by 2008 Central, Tue Mar 18, 2008 at 03:59:16 PM EDT
[Republished from 2008Central.net]
[You can read text of the speech and see a video here.]
The first things that struck me about the speech was how apolitical it was. It really seemed like something more suited to a lecture hall in a university than a presidential campaign. It's just not something that can be analyzed looking at the traditional horse-race type machinations.
Briefly, though, to the extent it will affect what people think, it's important to note something Jonathan Martin noted this morning - that it's not the elites of the internet or media that matter, but of the ordinary people. And that will take a while to figure out. There's one thing I disagree with Martin on though;<!--more--> I don't think it was Romney's speech that reminded people he was a Mormon, it was Huckabee who got the message out that he was an evangelical. Romney's support actually stayed pretty steady among his core base. In fact, he gave the speech just after he hit his low point in Iowa polls, as shown on the RCP Iowa map. I'm not sure if it's become conventional wisdom that Romney reminded everyone he was Mormon, but that doesn't seem to have been the case; he climbed back after the speech had presumably sunken in, only for Huckabee to surge ahead again in the final results. Moreover, it's not clear what effect the speech had outside of Iowa. Romney made similar gains in Florida, only to fall a few points short of McCain. Clearly, this bias could have been a problem. But I'm not sure that the conventional wisdom that the speech didn't significantly help is the right call.
But back to Obama's speech. I think given the internet reaction that it's rather likely the speech will shore up concerns among his own base. That doesn't seem to be generally in much doubt.
The most interesting parts to me are how detailed and realistic the speech was. There's no real quick way to sum up his argument. Ben Smith noted the headlines, and each misses a big part of his speech.
Obama doesn't run away from Wright in this speech. Instead, he paints Wright as someone quintessentially American: with admirable idealistic views whose views on some issues (mostly relating to race) are something that is a product of American history. I think this part of the speech, transitioning from fiercely criticizing Wright to why he still goes to Chucrch there, is the key section:
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way
But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth - by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
This hearkens back for me to things Angelo and I talked about in our recent podcast concerning Wright, but clearly goes much further and is much richer.
It's difficult to be realistic in politics in this country. Liberals tend to look at racism in one way and conservatives another. It's difficult to publicly acknowledge that and still appeal to either side. It's not the third rail of American politics; it's the first and second rail, an easy way to get run over by a train if you talk about it at the wrong time or in the wrong way.
Now, the big problem: does this matter. I think to the extent people listen to the speech it will assuage some fears about Obama, but if they had deep seated fears about Obama to begin with, it probably won't matter.
Michael Crowley says the following:
But those [liberal intellectuals, -JW] weren't the people Obama needed to reach today. His target audience was working class white voters--Reagan Democrats with a historic tendency to let racial prejudice and fear override their other social and economic interests, and whose view of Obama the Jeremiah Wright controversy threaten to permanently warp. That's one reason Obama sounded a striking note of sympathy for racial resentment within white America:
I'm going to slightly disagree. He didn't have to reach the lower class today. He had to start a dialogue that could possibly reach them by the general election. Because there's little chance he's going to win that demographic against Clinton in Pennsylvania or West Virginia. And there will probably not be enough coverage of the speech for him to do that in the coming weeks anyways. But if he constantly hits these refrains it could be something that people will listen to and buy and end up supporting him should he be the nominee.
And I think his target was also superdelegates who ARE going to be watching this speech closely. They can see Obama can fight back and try to turn a negative situation into a positive example.
Also, it seems that most of the criticism of the speech is not of it itself, but of that Obama sat in a Church with a pastor saying really offensive things, and that has un-repentantly hurt his reputation, no matter what he says. (That's my paraphrasing after a half hour of reading NRO posts). I'm not sure if blatant disqualification of anyone with close racist friends would be a good or even possible thing for America. From an objective viewpoint, it makes Obama less of a promising figure, but only more realistic. To the point, if a conservative politician had given the exact same speech and intertwined it with conservative ideals of more freedom in society instead of liberal ones, I'm pretty sure most of the conservatives at NRO would be praising it.
I'm also not convinced that Obama takes every quack viewpoint of Wright as seriously as some do. It's clear Obama has to answer for Wright's viewpoints, but I don't think that means taking the craziest one (9/11 conspiracy theory for instance) and saying that Obama takes it as seriously as any others.
It's also a bit strange that so many commentators are not focusing on the religious aspect of the speech in regards to Wright. I quoted that above. Obama takes the good parts of Wright far more seriously than the detractors, and it's not even something they focus on most of the time. And to the extent they do, they focus on the spectacle of the Church, and no more.
Frankly, I'm inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt in terms of who convinces them to join a particular religion. If the person who convinced George W. Bush to become born again was some Holocaust denier or something, does that impugn Bush? No.
The name of the doctrine escapes me at the moment, but being raised Catholic I was long taught that it was the intent of the worshiper and not the status of the priest that is meaningful. Clearly here that lines ends when Obama starts taking advice from Wright. And he should answer for that. But I'd say that Obama should not have to answer for being persuaded by non-offensive speeches by the man, and being persuaded to become Christian by him. It'd be wonderful if every meaningful figure we chose was a "Martin Luther King" type figure. But that's generally impossible.
Moreover, the conflation between Wright's Church and Wright still continues. They're not the same. Asking someone to abandon their Church is a lot more serious than occasion inflammatory remarks by a pastor. (That absolutely no one has said HOW often these occurred, fwiw).
In sum, I'd tend to agree with Charles Murray that it's a great speech. While most of the partisans emphasize themes that will help of hurt them in the election, this would have been an important political speech even if Obama was not running for President at all. (In fact, I think the effect on the race is marginal at best.)
Apparently, thinking about an apolitical speech in such apolitical terms is frowned upon when the speech was given by a politician. Oh well, I hope most people don't fall into that trap.