Point Austin: Obama Mania
For the heady moment, everything he do b-be funky
If Cyril Neville is running for anything maybe Minister of International Culture or at least head of the National Endowment for the Arts he's got my vote. That was the first endorsement to be drawn from the Barack Obama event last Friday, as Neville & Tribe 13 funkified the crowd for more than an hour in the intermittent drizzle, as we waited for the headliner. Queen G delivered a stellar version of "Piece of My Heart" (albeit with the somewhat unnerving refrain, "Take another piece of my heart ... Obama!"), and the whole band rocked with "Everything I do b-be funky ..." May we all be so blessed.
Otherwise, I don't yet have a dog in this presidential hunt mostly because, in a rational political universe, the hunt hasn't even started yet. I know, we don't live in a rational political universe, and Obama, Hillary Clinton, and maybe John Edwards on the outside, have already begun sucking all the available air (and money) out of the room a year before any conceivable Democratic primary. Even so, it was nice to see 20,000 or so Obamamaniacs out in friendly force on a rainy afternoon, among them former legislator and Dem activist Glen Maxey, who told me later that if nothing else, the event was ample evidence of "a great hunger for anybody who's fresh and not part of the system." Actually, Maxey describes himself as "still officially neutral" in the campaign, saying he's still waiting to see "who has staying power." Maxey added that while Obama's appearance was indeed exciting, it's "still very early" and that he thinks the Dems' focus should be on "how to capture this energy ... to help build a campaign infrastructure for the long term."
Travis Co. Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott was similarly impressed with the Obama turnout "He's definitely got star power" though he believes that if Clinton were to appear in Austin, she'd draw a similar crowd. "It's amazing that [the campaign] has started this early, with this kind of fervor," Elliott said. Asked about any prevailing sentiment among local Dems, he added, "I don't think people are making firm choices just yet. Many are saying, 'We just had an election [in November], let's sort of rest until we have to get ready for the next one.'"
Looking for Signs
In fact, that may happen in Texas sooner than anticipated, Maxey notes, because there are serious bipartisan discussions down at the Lege to move the Texas primaries to February. (Why not January, you ask? Don't give them any ideas.) The idea, of course, is to give Texas (and California, and Florida, where similar moves are afoot) at least as much influence on the parties' choices as Iowa and New Hampshire. "If that happens, with those three large states and all those delegates," Maxey said, "it's possible that everything could be effectively over in February." Maxey, who was at ringside in 2004 as Howard Dean's campaign flamed on and then off, said the Democratic field and the strong organizations of the three frontrunners means the race is really wide open. "I've been doing this [campaign work] for 35 years," he said, "and this is the first presidential campaign when right now, I just have no feel for what's going to happen."
Certainly the early polls are equally volatile, with Clinton initially way out in front but last week dropping into the 30s, reportedly due to a broad migration of African-American support to Obama (now in the 20s), Edwards in the teens, and the others still far behind. That sounds less like actual voting choices and more like national recognition beginning to take hold and still too early to tell how strongly. Former land commissioner and Dem gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro is friends with both Clinton (he goes back with Bill and Hillary to the '72 McGovern campaign) and Obama and acknowledges, "At the end of the day, I'm going to be for Hillary." He says among the Democrats, "All of us realize that [Obama's] the future of the party, and we all love it. People really like Obama, and that's good but I think right now, she's the more presidential candidate and that people who are now cheering for Obama will also be voting for Hillary."
The Audacity of Hope
Beyond years of national experience a sword that can cut several ways the strongest distinction between Clinton and Obama has been their early difference on Iraq, and the loudest ovation Friday was when Obama declared, "It is time for us to bring this war to an end." While Edwards has explicitly reversed himself on Iraq and has generally been more detailed in policy discussions than either of the frontrunners Clinton has stubbornly refused to call her support for the war a "mistake," even inviting those who disagree to vote for somebody else. Otherwise, dramatic differences on the Dem refrains education, health care, Social Security, energy independence are few, and the real current question seems to be who can capture and hold the voters' imagination and hopes, while their staffs are feverishly working the phones (and the Web) collecting the colossal amounts of indentured donations now necessary to run a national campaign. (Tom Vilsack who? will certainly not be the last casualty of the money primary.)
For one afternoon at Town Lake, in the gray shadow of Downtown, it was possible to set aside for a moment these cynical calculations and to imagine that this fine young son of Illinois, more professorial than grandiloquent, could indeed "galvanize a movement for change"; that he could take his place in the hallowed tradition of abolitionism and women's suffrage and unionism and civil rights, all these common achievements that he sketched out briefly for us in the twilight rain. "The arc of the moral universe is long," he said, quoting Martin Luther King, "but it bends toward justice." So may we all.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our March 9, 2007 issue: In "Point Austin" last week, Michael King mistakenly placed the George McGovern presidential campaign in 1968 instead of 1972. In his defense, he lived through the Sixties, so he doesn't remember them. He deeply regrets the error.