For me, none of this [disagreement in the Senate] was entirely surprising. From a distance, I had followed the escalating ferocity of Washington’s political battles: Iran-Contra and Ollie North, the Bork nomination and Willie Horton, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, the Clinton election and the Gingrich Revolution, Whitewater and the Starr investigation, the government shutdown and impeachment, dangling chads and Bush v. Gore. With the rest of the public, I had watched campaign culture metastasize throughout the body politic, as an entire industry of insult—both perpetual and somehow profitable—emerged to dominate cable television, talk radio, and the New York Times bestseller list.
And for eight years in the Illinois legislature, I had gotten some taste of how the game had come to be played. By the time I arrived in Springfield in 1997, the Illinois Senate’s Republican majority had adopted the same rules that Gingrich was then using to maintain absolute control of the U.S. House. Without the capacity to get even the most modest amendment debated, much less passed, Democrats would shout and holler and fulminate, and then stand by helplessly as Republicans passed large corporate tax breaks, stuck it to labor, or slashed social services. Over time, an implacable anger spread over the Democratic caucus, and my colleagues would carefully record every slight and abuse meted out by the GOP. Six years later, Democrats took control, and Republicans fared no better. Some of the older veterans would wistfully recall the days when Republicans and Democrats met at night for dinner, hashing out compromise over a steak and cigar. But even among these old bulls, such fond memories rapidly dimmed the first time the other side’s political operatives selected them as targets, flooding their districts with mail accusing them of malfeasance, corruption, incompetence, and moral turpitude.
Reading this, straightforward description of political machinations though it may be, is enough to make me cry. I’m usually skeptical of rosy descriptions of how much better things were in the good old days, but it’s pretty clear that our political culture has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Sadly, I think that the splintering of communications channels has a lot to do with it — and yes, that includes blogs. Not only can everyone get news and information from sources that confirm their worst prejudices, but there is plenty of nonsense available on the other side (whatever that may be) for them to make fun of and feel superior. I don’t have any clever prescriptions for making it better, but increasing polarization and scorched-earth tactics will be an incredible barrier to political progress for decades to come.
Obama, of course, has a magical gift for overcoming (or at least seeming to) these barriers. What he says makes so much sense, and he says it so well, and it directly speaks to a yearning that so many people have for a more dignified and respectful dialogue, it’s hardly surprising that he’s become such a hit in such a short time. Too bad, people say, that he’s not more experienced, or he’d make a great candidate for national office — but for 2008 Democrats seem to be stuck with a field so uninspiring that Al Gore is thought of as some sort of savior.
Well, screw that. I think Obama should run in ’08. (And I’m sure his strategy team is hanging on my every word.) What’s wrong with being young and inexperienced? Obama will be 47 that year — Teddy Roosevelt was 42, John Kennedy was 43, and Bill Clinton was 46 when they were elected, and they did okay. Sure, he’s had less than one full term in the Senate, but that seems like an advantage rather than a liability. The Senate tends to gradually strangle its members’ suitability to run for President, as they become accustomed to its lethargic rhythms and hamstrung by awkward voting records. Now is the perfect time! Obama should run while he’s still a hot property. (Not that I think he actually will.)
Of course, there is an elephant in the room that Obama would have to deal with if he ran for the White House — namely, he’s black. Pundits like to contemplate African-American candidates like Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice, but my suspicion is that there are a substantial number of Americans who just aren’t going to vote for a black candidate, even if they won’t admit it to pollsters. And that certainly doesn’t only include Republicans. On the other hand, Obama could set an inspirational example just by running a competitive campaign, regardless of the outcome. It’s long past time that the U.S. had a President who wasn’t yet another white male; now is as good a time as any.