The Trance

Barack Obama has a great thinking look. I mean the look he gets on his face when he’s thinking, not the look he presents in debate, where they all control their faces knowing they may be in the reaction shot and fearing they’ll look shrewd and clever, as opposed to open and strong. I mean the look he gets in an interview or conversation when he’s listening and not conscious of his expression. It’s a very present look. He seems more in the moment than handling the moment. I’ve noticed this the past few months, since he entered the national stage. I wonder if I’m watching him more closely than his fellow Democrats are.

Mr. Obama often seems to be thinking when he speaks, too, and this comes somehow as a relief, in comparison, say, to Hillary Clinton and President Bush, both of whom often seem to be trying to remember the answer they’d agreed upon with staff. What’s the phrase we use about education? Hit Search Function. Hit Open. Right-click. “Equity in education is essential, Tim . . .”

You get the impression Mr. Obama trusts himself to think, as if something good might happen if he does. What a concept. Anyway, I’ve started to lean forward a little when he talks.

But he doesn’t stand a chance, right? His main competitor, Mrs. Clinton, is this week’s invincible. She broke through 50% for the first time in a big national poll—53% saying they would support her, a full 33 points more than Obama. Her third quarter fund raising beat everyone else’s. “It’s all over but the voting,” said Rep. Tom Petri, who will probably get pummeled a bit by the campaign for premature triumphalism. But he only said what a lot of people are starting to think.

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Some Democrats seem proud they already know who their candidate is, unlike those messy Republicans who haven’t been able to resolve the issue. But should it be resolved before people vote?

Has the Democratic Party noticed it actually has some impressive candidates? They should not be written off, and when you think about it, it’s weird that they’re being written off. Joe Biden used to seem mildly giddy, vain but in a small way, not a big and interesting way. (Big is LBJ: Ah will impose mah will. Small: Where’s my hair-sculpting gel?) But it has been 35 years since he became a figure in Washington, and in the past few years in particular he has been ahead of his peers on Iraq—ahead with warnings, ahead with tripartite thinking, ahead with a seriousness and sobriety about the fix we’re in. He is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he’s been reading daily threat reports for a long time. He is impressive. Why don’t the Democrats notice?

Chris Dodd is the head of the Senate Banking Committee, and nothing if not sophisticated. In the post-9/11 world, sophisticated is not so bad. He’s been in the Senate 27 years. In earlier years his thinking on government, his assumptions about what can and should be expected of it, veered from the utopian to the world-weary, and were sometimes both at once. But if you listen to him and watch him in debate, you might legitimately conclude this is a candidate who understands how it all works and what time it is. He’s one of the grown-ups.

Anybody notice?

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Mr. Obama’s experience, as we all know, is as limited as Mrs. Clinton’s, which is to say limited indeed. She has held elective office for only 6 1/2 years. Before that she was first lady of Arkansas and then first lady of the United States. He has held national office for only 3 1/2 years, and before that was a state legislator for eight years. But he has impressed people, and not with money, résumé or clout but something rarer, natural gifts. That’s not nothing. Big talent is rare, and deserves consideration.

And yet the Democrats remain in their Hillary trance.

Obama & HilaryNot all, of course. Each candidate has his band of supporters, his little base. Mr. Obama is fortunate to have one with the grace and vigor of Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s great staffer and speechwriter, who told me this week, “I am supporting Obama.” He has known and liked the other main candidates, has “no objection to a female commander-in-chief and no ill feelings stemming from the Clinton stains on the escutcheon of the White House.” But Mr. Obama is “the one serious potential nominee of the Democratic Party who is most likely to win” and most likely “to end the tragic occupation of Iraq on terms compatible with our country’s best interests and traditional values.”

When I asked if his support was connected in any way to the idea of breaking away from the Bush-Clinton-Bush rotation, he said, “Above all, I believe this country needs change, and continuing the 20-year hold on the White House of the same two families is not my idea of change.”

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That to me gets to the heart of the problem and the heart of The Trance. Mrs. Clinton is so far ahead so early on for the same reason Mr. Bush was so far ahead so early on in 2000, and after only six years as governor, with no previous offices behind him.
It is the nature of modern politics. A political family gains allies—retainers, supporters, hangers-on, admirers, associates, in-house Machiavellis. The bigger the government, the more ways allies can be awarded, which binds them more closely. Your destiny is theirs. Members of the court recruit others. Money lines spread person to person, company to company, board to board, mover to mover.

The most important part is the money lines. Power is expensive. The second most important part is the word “winner.” The Bushes are winners; the Clintons are winners. We know this, they’ve won. The Bushes are wired into the Republican money-line system; the Clintons are wired into the Democratic money-line system. For a generation, two generations now, they have had the same dynamics in play, only their friends are on the blue team, not the red, or the red, not the blue.

They are, both groups, up and ready and good to go every election cycle. They are machines. There are good people on each side, idealists, the hopeful, those convinced the triumph of their views will make our country better. And there are those on each side who are not so wonderful, not so well-meaning, not well-meaning at all. And some are idiots, but very comfortable ones.

Is this good for our democracy, this air of inevitability? Is it good in terms of how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves? Or is it something we want to break out of, like a trance?

It would be understandable if they were families of a most extraordinary natural distinction and self-sacrifice. But these are not the Adamses of Massachusetts we’re talking about. You’ve noticed, right?