If Barack Obama campaigns down to the wire it will be a courtesy to the Republicans, since he could now stop canvassing entirely and still win comfortably. Neither John McCain, Sarah Palin nor Joe the Plumber can hurt him on Nov. 4. It’s Nov. 5 he should be worried about.
Judging by his recent comments at the Al Smith dinner, he doesn’t believe his own supporters’ more extravagant flattery. But he must also resist the temptation, widespread in his party and among the chattering classes, to assume that the size and ease of his victory mean those vulgar middle Americans are no longer politically significant.
In fact what historian Walter Russell Mead in Special Providence calls the “Jacksonians”, and David Hackett Fischer’s invaluable though regrettably interminable Albion’s Seed calls “borderers” (for their origins in the Anglo-Scots border region), remain the largest single component of the American political community. These folks left a huge stamp on America, with their rough and ready egalitarian manners and robust, unapologetic self-reliance.
It is they whom observers like Tocqueville took to be typical Americans and in large measure they still are. And though many will vote Democrat this time, it’s not because they share Barack Obama’s cultural or foreign policy instincts. If he doesn’t understand why he didn’t have to court them during the campaign he will become politically irrelevant with a speed that would astonish even Jimmy Carter. Especially given the growing contingent of “Blue Dog” Democrats in Congress, noted by Canadian commentator John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail, who are classic Jacksonians, culturally conservative foreign-policy hawks.
At the moment Middle America is disaffected from the Republican party for good reasons. But not those the Democrats take for granted. Jacksonians have no patience with cultural radicalism. And they do not care that the world seems to despise America; Jacksonians despise foreigners and rally ferociously round the flag when America is attacked.
As long ago as 1798, when the Jacksonian influence on politics was far smaller than it would be from the 1830s on, a war scare with France brought a surge of support to the Federalist administration that ebbed away when President John Adams settled the conflict peacefully and never returned. And in the 1960s this group turned against the Vietnam War not because it was immoral but because it wasn’t working. The Democrats, who mistook this sentiment for their own, have been critically weak on national security ever since.
It is a mark of just how bad things are for Republicans this year that the Democrats can run a senator from Illinois and one from Delaware and romp to victory. Their last totally non-Jacksonian ticket, the Minnesota/New York team of Mondale and Ferraro, carried one state plus the District of Columbia in 1984. In the 1990s they won twice with a border twofer from Arkansas and Tennessee. They only won once in the last century without a southern or border presence on the ballot, FDR’s third term in 1940. Whereas the last time they elected an elegant northern intellectual who made liberal women swoon it worked out rather badly.
Mr. Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, recently committed a classic political “gaffe” (that is, spoke an important truth honestly) about the parallel: “Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy.” But, curiously, he went on “it’s not gonna be apparent initially, it’s not gonna be apparent that we’re right…. I promise you, you all are gonna be sitting here a year from now going, ‘Oh my God, why are they there in the polls? Why is the polling so down? Why is this thing so tough?’”
No such difficulties will arise if Mr. Obama meets the test with resolution. It’s if he exudes sanctimonious weakness like, say, Jimmy Carter, that he faces domestic as well as foreign policy disaster. As Mead notes, the Jacksonian tradition in foreign policy frequently baffles observers although it is quite straightforward. At its core is this belief: “You can deal with a bully only by standing up to him. Anything else is appeasement, which is both dishonourable and futile.” If Barack Obama cannot understand and respect that sentiment, he will find himself in big trouble.
The Middle American charm of Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber has galvanized the Republican base but won’t help them much on Nov. 4. As of Nov. 5, though, the Jacksonians will be back. President Obama had better be ready.
John Robson is a writer and broadcaster in Ottawa, Canada