Is endorsing Barack Obama the new cool? Not long ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the seemingly inevitable front-runner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Obama was the insurgent. He was pulling in young voters, independents and new voters, but he lacked the blessing of the party’s heavyweights.
That’s changed. Obama’s success in moving beyond the traditional party base -- combined with serious Clinton fatigue -- is leading many seasoned Democratic leaders to rethink their earlier assumptions. John Kerry, Patrick Leahy, Claire McCaskill and Tom Daschle, among others, have lined up behind Obama, and the last few days brought Obama a surge of new, high-profile endorsements from such luminaries as Ted Kennedy and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
His endorsers are right to see Obama as their party’s best hope for 2008. Though skeptics contend that Obama lacks “experience,” this concern makes sense only if you think you have to be a Washington insider to be qualified to run for president. Obama began his career as a community organizer and civil rights attorney in Chicago -- relevant background for someone who will have to deal with tough economic and social justice issues as president. He was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996 and the U.S. Senate in 2004; in all, he’s spent 11 years being directly accountable to voters (that’s four more than Clinton).
Is that “enough” experience? Remember that if you never develop good judgment, racking up “experience” just tends to make you older, not necessarily smarter. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were “experienced,” and they brought us the Iraq war. Clinton, who’s billing herself as the “experienced” candidate, voted for that war.
Meanwhile, Obama, as a D.C. outsider, said in 2002 that a war in Iraq would be “a dumb war. ... A war based not on principle but on politics.” He predicted, accurately, that the Iraq war would distract the U.S. from domestic priorities (such as the economy) and from our more pressing national security priorities (going after Al Qaeda, nuclear nonproliferation, forging a better energy policy).
Obama has good judgment, which trumps mere experience every time. On Iran, he called for engagement and a toning down of bellicose rhetoric. Clinton was instead fanning the flames by voting for an amendment favored by the Bush administration that called the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Obama’s judgment was vindicated when the National Intelligence Estimate asserted that Iran had already stopped its nuclear weapons program. On Pakistan, Obama consistently raised questions about the unqualified U.S. support for Pervez Musharraf -- and was vindicated again as it became increasingly clear that Musharraf was neither a democrat nor a reliable U.S. ally against extremism.
Obama has solid legislative accomplishments under his belt too. In the sink-or-swim Illinois statehouse, he brokered compromises on politically sensitive issues such as children’s health coverage, racial profiling and tax credits for the working poor. In the U.S. Senate, Obama sponsored ethics reform legislation, legislation to ensure accountability of private military contractors and -- with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar -- a successful bill on securing global stocks of conventional weapons. That wasn’t glamorous, but it was important. Conventional weapons, not WMD, kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Equally important, Obama’s background and message are enabling him to reach beyond any narrow demographic slice of the electorate, and this bodes well -- both for his ability to beat a GOP rival and for his ability to lead effectively and without divisiveness once elected. Obama’s high-powered endorsers also may have noticed something the mainstream media seem largely to have missed: If you add up the delegates won in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, Obama’s ahead, so far, with 63 delegates to Clinton’s 48.
True, Clinton still has more super delegates -- those are the Democratic Party elites who each get a vote at the August convention and are not bound by the votes in their respective states -- but that’s a vestige of her former status as the “inevitable” establishment candidate. Most of those super delegates came out for Clinton months before the primaries and caucuses began, and they’re a notoriously fickle lot. With Edwards out, it’s down to Obama and Clinton. And if Obama continues to win real delegates in real primaries, many of the super delegates in Clinton’s column may instead join Kennedy in endorsing Obama.
There’s been such a rush to endorse Obama that I’m starting to feel a bit left out. Admittedly, I’m not a senator or a Nobel laureate, but ... I’m starting to think I should endorse him myself. Why should Ted Kennedy get to have all the fun?