A Reality Check as Obama-Mania Hits the Media

Posted December 3, 2004 at 2:25pm

After watching the umpteenth TV report on the national media’s new favorite politician, Illinois Democrat Barack Obama, I figure it is time for someone to say the obvious: Let’s get realistic about the new Senator’s near-term political future. [IMGCAP(1)]

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m a critic of Obama. Far from it. When I first met him in October 2002, I knew that the then-state Senator was a quality candidate. He was smart, articulate, personable and politically savvy.

I just didn’t know whether he could raise enough money to compete with wealthier Democratic candidates (such as millionaire Blair Hull) or those with strong organizational backing (including state Comptroller Dan Hynes).

Now that the rest of the world has seen and met the Illinois Senator-elect, many are smitten with him. That’s understandable. He has a terrific personal story, and a great way of communicating it.

But forgive me for being just a bit tired of the fawning. The coverage of him simply has been over the top. He’s been on magazine covers and virtually every TV talk show. Heck, he’s probably received more face time than Wolf Blitzer. I’ve even heard his name floated as a potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. C’mon, let’s get real.

Only the third African-American elected to the Senate, Obama is widely hailed for his electability. After all, he drew more than 70 percent of the vote and ran impressively in all parts of the state, including the Republican-leaning suburbs and downstate. So his victory last month demonstrates the breadth of his appeal, right?

Hardly. While I believe that the Democrat would have won no matter whom he faced in November, let’s remember how he got to the halls of Congress: He never drew the intense scrutiny that most Senate candidates receive.

First, Obama won a bloody primary, during which frontrunner Hull’s bid imploded after records from his child-custody fight went public.

The major fight in that primary was between Hull and Hynes, with Obama staying above the fray. Neither of the frontrunners was willing to risk an attack on the only credible black candidate in the primary contest, so Obama took few hits. After Hull’s dirty linen became public, voters apparently wanted a candidate they could feel proud to support, and Obama filled the bill.

Second, the Republicans were in chaos for the general election. Jack Ryan, the GOP primary winner, pulled out of the race when his custody papers were made public. Then, the Illinois State Central Committee chose to select Maryland-based conservative activist Alan Keyes as the Republican Party’s nominee for the Senate.

Keyes’ nomination was a joke, and his selection transformed the Illinois Senate contest from a serious race to a coronation for the Democrat. Again, the race wasn’t about Obama’s record but about his style and image — and his opponent’s obvious flaws.

Given Illinois’ partisan bent and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s virtual lock on the state’s Electoral College vote, the key question isn’t how Obama won, but what Democratic nominee wouldn’t have won the Senate race? Jim Traficant?

So Obama’s election victory actually says little about his political positioning, his ability to defend attacks or the breadth of his appeal.

Republicans have a mountain of opposition research on the Senator-elect that they never used because his contest was not competitive, and they are just waiting for an opportunity to use it.

What kind of stuff are they sitting on? They say he failed to vote (or voted present) on a number of anti-crime initiatives, including one that would have expanded the definition of “sexually violent offenses” and another that made it more difficult for abusive and neglectful parents to regain custody of their children. They cite his record on taxes and his controversial comments on the Iraq war. And they see comments in his book that they feel could have been used against him.

Again, I’m not saying that this necessarily would have stopped his Senate bid cold, even against a quality opponent. But we’ll never know now, will we?

Democrats have good reason to be excited about Obama’s election victory and his forthcoming service in the Senate. His election certainly is newsworthy. And he has said the right things since his election, talking about reaching across the aisle to work with President Bush and Senate Republicans to solve problems.

Maybe he will. But I’ve heard that before from Republicans and Democrats, and only a handful of politicians are moderate and pragmatic enough to avoid the partisanship of Washington.

So if you take anything from this column, it should be this: Obama surely has plenty of skills, and he has the potential to move up his party’s Senate leadership and to become a spokesman for the Democratic agenda. But he is very much a Blue State politician, and it’s silly to be talking about him as a national figure — or for higher office — at this point.

And I’d be willing to bet that that is something with which he would agree.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.