Point Austin: The Okey Doke

Obama slips punches, rope-a-dopes, and wins

Point Austin
It's certainly invigorating for Austin to be at the center of the political swirl for a couple of weeks, although by next Tuesday, I suspect we'll all be glad for the Dem presidential wannabes to head on to the next rodeo. As I write, Wednesday afternoon, Bill Clinton is scheduled to hit the University of Texas Main Mall this evening, and Barack Obama HisOwnSelf is expected at the Convention Center in the morning. Various surrogates have been shaking the Texas underbrush all week, and the Big Democratic Endorsements have been tumbling in. This week the Hillary Clinton campaign teased a "big endorsement coming" and, a couple of press releases later, delivered Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), followed by former U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen. (Bentsen was supposedly the big name, but tell me who you remember better.) Not to be outdone, the Obama campaign trotted out ... former Gov. Mark White (best remembered for shamelessly advertising how many people he'd executed in office).

So amidst all the earnestness, there was plenty of silliness to go around. The Democratic wind, however, was steadily blowing in Obama's direction, wincingly illustrated by an anecdote The New York Times borrowed from the online Rio Grande Guardian, which spotted Clinton endorser state Rep. Aaron Peña enjoying an Obama rally and then admitting: "I will maintain my commitment. But it appears to be increasingly evident who is going to win."

Rove Ain't Here

If that's what they're saying in the Valley, it's no wonder that Hillary is getting a little testy in the debates. Last week in Austin, she tried magnanimity. Her best moment was a closing response to a question about remembered "crises," which she first deflected with a smiling reference to her "personal challenges" and then turned into a simple, eloquent admission that "whatever happens" she and Barack will be fine but that the election is about the future of "the American people." That earned her a standing ovation in the hall – but the pundits and commentators immediately began interpreting her closing as a valedictory, virtually a concession that she then had to deny.

So she took up the cudgels this week, denouncing Obama for his attacks on her past support for NAFTA as "Karl Rove tactics" at which "all Democrats should be outraged." (I dunno about you, but on the Rove Scale, this seems to me very small beer indeed.) Then Tuesday night in Cleveland, she snapped at Tim Russert and Brian Williams for press favoritism, then cited a Saturday Night Live sketch that mocked the CNN love affair with Obama – and thereby blew any advantage the third-party satire had given her. SNL's Tina Fey had already mined that vein, joking pointedly that "it's the bitches" who get things done.

The problem for Clinton, of course, is that all these recent tactics, by herself and her supporters, are the telltale signs of a campaign that's losing ground and looking for a handhold. Demoted campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle plaintively told the Times, "Hillary is incredibly tough – she grew up with two brothers and a strong father in the Midwest, so she knows a challenge." I've spent a good bit of time in the northern wilds of Hillary's homeland, suburban Chicago. Even with (horrors!) male siblings, it ain't exactly terra incognita, and Doyle's feeble defense of her fading champion is just the sort of false note that keeps undermining Clinton's attempt to reverse her weeks-long slide.

Catching the Breeze

In all fairness, Obama has indeed enjoyed better press than Clinton, initially because a year ago nobody expected the newborn underdog to do this well and more recently because the reporters along with the Dem voters appear to have fallen hard for his combination of relaxed eloquence and youthful insouciance. The Clinton folks are understandably crying foul – one major Clinton campaign operative (who will remain nameless because I'm a charitable fellow) complained to me about the "blow job" the press has given Obama. It's an understandable complaint – but it's also an understandable press reaction, because for better or worse, Obama visibly and personally represents a "change" from the way things have been done in Washington for the last 15 years. Young voters, for deep reasons as well as shallow ones, have especially responded to Obama's inspirational campaign, and the press has, to an inevitable degree, caught the fever.

I watched the phenomenon in action in front of the Capitol Friday night. The Clinton distinction has been "speeches versus solutions," but Obama deflected that attack as easily as Muhammad Ali sidestepping a George Foreman right hand. "We need both," he responded, "because without the speeches, we cannot create the working majority to support the solutions that we need." Obama seemed already to be turning to the campaign against John McCain, as he acknowledged McCain's heroism but argued, "He's tied himself completely to the policies of the Bush administration, and he can't get away from that."

Obama's references to "the okey doke" seemed to baffle some commentators, although it's an old American (especially African-American) term for a feint, a juke, a balletic sidestep that dodges the direct attacks of an opponent and instead turns his own arguments and momentum against him. That's been Obama's genius thus far – as when he turns "fiscal responsibility" or "patriotism" back on the Republicans and dares them to try to run on rhetorical and ideological principles they have long since abandoned in practice.

Novelist Ishmael Reed, in his great comic reimagining of the Civil War, Flight to Canada, describes Abe Lincoln using the "yokel-dokel" on his enemies, lulling them into believing that Lincoln was too green, too unsophisticated, just too country to outsmart them. Obama's "okey doke" has been a brilliantly effective variation on the Lincoln model, much to the consternation of the veteran Clinton political machine. My best guess is that if he can beat the Clintons with this kind of footwork and speed – and at the moment, the signs very much say yes – he will have even less trouble defeating a divided and thoroughly demoralized GOP, behind a standard-bearer trying desperately to pick up the pieces of a republic broken and betrayed by his feckless predecessor.

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