate. In this case it’s Obama, and if one doubts how skewed that focus has become in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, simply check in with Mr. Zeleny’s New York Times colleague David Brooks, whose Redfernesque analysis will bring a smile to the faces of regular Doonesbury readers.

Is Obama the Democratic nominee? It is far too early to tell. Polls showed Obama leading Iowa, but Hillary Clinton leading in New Hampshire (Jan. 8), and dominating Michigan (Jan. 15) and Nevada (Jan. 19). South Carolina (Jan. 26) is close, but the numbers in Florida (Jan. 29) suggest a Clinton win in the panhandle. Theoretically, we could see Mega-Tuesday arrive with Hillary Clinton having won four states to Obama’s two. Maybe if Obama rides Iowa to a New Hampshire win, it will be time to talk of earthquakes, but for now the man who was, in 2004, anointed by many to be the next Democratic nominee faces steep challenges through the rest of the month. He poll strongest in South Carolina, and just as his win in Iowa might upset the balance in New Hampshire, a string of second-place finishes behind Clinton could just as easily weaken his position among Palmetto voters.

Congratulations to Senator Obama for his Iowa win. I wish him and his colleagues only the best. But if we wish to give him all the credit that is his due, it is simply too early for some of the praise being poured upon him. In truth, the rush to melodrama does a disservice to everyone involved. Mr. Obama is an excellent candidate; the voters are as awake and aware as they have been in years; and the press simply ought to know better. Let us remember that this election about the people of the United States and their future. It is not about advert revenues or nifty awards that look good on a journalist’s curriculum vitae.