The new politics was an electoral disaster in 1972, but it may finally triumph in 2008.
If not, it will be because Democrats still can’t win the Presidency without the working-class Americans who remain the swing vote and, this year, are up for grabs more than ever. Hillary Clinton has denied Obama a lock on the nomination by securing large majorities of swing voters, beginning in New Hampshire and culminating last week in West Virginia. It took the Obama campaign months to realize that a 2008 version of the McGovern coalition will barely be sufficient to win the nomination, let alone the general election. The question is how Obama can do better with the crucial slice of the electorate that he hasn’t been able to capture. Recently, he has gone from bowling in Pennsylvania and drinking Bud in Indiana to talking about his single mother, his wife’s working-class roots, and his ardent patriotism on the night of his victory in North Carolina. But the problem can’t be solved by symbols or rhetoric: for a forty-six-year-old black man in an expensive suit, with a Harvard law degree and a strange name, to walk into V.F.W. halls and retirement homes and say, “I’m one of you,” seems both improbable and disingenuous.
The other extreme—to muse aloud among wealthy contributors, like a political anthropologist, about the values and behavior of the economically squeezed small-town voter—is even more self-defeating. Perhaps Obama’s best hope is to play to his strength, which is a cool and eloquent candor, and address the question of liberal élitism as frontally as he spoke about race in Philadelphia two months ago. He would need to say, in effect, “I know I’m not exactly one of you,” and then explain why this shouldn’t matter—why he would be just as effective a leader for the working and middle class as his predecessors Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, who were élites of a different kind. Above all, Obama should absorb what the most thoughtful conservatives already know: that these voters see the economic condition of the country as inextricable from its moral condition. . . .