Whether or not it was Zakaria’s intention, the interview helped me to refine my own disappointment with Obama. While there were several new insights, it struck me that most of the take-away points were reiterating a message that Obama has delivered many times. This is the message enumerating the significant achievements that have taken place under his Administration, which seems to imply that the strategy for his campaign will be based on broadcasting those achievements early and often until the voters finally go to the polls.
In other words Obama plans to succeed by getting as many voters as possible to “look at the record.” Personally, I think this is a perfectly valid approach to argumentation. I invoked it myself back in the days when it seemed as if Sarah Palin would be the rising star of the American political scene. In doing so, however, I noted the irony that this particular turn of phrase can be traced back to Al Smith, whom I described as “a failed Democratic Presidential candidate.” Thus, I am both surprised and concerned that Zakaria’s own sense of history did not allow him to pick up on the historical echoes behind Obama’s argumentation and use those echoes as ground for questioning the President’s electoral strategy.
Probably the most important political event since that interview appeared was yesterday’s primary in South Carolina. Because the primary results thus far have been so mixed, it is hard to tell how significant this latest source of data will turn out to be. Nevertheless, it provides a context for Obama’s strategy that probably deserves more than passing consideration.
When considered as an academic, Newt Gingrich appears as a man with a solid command of history on a global scale. However, Newt-the-academic is not running for office; and Newt-the-politician knows full well that he is campaigning to a culture that almost prides itself in its disregard of history. For Newt-the-politician, history is, at best, a trigger for what he seems to do best, which is making up stories based more on how compelling the narrative is, rather than whether or not the details are consistent with reality. (Ingrid Rowland would probably suggest that he has the makings of the perfect Roman politician.) South Carolina seems to have presented us with a sector of the electorate that is swayed by such stories more than anything else, particularly when the storyteller can apply his craft to attacking the media. (His tirade at the final debate had all the earmarks of Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” strategy; but how many people in the audience know what that strategy is?)
The lesson from South Carolina to Obama may thus be that, however admirable “the record” may be, he had better have a “Plan B” when the polls begin to suggest that a tally of significant achievements does not constitute grounds for reelection.