Courage

Just in case you had any doubts, the GOP sees Rev. Wright as their “pathway to victory” against Barack Obama.  Rick Wilson, the guy who engineered Vietnam Veteran and former Senator Max Cleland’s defeat by tying him to Osama bin Laden, is outright salivating.  The next guise of Swift Boaters are already rubbing their hands together, and grinning malevolently.

Indeed, as the Politico has reported, up until now the GOP’s preferred candidate in the Democratic race has been Hillary Clinton, a target they have long known and were eager to getting back to attacking.  But among some, that has changed who feel as though Reverand Wright is the albatross that will ultimately sink Obama’s campaign.

As scary of a proposition as all this seems, I say bring it on.

One of the overarching themes of Obama’s speech yesterday was that there must be a concerted effort to forge change or we will be stuck in the same routines.  He attributed this platitude specifically, showing that we have a choice to either continue to treat racial tensions in this country as we always have, in a manner that fails to work, that continues to allow elections to be won to the tune of a dog whistle, or we can change that, we can admit our faults honestly, and actually start to move forward.

It is a theme that needs to resound among Democrats in the way they approach elections; timid, frightened, choosing the candidate that is the least likely to be damaged as opposed to taking bigger risks on candidates that could achieve so much more.  We have seen the Republican Attack Machine, and we specifically choose candidates based on that Republican Attack Machine, we let it guide our decision making process and at that moment, we’ve already lost.  We’ve already let the Republicans control the debate.

We have encouraged a culture within the party that is so afraid of getting hit because they think that candidates can’t get off the mat after taking one in the bread basket.  The problem is, going that route, we tend to get candidates that don’t get up off the mat when invariably they do get hit despite our best efforts.  I’m talking about Kerry getting swift boated and then being so politically paralyzed that the attacks festered and worked their way through the electorate while Team Kerry seemingly ignored it, praying for someone else to debunk the story in time.

And if we cow ourselves down to what Republicans are already making known will be their line of attack, it’s going to happen again, and again.  I will often times criticize Democrats in governance for their lack of courage, but that lack of courage extends to the way they play politics.  We’re the kids in the marching band who stop wearing underwear to avoid wedgies only to have our pants pulled down around our ankles in gym class instead.

So the choice to stand up to this perceived threat is scary as hell.  But courage isn’t doing what is easy.  Courage isn’t doing something others are afraid to do but you aren’t; it’s doing something you’re afraid to do because you know that doing what is right is worth possibly crashing and burning for.

And in this instance, in this definition of courage, Obama was tested and passed that test. He did not run from Jeremiah Wright, which would have continued the pattern. He didn’t deliver a speech full of political platitudes meant to passify the controversy of now, but instead began a conversation with America; a difficult conversation. It was not universally well received and is not easily chopped up into the kind of soudbites the media is designed for. He sat down, and had a conversation with adults.

Initially, today I wanted to do a cynical analysis of the speech. I wanted to take it from the jaded side. And in this discussion, I am going to acknowledge the political realities to make my greater point. As great as yesterday’s speech was, as much as it moved so many people who heard it, it angered others, it was panned by others.

Those who do not profit from the broader theme that Obama represented yesterday went on the attack in full force; just look at the right side of the blogosphere in too many pieces to even start linking to right now, but memeorandum has a large portion of that opinion. These are largely people who do not profit from an electorate that is not easily controlled by dog whistles, and opinion peddlers who do not profit from a political landscape where people have actual discussions with each other.

To a smaller degree we see some rejection among some of the Clintonites. I commend Taylor Marsh for not launching into one of her typically hate filled anti-Obama screeds, but NO QUARTER held no such grace.

It is the old adage, you can’t please everyone, and if you’re measuring success by one hundred percent approval, than you’re bound to fail. If one were to measure Obama’s success by winning over a hundred percent of the electorate, and all of a sudden racists of all stripes are sitting down at the table with those ethnic groups that they hate, yeah, it was a failure.

But keep in mind, in a similar situation, most Democratic strategists would be screaming “apologize and attack”. Bury the story, move on, slime your opponents worse than they are sliming you so that no one remembers your own dirt, that’s political conventional wisdom. Or, ignore the story, pretend you don’t even hear it, and hope to God some other headline buries this one before you are fatally wounded, that’s also political conventional wisdom.

And he did neither.

He met the attacks head on, and instead of dropping to the lowest common denominator of politics, he chose to elevate the discussion. When all political conventional wisdom tells you to find a way to make it easier on yourself, Obama went the opposite direction and chose the more challenging path. He chose not to passify America, or pander to America, but instead he challenged America to take the next step in what is a deep and ugly racial divide.

And of course it has a high probability of not working. As I’ve said, there weren’t any soundbites in this speech, or at least not many. You have to run the speech in minutes long clips to grasp the ideas, and the mainstream media is not wired to report on that right now. It expects Americans who barely watch the evening news to fully digest a nearly forty minute long speech. It requires people to actually hear the full argument instead of pick and choose what they want to hear, and worst of all, it expects them to recognize their own faults regardless of which demographic they are divided into.

Yes, Obama’s decision may lose him the primary, or the General Election.

But you know something? I believe it is worth the risk. I believe that this is where we show courage and turn away from OUR way of politics, OUR way of taking the safe route because as we have learned most specifically through the Bush years, the safe route has proven not to be that safe anyway. It didn’t save Gore, and it didn’t save Kerry. Assuming Americans weren’t ready for nuance, or couldn’t handle the tough discussions, or couldn’t be talked to like adults didn’t help us prevent the march to war with Iraq, or pull us out when it was realized it was a big mistake. It didn’t prevent No Child Left Behind hamstringing our education professionals, and it didn’t prevent corporatists from running rampant on the economy.

Playing it safe has only put us in quicksand where we depend upon our opponents’ political misfortune for any kind of success.

When we get into the General Election, when our candidate gets hit left and right, this is the response I want. This appealing to America’s “better angels”. Yesterday Obama portrayed something progressives almost universally want out of a president, despite differences of opinion we may hold on various issues; he showed us a president who addressed Americans as adults, who elevated the discourse, who challenged us instead of patted us on the head and told us everything will be okay.

This is what we have been begging for, especially during the tenure of George W. Bush whose very existence runs contrary to this more metaphysical defintion of what a president should be.

So it is now up to us to choose it. It takes courage because it’s not a tested political formula. Some of the pundits may just well be right, America isn’t ready to be treated as adults, the media isn’t capable of covering politics in a more mature and less cereal box sort of manner. But if we don’t ever at least give it a shot, Obama is right, we will be doing the same thing the next election cycle, and the cycle after that, and so on and so forth until again someone asks us to be courageous enough to break the cycle, and forcibly demand that the way in which politics are dealt with in this country are fundamentally changed.

We may never know if we don’t do this thing right now.

As for the Republicans, who want to make Obama’s pastor a further issue, I say to you be careful what you wish for. Thus far you have embraced all too easily the dog whistles and code words of a particularly hateful and prominent bread of religious figures yourselves. While Obama’s relationship with Wright is best defended by the words he spoke yesterday, if you take this too far, I promise you you will be held to account for your own religious demons.

Now the argument is already out there, that it’s worse for Obama because he had a personal relationship with Wright. How is it worse than actively courting these people just to win elections? How is it worse than using these “men of God” to intentionally carve out a slim majority for your own political expedience.

I’m ready for that discussion too.

2 Responses to “Courage”

  1. The “hard-to-soundbite it” factor’s been mentioned. As (to anyone who visits memeorandum) the comments from the right that pan the speech.

    Thanks for taking the long view in your comments, especially where you talk of the courage to not back down. I hadn’t thought in those terms before, but your articulation strikes me as exactly right. If we keep running, they’ll continue doing it. If we stop and confront, and stand for something different, we change the terms of the debate — and show them up for what they are.

  2. Exactly! Thank you for commenting!

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