Can hope pay the bills? Can it get people health insurance? Can it boost the minimum wage? Can it run the White House?
By the time they voted on Tuesday, New Hampshire voters had heard nonstop from the media how Barack Obama's campaign of hope was transformational. It was a movement. It was an unstoppable tide for change. It was drawing hordes of young people to packed rallies. Then, they stopped and asked the simple question, "Yes, but what's in it for me?"
The biggest loser in New Hampshire was the politics of abstraction. Ron Brownstein of the National Journal has described the Clinton-Obama contest as a classic Democratic fight between "warrior" (a Walter Mondale-type bread-and-butter candidate with appeal to down-market voters) and "priest" (a Gary Hart-style inspirational figure who stirs the young and liberal elites). Obama fulfilled the priest role to sublime perfection, preaching sermons of change that soared on the strength of their oratorical power and dissipated from their airy lack of substance.
Obama crushed Hillary among voters with post-graduate degrees (43-31 percent), with no religion (46-29 percent) and who describe themselves as getting ahead financially (48-31 percent). These voters were just as jazzed about Obama as the press, because they are the same kinds of people -- educated professionals who are moved by the abstract themes Obama has articulated so grandly.
Hillary, in contrast, dominated among lunch-bucket Democrats. She beat Obama among high-school graduates (46-31 percent), among Catholics (44-28 percent) and among those falling behind financially (43-33 percent). Clinton beat Obama among voters with incomes below $50,000; Obama beat her in almost every income group above that. Voters who think the economy is performing poorly went with Clinton; those who think it's performing well went with Obama.
Of course, Clinton won women and lost men, but 57 percent of voters were women. The most important number is that Clinton won Democrats by 11 points, while Obama won independents. Winning members of your own party never stirs the imagination of the media; it's merely the path to a presidential nomination.
Hillary didn't inspire in New Hampshire. The kitchen-sink attacks on Obama were often stupid and unworthy; a thin, white-haired Bill Clinton whining about Obama in front of bored-looking college students was pathetic; Hillary's near-crying jag was, if not a synthetic play for sympathy, certainly born of an exhausted self-pity. And yet, Hillary had grit. She withstood the glee over what everyone assumed would be her final comeuppance and relentlessly talked of policy to counter the man not just from Hope, like her husband, but by, for and of hope.
Her obsession with policy highlighted Obama's fallacy of missing concreteness. Voters might like change and unity, but they probably like their jobs and wages more. Hillary addressed bread and butter concerns in the closing days while Obama's Olympian oratory said, in effect, "Let them eat the audacity of hope."
During the summer, it seemed Hillary would be able to coast to the nomination on inevitability, triangulating all the way. After Iowa, it seemed Obama could sweep to the nomination on hope, soaring ever upward. Hillary retooled by talking more of change and emphasizing her liberal positions, and now Obama must as well.
He has money and organization, is a genuinely gifted speaker and is less polarizing than Hillary. The challenge is whether he can mix enough of the mundane into his message to win over the lunch buckets, without losing the excitement of upscale liberals. Ultimately, the problem for Obama is that he is promising something that is impossible -- a harmonic convergence of the country around what, at bottom, is an utterly conventional liberal policy agenda.
For now, voters have hit "pause" on the Obama movement. They are going to examine their choices more closely before sweeping a not-yet-one-term senator with no real substantive accomplishments into the White House on a wave of emotion. For those who expect a certain sobriety of the American electorate, it's cause for hope.