Political campaigns are fascinating for the same reasons great novels are: both feature characters driven and buffeted by ambition, love and pride. And as in literature, scope is important in politics, for the higher the stakes, the more pitched the story. All of which makes a presidential race the grandest of spectacles.
Yet statecraft is not only about the spectacular. Politics, while entertaining, is not—or at least should not be—entertainment. Despite the way we go about deciding who gets it, the presidency is more than a popularity contest, though winning the popular vote is (usually) key. We are not electing someone to room with, drink with or play tennis with but someone to keep the nation safe and direct the affairs of the most powerful country on earth.
It is also true, however, that politics is about people, about their passions and their hopes and their fears. Anyone who would lead us has to be able to win—and winning, to state the obvious, requires getting more votes than the other guy (or gal). This is why some of our noblest public servants have done dopey and dirty things to succeed, and many of them have taken pains to appear to be just like the rest of us. It has been this way since at least 1828, when Andrew Jackson became the first self-made man to win the White House.
Barack Obama, though, can take comfort in this: three of our greatest 20th-century presidents—Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan—never worried too much about trying to appear to be the guy next door. (Yes, FDR served the King and Queen of England hot dogs at Hyde Park, but only an American aristocrat certain of his place would have done that.)
Does it matter, then, that Hillary Clinton says she likes to bowl, or that Barack Obama cannot? The answer, as unsatisfying as it may be, is: sort of. He needs to dispose of the elitist charge somehow, or voters need to decide—as they may very well—that they do not care about it, and then it will disappear. For now, though, the arugula factor—shorthand for the impression that Obama is out of touch with common voters—is a real one as the Illinois senator struggles to show that he can win the kinds of white working-class voters both parties need to triumph in November.
Our cover this week explores what we are calling Obama's Bubba gap. As Evan Thomas, Holly Bailey and Richard Wolffe write, the John McCain campaign is no longer frightened by the prospect of a general election against Obama. Only in America, it seems, could the first major African-American presidential candidate be seen by some as more elitist than Clinton, who has spent the last 30 years in a governor's mansion, the White House or the U.S. Senate. In a series of essays by Jonathan Alter, Ellis Cose, Raina Kelley and Karl Rove, we explore the complexities of class and race—complexities that are finding daily expression in the campaign. Jonathan Darman asks a big question: what happened to Bill Clinton? How did the darling of the African-American community become so blinded by ambition for his wife that many of his most loyal supporters believe he has done himself permanent damage? (Though with Bill Clinton there is really no such thing as truly permanent damage.) As a reminder of the debate to come, Fareed Zakaria weighs in on McCain's bipolar foreign policy.
If Obama had eliminated Clinton earlier, we would probably not be having these discussions about class, but he did not, and so we are. It is up to him whether the debate goes on, or whether it ends with convincing victories in the remaining primaries and among the superdelegates. Then the next chapter can begin.