I like Barack Obama. The Clintons, not so much. But the Clintons are right and Obama is wrong.
Over the last week, the Obama camp has tried to suggest, insinuate, whisper or wink that the Clintons are somehow racist. Obama's staff sent out a memo compiling some quotes that allegedly demonstrate the "racial insensitivity" of Hillary Clinton's campaign. The Obama folks are fanning the overreaction to her suggestion that President Lyndon Johnson was a more substantive agent of change on civil rights than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Obama is also fueling the flatly erroneous view that Bill Clinton called Obama's historic run as the first credible black presidential candidate a "fairy tale." (Clinton used that phrase in reference to Obama's claim to have been consistently antiwar.)
However poorly the Clintons or their subalterns may have chosen their words, does anyone seriously believe the Clintons are racists? Anyone? Anyone? Of course not.
And this points to the real reason Obama's candidacy is a fairy tale, and it has nothing to do with being black or opposing the war. It's because he's selling a dream, not reality.
Obama's whole campaign is based on some of the most noble and inspiring sentiments in political life: hope, togetherness, bipartisanship. As he proclaimed last February at a Democratic National Committee meeting: "There are those who don't believe in talking about hope. They say, ŒWell, we want specifics, we want details, and we want white papers, and we want plans.' We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope. And over the next year, over the next two years, that will be my call to you."
He's stayed true to that pledge. Not only does he talk about hope - a lot - he talks about the importance of talking about hope. He talks about how he hopes to talk more about talking about the importance of talking about hope. Hopefully.
He touts unity the same way. If we all buy into his "message of hope," he explains, then everybody - blacks and whites, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, lions and gnus, bears and park rangers, Superman and Lex Luthor - will be united!
But united toward what end, exactly? Or does it all boil down to being united about being hopeful and hopeful about being united?
Obama's fairy tale is the idea that we can get beyond disagreement. But Democracy is about disagreement, not agreement. We have real arguments in this country, and the political arena exists for us to hash them out peacefully. Obama's - and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's - "post-partisan" snake oil promises to take the disagreement out of democracy. You can't do that.
What if you disagree with Obama's ideas? Are you suddenly against hope? Given recent events, it seems that if you're not with the Obama program, you're fair game for tarring as a crypto-racist. And that's what Obama supporters are willing to say about the Clintons! (Of course, I can barely scrape together two molecules of sympathy for the Clintons. They've been playing games with race for years, using the same tactics against their enemies that the Obamans are now using on them.) If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, imagine what hairballs will be coughed up at the Republicans.
Unity around an issue - war, health care, education - is a legitimate appeal. But you can't defend America with hope; you can't heal people with unity. Further, it is morally antithetical to democratic values to demand unity for unity's sake. And it is quite literally impossible to govern that way.
(The irony here is that liberals have been complaining for years that the GOP too often appeals to voters' patriotism, yet they don't object to Obama's appeal for unity. Idealistic unity for all Americans - isn't that just a no-frills version of patriotism?)
So far, not even all Democrats have embraced Obama's gassy rhetoric of hope and togetherness, so there's no reason to suspect that Republicans and independents will rally around those themes during an Obama presidency, at least not for long.
This is one area where I agree with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In his book "The Conscience of a Liberal," he argues that progressives have one distinct set of priorities and conservatives have a very different set, so both have to be partisan if they want to get their way. There's no reason people can't be well-mannered and open-minded in their disagreements, but the more important priority is that both sides should give their view the strongest argument they can and not give a fig about bipartisanship for its own sake. Agreement on that point is all the unity we need.