A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece called Let Obama Be Reagan.
The idea was that Barack Obama has a chance to represent the new Internet Thesis of American politics, the values of consensus, openness, transparency, connectivity and standards that define how we must approach our current problems, the values separating us from the TV past. Just as Reagan embodied the Nixon-era values of conflict, drama, personality, and showbiz.
Now that we're at the key point in this race, with the Democratic nomination (and the Presidency) on the line, I'm afraid Obama is starting to make the mistake another candidate from 1968 made, to his eternal peril and family's torment.
That candidate was Romney. George Romney. Mitt's dad.
A little over 40 years ago, George Romney was on his way to being President, and Mitt was on his way to becoming a Republican Kennedy kid. Then he made a famous, or infamous mistake. He said one word.
This screwed Romney good, but the reason it screwed him has only become clear in the light of history. Romney said he'd been "brainwashed" about Vietnam by the Johnson Administration as a nod to Vietnam War opponents.
But the rising thesis of that time, the new assumptions of the emerging Republican majority, held that Vietnam, as a Cold War Activity, was not open to question by those seriously seeking power. Bugging out, to these voters, was not an option.
It's an easy mistake to make. When new assumptions are rising, and everything seems in play, the popular move appears to be a nod to the old order's followers, as they exit stage left (or right in this case). This is what the press is crying for. This is what Joe Klein and Deborah Howell and Chris Matthews and Wolf Blitzer and all the other avatars of the old order are demanding.
This is what they call "bipartisanship."
But it's not bipartisanship. To those of the new, rising order it's nothing less than political appeasement. When the people who have ruled over you and proven their incompetence come looking to you for validation, the new order says, you kick them in the teeth. Then you put your foot on their neck.
Obama isn't making this mistake with one grand gesture, as Romney the Elder did. He's doing it in bits and pieces, with nods and winks. He attacks Paul Krugman. He embraces Donnie McClurkin. As Digby writes at Hullaballoo, he's Sister Souljah-ing the left, just like Bill Clinton did 16 years ago, knowing that in the end they have no alternative but to follow the nominee.
He's triangulating. And against the master triangulator. It's like trying to out-Nixon Nixon, to be Nixon with a smile. Which pretty much defines the Elder Romney's whole 1968 campaign.
What does he get from this? Obama is now the most popular Democrat among Republicans, especially evangelicals. They feel they'll get a fair hearing from Obama, that they will be embraced as brothers and sisters at the White House, not given the cold shoulder they fear the Clintons would give them, or the outright banishment a John Edwards would dish out. (Nor the Nuremberg Trial they deserve.)
It's a very delicate balancing act, conducted at a moment when such balancing is completely unnecessary. Americans reject the Bush-era assumptions every single Republican candidate for President (and nearly every other office) embraces fully. Mike Huckabee just puts a Beverly Hillbillies gloss on it. It will soon become clear he's not Jed -- he's Jethro. Wanting to jam with Keith Richards is like Jethro's dream of being a "double-naught spy."
Words have power, which is what Howie Klein tries to say here, using the great words of Tom Stoppard to point out that how we argue our points is as important as the points themselves. Obama might indeed argue that, saying that his nods to the right are mere symbolism, his aim is to bring evangelicals and other Republicans along toward progressive themes, that he is building a new kind of politics based on Internet-era values, without reference to the past. Which is what Americans say they want. Which is indeed what they want.
The risk is that Democratic voters, especially Iowa caucus-goers, start to see Obama as just another triangulating politician. Just another Democrat.
That would be fatal.