Let it be recorded that humility was the first note struck by Senator Barack Obama in announcing his presidential candidacy before a large crowd in Springfield, Ill.: "It's humbling, but in my heart I know you didn't come here just for me; you came here because you believe in what this country can be." It was a note struck repeatedly during his first weekend of campaigning. "This is not only about me," he would say, launching into a lengthy and crowd-deadening disquisition on how, as a former community organizer, he understood that change comes from the grass roots up, not from the top down. O.K., O.K., it's a fine sentiment. But it's wrong: this campaign is all about him. In fact, given Obama's slim political résumé and drop-dead charisma, his campaign is more candidate-driven than most. It's all about the spectacular keynote speech he gave to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It's all about the fact that he's--pace Joe Biden--a young, attractive, eloquent and intelligent Kenyan Kansan. (Baseball cap spotted in Iowa later that day: OBAMA '08--ARTICULATE AND CLEAN.)
I suspect that Obama's aim is to rebuild the bonfire of Howard Dean's grass-roots campaign, minus the scream. But raging infernos don't just happen. First comes courage. Dean never would have had his bonfire if he hadn't opposed the invasion of Iraq in clear, plain, inspiring English. Even then, Dean had trouble stoking the fire: the campaign was failing long before his fatal Iowa mating call. It had become a campaign cult, too enamored with itself, with too much blabber about the money being raised on the Web and not enough about issues other than Iraq.
Obama is trying to ride the war too, but he's not doing it as well as Dean did. His biggest applause lines are about Iraq. "I opposed the war from the start," he says, which often brings a standing ovation. "A war that never should have been authorized"--a reference to the votes of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton to authorize it--"or fought." And credit is due: he was right. But that was four years ago, and Obama gets into some trouble when he tries to differentiate himself from his opponents on the war now. He says he has the "most specific" plan to end the war, but it is specific only at the back end: he would have all the combat troops out of Iraq by March 31, 2008. He professes not to know where Clinton stands on how to end the war, and yet less than a year ago, they voted for exactly the same Iraq resolution, a phased withdrawal without a fixed timetable. Both he and Clinton voted against John Kerry's proposal to withdraw all troops by July 2007, for reasons that still sound good today. "What is needed is a blueprint for an expeditious yet responsible exit from Iraq," Obama said on the Senate floor last June. "A hard and fast, arbitrary deadline for withdrawal offers our commanders in the field ... insufficient flexibility to implement that strategy." Clinton remains opposed to timetables, but Obama decided to change his position and in January announced the March 2008 date. Aside from that, there isn't much practical difference between Obama and Clinton on the war: both oppose the surge, both support a phased withdrawal, neither of them would cut off funding. And when pressed, Obama concedes that his March 2008 deadline can be "adjusted," depending on events on the ground.