Thursday, January 3, 2008

Breaking through

Tonight, three months shy of forty years after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an African American man made America dream anew, and dared that nation to make that dream real.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the Iowa Democratic caucus today, defeating a political veteran of the White House and the Senate; a game, tenacious newcomer; the cynicism of other politicians and the press; and for now, at least, beating back the persistent malignant notion that past must be prologue in American politics.

For one Democrat, speaking to the Associated Press, Obama's victory "proves that America is changing when it comes to race and politics."

"Tonight,” Jamal Simmons said, “Barack Obama has made it more true that every black child in America can do whatever they want to if they work hard for it — really."

In fact, Simmons' heartfelt reaction was only part of the story, which was everywhere Thursday evening. Obama, of course, never ran on a platform that could even be remotely considered racialist in scope. The junior senator from Illinois outlined the broader challenges to the country: affordable health care, restoring integrity to government, stewardship of the environment, moves toward independence from foreign oil, and an end to the corrosive debacle that is the Iraq war.

But the other, unspoken takeaway from Obama’s resounding win couldn’t be ignored: In a state with a minority population under 10 percent, a rural state famed for a no-nonsense approach to politics favored by its citizens – citizens older than the national average – Barack Obama put to rout the question of whether an African American candidate could ever be a serious contender for the most important job in the world.

And Iowans responded. “[W]hat seemed to drive them,” the New York Times reported Friday morning, “was the idea that Mr. Obama would present a new face for America in the world, with a coalition of Democrats and independents dispelling skepticism and flooding caucuses in all corners of the state to support a man who came to Washington only three years ago.”

“One of the charges against Iowa is that we don’t really represent the rest of the country, and here’s a chance to make a statement about the inclusiveness of Iowa,” Jon Muller, 42, told The Times.

"You know, they said this day would never come," Obama said in his victory speech in Des Moines, addressing a crowd all but ready for rapture. "They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.

"But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this new year, 2008."

Their mission, should they choose to accept it? "To end the political strategy that's been all about division, and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.

"Because that's how we'll win in November, and that's how we'll finally meet the challenges that we face as a nation. We are choosing hope over fear."

NBC’s Howard Fineman, a lock to grasp the moment of such moments, understood both the challenge facing Obama in New Hampshire and the opportunity represented by Obama and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa Republican Caucus the same day.

Speaking of New Hampshire’s passionately independent voters, Fineman noted how “the interest that independent voters show, and that sometimes people from the other parties show, is a broader indicator of the excitement that some of these candidates are bringing to the campaign,” he said on MSNBC. “People don’t want your usual, traditional political candidates … At least in this first cut, voters are looking for outside-the-box candidates. That’s of appeal to independents.”

For Fineman, Obama’s race — race being the longtime third-rail issue in American life, the elephant in the room that has become the whole room in recent years — signifies “a generational change to a generation that, paradoxically, doesn’t look to race first. Obama’s race becomes a symbol for change, it becomes a mark of change, a measure of change from one generation to another.”

“The guy is a major phenomenon, he just is, and the whole world better look at him.”

For University of Toronto political science assistant professor Renan Levine, who teaches American politics, Obama is desirable "simply from the perspective that he would be a novelty.

“Research has shown voters are attracted to the idea of supporting someone who is a launching a historic campaign," Levine told the Web site in January 2007.

It may be too soon to know how much of Obama’s appeal is based on that sense of novelty, on the American inclination to try out the next big thing for a while, before moving on to something else. The Obama campaign heads now to New Hampshire, a state that is every bit as demographically white as Iowa is, and populated by a citizenry that is fiercely independent and deeply aware of the machinations of American politics.

But his message, hopefully importable to the Granite State, is clear:

A nation that has historically (and sometimes erroneously) thought of itself as a nation that thinks outside the box is ready for a true break with the divisive, antagonistic aspects of its past.

The days of this country being considered a convenient patchwork of warring political duchies, red and blue, are over. In Barack Obama’s cosmology, the nation has the opportunity to truly turn the page on its past, and return to the authority and greatness it deserves.

This is the vision he imparted to the crowd in Iowa (many reduced to joyful tears) and anyone in live-free-or-die New Hampshire, and everyone in the nation beyond:

This is the United States of America. There is no box.

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