Barack Obama is on the cusp of pulling off what no one in his party has achieved for years.
If recent polls, together with the crowds at his events, are anything to go by, he is simultaneously appealing to strident Democratic activists and seducing floating voters and independents. The combination, if it proves durable, is electoral gold dust.
The recent history of the Democratic Party is littered with compelling insurgent candidates—Howard Dean, Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy, for example—who rode a wave of grass-roots fervor before crashing to earth.
Mr. Obama seems to offer a way out of the trap.
On the one hand, he employs the lofty rhetoric that thrills the foot soldiers of his party, and he seems to share their basic values.
On the other, he runs on a Democratic centrist policy platform and projects a persona that, being both charismatic and optimistic, draws in the uncommitted rather than scaring them away, as a Dean or a Kennedy might.
This, as much as his now-famous life story, is part of what makes Mr. Obama special.
As he proves often on the stump, he can take an argument comprised of elements that should, on their face, be discordant and meld them into something coherent.
At a low-cost fund-raiser in Boston on Sunday night, for example, Mr. Obama excoriated unnamed Democrats for being in thrall to the idea that they could only appear tough on national security by “acting like George Bush Republicans”.
He also took to task those who, he claimed, carefully calibrate their positions out of fear about “what Mitt or Rudy might say about us.”
And Mr. Obama seemed to implicate Bill as well as Hillary Clinton in this critique. He bemoaned the tendency toward “triangulation”—a word virtually synonymous with the Clinton presidency—and went on to deride “poll-driven politics” and those who opt to lead by “calculation” rather than “convictions.”
But Mr. Obama also presented himself as a man capable of easing the enmity that has festered between Republicans and Democrats for at least a decade. Mrs. Clinton has no such capacity, he implied.
“I don’t want to spend the next four years rearguing the same partisan arguments that we had all through the 1990’s,” he said. “I don’t want to pit red America against blue America.”
Invoking long-ago Democratic icons like J.F.K. and F.D.R., he added, “This party has been at its best when we have summoned the entire nation—not just half the nation, not just a portion of a demographic, the entire nation—around a higher goal, a common purpose.”
Seventy-four-year-old Jim Foley of Danvers, Mass., was among the crowd at Mr. Obama’s Boston speech. Asked why he liked the Illinois senator, Mr. Foley replied, “He’s not an ideologue. He’ll take Republican ideas, Democratic ideas, it doesn’t matter to him. He is not interested in advancing a particular agenda.”
As Frank Rich noted in Sunday’s New York Times, Mr. Obama has even been attracting nonironic plaudits from conservatives like Peggy Noonan and former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon.
And in a Des Moines Register poll published on Dec. 2, 27 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers said Mr. Obama was the “best able to bring Republicans and Democrats together,” compared with 18 percent for Mrs. Clinton.
In the same poll, 25 percent also said Mr. Obama was the “most principled” Democrat in the field, compared with just 16 percent for Mrs. Clinton, who was pushed into third place in that category by John Edwards.
Mr. Obama’s stump speech customarily ends with him beseeching his audience to “reach for what’s possible” rather than accepting “what the cynics would have you settle for.”
There is no proof at all that Mr. Obama could govern in such a high-minded fashion if given the chance, of course. But for now, it is easy to see why many of his supporters believe they have found a man capable of performing political alchemy.
Maybe Mrs. Clinton and her surrogates will succeed in taking the gloss off Mr. Obama’s candidacy between now and the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. Maybe they can turn him into just another ambitious politician saying whatever it takes to get votes.
So far, though, Mr. Obama is holding up. He is tantalizingly close to becoming that rarest of things in American politics—a candidate who doesn’t just promise a new kind of politics, but delivers it.