Barack Obama is down in the polls because he has lost control of the story.
Obama, the charismatic first-term senator from Illinois, won the Democratic nomination for president because his story was more powerful than Hillary Clinton’s. Clinton, you will recall, was the “inevitable” candidate, not because of the power of her oratory or ideas (she has neither), but because many people believe it is time to elect a woman to the Oval Office.
Then along comes Obama. With a C.V. that would make Dan Quayle blush, the young, lanky, smooth-talking product of Chicago machine politics has an elevated style of public speaking and a personal magnetism unfelt since a hungry “man from Hope” emerged from Arkansas in 1992. Yet what sets Obama apart are not his calls for “change” (everyone seemingly wants that) nor his political plans (warmed over liberalism). No, what Obama brings is a new narrative.
The narrative goes something like this: America, laden with guilt from its many “isms” (racism, sexism, militarism, consumerism), needs a fresh start. Enter stage left Sen. Obama, straight out of central casting. Yet unlike other prophets of change, Obama offers a restless America an historic bargain.
Obama, you see, is an African American definitely out of the mold of the grievance-mongering Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world. (For one thing, according to rival Joe Biden, Obama is appealingly “clean.”) Obama, like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan before him, has transcended race in the public imagination. Vote for Obama, the “transracial candidate,” and you will receive pardon for all your “isms.” You will get a fresh, clean start. You will get change.
“Repent!” Jesus commanded. “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” “Change!” Obama cries out. “We are the change we have been waiting for!” Hillary Clinton and her 18 million primary votes are unceremoniously shoved aside by the crowds throwing palm branches before the Obama bandwagon. Old-hand Joe Biden is brought on board, and no one seems to notice.
Everything seemingly hums along to the story’s expected conclusion: America overcomes its racism, global warming is turned back, and the only people who will have to pay for it all are those with annual incomes exceeding $250,000. Poor John McCain, the Republican nominee. All he has going for him is his reputation as a war hero and political maverick. But he is old, definitely yesterday’s news. Even his listless supporters seem to sense the new “inevitable.”
But McCain, the wiley old warrior, knows something about story. Lying in the weeds after the Democratic Convention, the Arizona senator fires a salvo that an overconfident Obama never expected. He taps Sarah Palin, a first-term, pro-gun, pro-life governor from Alaska and mother of five to be his running mate. Palin, who just months before has given birth to a son with Down syndome, shocks the world with a speech equal to anything Obama has ever uttered.
The new narrative electrifies the Republican Party’s conservative base and the nation. The resulting roar causes the young messiah to turn his head, and the bandwagon suddenly veers off course, landing in a ditch with an emphatic thud. Some of the women lining the parade route peel off to hear Palin.
Obama, shaken up, dispatches his minions in the press and the leftwing blogosphere to spread rumor and innuendo against the usurper. Perhaps they can find something-or invent something-to change the storyline. Promising a new politics, Obama shows he can be just as nasty as the brass-knuckle Clinton clan. And McCain/Palin show they can not only take a punch, but deliver one, too, getting a rattled Obama tangled up in a child’s story involving pigs and lipstick.
Who will get to write the final chapter in this story? Only time-and the next seven weeks-will tell. But it is safe to say that the uplifting narrative Obama was hawking has been left in a muddy ditch somewhere by the side of the road.