July 27, 2004,
Boston, Mass Who will be leading the Democratic party in 2008?
President Kerry, perhaps. There has been intense speculation that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Edwards will compete for the presidential nomination if Bush is reelected this year. But beyond the party's White House aspirants, where are the future congressional leaders, the telegenic talking-head stars, the party's spokesmen, and salesmen, and new blood?
Looking over the list of speakers at this year's convention, there is little new blood to be found. There's Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida, who compared Gov. Jeb Bush to Osama bin Laden a few weeks back. Maybe Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, although he's got a ways to go before he develops a national reputation. Of course, it's too early to write off Ilana Wexler, the 13-year-old founder of Kids for Kerry. But by and large, the party's speakers are an endless cavalcade of 60-something or 70-something senators, Barbara Mikulski, Ted Kennedy, Bob Graham, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman.
At this moment, the brightest rising star in the Democratic party is 42-year-old Illinois state legislator Barack Obama, who was welcomed to the national political stage with an appearance on Meet the Press Sunday and a glowing profile in the New York Times Monday morning. The Times quoted Kerry's communications director, Stephanie Cutter, as saying "he represents the future of the party."
A win on November 2 would assure him a unique role as America's lone African-American senator for at least two years.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D., Ill.), told the Chicago Tribune, "There will be tremendous demands on Barack. You have an enormous amount of the body politic that doesn't have a voice in the Senate and will be looking to him. We can't allow him to be overburdened with too many expectations."
While those on the right might rejoice at an African-American leader whose rhetoric is cooler than Jesse Jackson's and whose politics are closer to the mainstream than Rev. Al Sharpton, his voting record is likely to be indistinguishable from that of the Congressional Black Caucus. In the Illinois state legislature, Obama voted against a partial-birth abortion ban, for gun control, and for tax hikes.
Rep. Jackson also said that if he said 'no' to liberal activists, African-American leaders, and "people like my father... he will get immense heat."
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Jackson told the Tribune, "Some black people will expect him to speak to their frustrations rather than address the cause of their frustrations... And blacks will be unreasonably hard on him when he is successful. The only satisfaction is that whenever he meets a stumbling block, he can count on black people to rally around him just as unreasonably."
The Tribune described his media profiles as "near messianic" in their terms. On Tuesday night, Obama gives the keynote address for his party, before the largest audience of his life. (He won't get a coveted nationwide audience on network television, however, as the networks have decided Tuesday night's lineup of speakers isn't worth covering.)
"My wife just tells me to not screw it up," Obama said during a brief appearance in the media center Monday afternoon.
"My theme will be that the Democratic Party has always stood for giving everyone an equal chance, despite the circumstances of their birth. My story is emblematic of that, as is John Edwards's story. I want to affirm those values." A lesser candidate might have stretched and tried to sell Kerry as a "poor boy made good" as well, but Obama just let his party's presidential nominee remain unmentioned.
Before ducking off from the press scrum, Obama took a moment to explain that his first name is Swahili, and means "one who is blessed by God." It also relates, through Arabic and Semitic roots, to the Hebrew baruch, which means "blessed."
An African-American Senate candidate who can speak a little Hebrew? Could focus groups have come up with a better candidate for a diverse America?
The good news for Democrats is that Obama seems like the real deal he hasn't made any nutty statements, he avoided gloating during the scandal-tinged implosion of his GOP rival, Jack Ryan, and he appears situated to cruise to a November 2 victory.
If he wins, Obama would not face reelection until 2010, in increasingly Democratic-leaning, 22-electoral-vote-possessing Illinois. For real far-off speculation about the future, think about how a second-term Sen. Obama would make a perfect running mate in 2012. Or maybe not even the bottom of the ticket.
"That's silly talk," Obama said on Meet the Press. "Talk to my wife. She'll tell me I need to learn to just put my socks on the hamper."
The bad news for Democrats is that so far, Barack Obama doesn't have much competition as his party's leader of the future.