With Barack Obama’s bandwagon picking up speed, Hillary Clinton’s sympathizers have been pushing a new caricature of their opponent: the cultish figure who seduces the weak-kneed masses with vague and meaningless but oh-so-warm-feeling generalities.
"There was something just a wee bit creepy," Time’s Joe Klein, a Bill and Hillary stalwart, recently wrote, "about the mass messianism…of (Obama’s) Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign."
Alex Joseph, a student at Georgetown University who supports Clinton, boasted in a Slate column of his unique-for-his-generation ability to resist the siren Obama’s call.
"At Georgetown," he informed us, "the Obama supporters—devotees? cultists?—are everywhere."
In their telling, the choice for Democrats is one between the brain and the heart. Obama is for hopeless romantics who are unschooled in and ignorant of the details of public policy and the realities of politics, while Clinton is for the more intellectually mature among us—sober-minded policy purists who have mastered the art of thinking with their heads.
To be fair, the devotion of some Obama supporters has helped advance this caricature, and prompted some members of the media to buy into it.
When Obama appeared at a Democratic dinner in New Hampshire last month, his exuberant supporters rushed the stage in a scene that evoked the Gospel of Luke, forcing the public-address announcer to plead with them to back off. Over the weekend, the Drudge Report linked to a video compilation of people fainting at Obama rallies. And the mere mention of his name in an online political forum has often been enough to unleash an onslaught of rabidly pro-Obama, anti-Clinton comments, effectively shutting down rational discussion of the Democratic race. (For an excellent example of this, check out the blog of New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman, who seems to have been pushed perilously close to a Heart-of-Darkness state of near-madness by his running battles with the Obama commenters.)
But this hardly typifies Obama’s support. Just consider the difference between Obama’s present coalition and the one assembled by Howard Dean four years ago, which featured similarly over-the-top displays of enthusiasm. As with Obama’s loyalists, Deaniacs turned out by the thousands to hear their man, expressed their devotion in deeply personal terms, filled his coffers with tens of millions of dollars in small donations, and flooded the email inboxes of journalists who didn’t seem to "get it."
In Dean’s case, the real-world support never caught up with the intensity of the true believers. He faded badly in Iowa and finished in a distant third place there, then left the race a month later. His core supporters made plenty of noise, but in the end, there just weren’t that many of them.
Obama, meanwhile, seems to be appealing to what might be called the new "silent majority." Sure, he’s got his share of stage-rushers and Kool-Aid drinkers, but he’s also appealed to millions of casual voters—the ones who don’t go to his rallies, don’t donate to his campaign, but do show up on primary day and check his name off on the ballot. That’s the kind of mass casual support that other idol-candidates—Dean four years ago, or, say, Ron Paul this year—never came close to attracting.