(What do you think of Barack Obama?)
Obama's New Rules: In the past 10 days, he has turned American politics upside down.
By Jacob Weisberg
Political assumptions can remain constant for long periods and then change very quickly. And so they have in the approximately 10 days since the publication of Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope. In the brief time he's been on book tour, Obama has overthrown much of the reigning conventional wisdom about what's likely to happen in the 2008 campaign, how shrewd politicians ought to behave, and what the informal rules of the American system really are. Consider the following statements thought true by the political class in early October but called into question by month's end.
1. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
There was a basis for thinking this until Oct. 18, the day Obama appeared on Oprah. Hillary has raised a formidable amount of money, lined up extensive backing, and has the Democrats' best political thinker for a spouse. Obama's bigger advantage is that the party is actually excited about him and thinks he could win. Based on an unscientific reading of Democratic enthusiasm, Obama, not Hillary, will be the de facto Democratic front-runner the day he declares himself a candidate. If Obama chooses not to run, he could still sap Hillary's strength, the way Colin Powell did Bob Dole's in 1996, by reminding primary voters that their most promising candidate isn't in the race.
2. John McCain can beat anyone the Democrats put up.
"Our sense right now is that McCain would beat any Democrat including Hillary Clinton, and Clinton would beat any Republican except for McCain." Thus spake political guru Mark Halperin of ABC News and John Harris of the Washington Post in their book, The Way to Win. Obama upsets that equation because of his crossover appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. Like John McCain, the candidate he would be most likely to face in 2008 if he won the Democratic nomination, Obama attracts support more through his style, personality, and biography than by his specific positions. Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks, a long-standing McCain fan, nearly announced his defection to Obama in an admiring column. As for McCain himself, he would evidently prefer to run against Clinton than Obama.
3. Democrats have a problem with religion.
In 2000 and 2004, evangelical Christians and regular churchgoers voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry was comfortable talking about his faith or employing a religious idiom, leading many to conclude that Democrats were doomed to function as the secular party in a still-religious nation. Obama is the rare Democrat who talks easily about faith and values, and who does so without upsetting those offended by the mixture of religion and politics. In a thoughtful speech last summer that also forms the basis of a chapter of his book, Obama explained his own religious motivation and defended the use of spiritual language in a political context. He argues that his party should explicitly try to win over the spiritual followers of more moderate evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes. Obama hasn't closed the Democrats' religious gap, but he has initiated a productive conversation about how to narrow it.
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