Reality has strangled invention



Four years ago, at the Democratic convention in Boston, an

Illinois  state senator named Barack Obama delivered the keynote address. He was preceded by a lot of buzz about his speaking skills. I sat in a press tent and watched him on a monitor, thinking that this guy was pretty good (whoever he was) - whereupon I turned to what I assumed were higher priority tasks, notably the '04 prospects of John Kerry, and basically forgot almost everything I had just heard.

...Except for one thing: Obama's ambition to bridge the blue state/ red state divide. His clear message was that the Democrats had the potential to build such a bridge, but only if they expanded their reach beyond their traditional coastal and upper midwestern strongholds, and thus became a revitalized national party.

Four years and four months later, the Democrats have now done it - with Obama himself at the helm. We can't know today whether his achievement is ephemeral or the harbinger of a new political era, but the freeze-frame moment is sufficiently stunning. The Democratic party now looks like a national party, for a change. It has gained toeholds on traditionally red turf in regions of the nation where it had not been competitive for decades - and its success was orchestrated by an African-American with a foreign-sounding name and a liberal voting record who has now rolled up more popular votes (64.2 million and counting) than any presidential candidate in history.

Go figure. Next thing you know, somebody is going to claim that the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series. In the words of the famed sportswriter Red Smith (writing about an improbable baseball climax), "Reality has strangled invention."

It's obvious that the Democrats enjoyed many fundamental advantages in 2008, starting with the fact that the GOP was saddled with the albatross of George W. Bush, whose favorability rating today is sub-Nixon. But, as we all know from recent history, the Democrats are often perfectly capable of blowing their best opportunities. This time, however, they had a candidate whose communication skills rival those of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton; and this time, unlike in 2000 and 2004, they had a candidate who knew how to run a smart campaign operation, with no leaks and no turnover and no intrusions from the usual high-priced

Washington consultants.

The mission was to expand the map. Mission accomplished: Obama planted the flag in the Old Confederacy (Virginia, Florida, and apparently North Carolina); in the Rockies/southwest (Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico); and in the formerly Bush-friendly Rustbelt (Ohio,

Iowa , and, amazingly, Indiana). Virginia had not voted for a Democrat since 1964; Indiana, not since 1964; North Carolina, not since 1976;

Colorado , only once since 1964. 

Ohio hadn't voted for a northern Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

All told, Obama became the first non-incumbent Democrat to surpass 50.1 percent of the nationwide popular vote since FDR in 1932. That alone is a measure of his national victory, and it was achieved by making inroads with voter groups that had not been friendly to Democrats during the Bush era. According to the national exit polls, he and John McCain split male voters roughly 50-50; four years ago, John Kerry lost male voters by 11 points. Obama and McCain split the voters who earn more than $100,000 a year; Kerry lost those people by 17 points. Obama and McCain split the voters who earn between $50,000 and $75,000 (the heart of the middle class); four years ago, Kerry lost them by 13 points.

Other key exit-poll nuggets: Obama captured the middle of the road, winning moderate voters by a whopping 21 points; Kerry won them by nine. By a different measure, Obama won independents by six points; Kerry had prevailed by only one point. Obama won 77 percent of Jewish voters (three points higher than 2004); and 53 percent of Catholics, a traditional swing group (six points higher than 2004). He also won 67 percent of the Hispanic voters - a 14-point improvement over Kerry's showing in 2004.

And here's the most noteworthy finding: Obama did better among all white voters nationwide (43 percent) than either of the two previous white Democratic candidates, Kerry (41) or Al Gore (42). One can only imagine what Martin Luther King, assassinated 40 years ago, would have made of that. I suppose we can now cease discussing the "Bradley effect."

There will be plenty of time to replay the McCain campaign (how about in this space tomorrow?), and assess the impact of the Republican candidate's screw-ups on the final tally. For now, let us simply say that McCain was graceful in defeat. What was particularly noteworthy, however, was his significant omission. And, no, I'm not referring to his failure to invoke Joe the Plumber (whose 15 minutes of fame have blessedly expired). This is about his conscious omission of He Who Shall Not Be Named - the standard-bearer of his party, the guy who seemingly spent the final days of the campaign in a secret, undisclosed location.

That would be Bush. The weight of his baggage was on vivid display in 

Pennsylvania - where McCain spent so much of his time as the clock ticked toward midnight, in a last-ditch bid to swipe a big blue state. I said in this space that it was a delusional quest, but I could not have imagined he'd get waxed by 11 points. He can thank Bush for that margin. In the statewide exit poll, 74 percent of all

Pennsylvania voters said they disapproved of the president's performance; of those disapprovers, seven in 10 voted for Obama. And that's basically what the national exit poll numbers say.

Bush has finally been held accountable for his ruinous reign - as have the Republicans and conservative apologists who wore blinders for far too long. Last night, they got what was coming to them - and McCain, in a sense, was collateral damage. He will no doubt find it somewhat perverse that Bush defeated him in 2000, and helped defeat him in 2008.

Some might argue that any presentable Democrat could have won this year, given these circumstances. But all Democrats are not created equal. It was a Democrat of rare political skills who managed to defeat the

Clintons and navigate through the usual treacherous shoals. Indeed, Obama is virtually the antithesis of Bush, the voters' ultimate rebuke of Bush. Bush is a white guy with a political brand name, the product of generations of elite breeding; Obama is a black guy with an exotic name, no family connections, ultimately self-made. Bush is impulsive and incurious; Obama is calm and thoughtful. All told, Obama epitomizes the current desire, among the voting majority, to wipe the slate and begin anew.

As the Obama wave began to crest last night, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos attempted a joke on CNN. Assessing McCain's prospects, he said: "All we need is nine votes on the Supreme Court, and we can pull this thing off."

Not this time, Alex. An historic moment tends to have more weight than a hanging chad.



I offered further observations (albeit addled by lack of sleep) earlier today on Philadelphia NPR. By linking here, to the hour-long "Radio Times" segment, you can find the archived audio.