Growing up the son of a senator, Evan Bayh attended Washington's elite, Gothic-spired prep school for boys. Even so (or maybe because of that) he treasured summer trips back home to Indiana. His father, Birch, whose own father was a hog farmer, was a fiery liberal, an expert on the Constitution revered in capital salons. To survive in Republican Indiana, he hit every dusty crossroads and church supper. An Army marksman, Birch always stopped by the "Black Powder Shoot" in rural Friendship, where contestants fired rifles filled with cartridges of old-fashioned black gunpowder. Birch wowed the crowd—and his son—with his accuracy. Today, Evan Bayh does not own a gun. He is not a hunter. He doesn't usually vote with the NRA. Still, he knows what those Powder Shoot voters believe: that a rifle is a symbol of their identity as Americans. "You don't have to be of those voters," Bayh told me, "but you need to know where they are coming from well enough to understand their side of the argument."
And there always is an argument about something. We are, after all, the Arguing Country. We are born to debate, free of top-down rulers and their absolutes; no other place has such a provenance and responsibility. We are—and must remain, if we are to thrive—a never-ending series of arguments: about the meaning of personhood and citizenship; about the structure of government, credit and the law; about our relationship to the rest of the world and even to the demands of our own history. The "gun issue," for example, is an element of a larger dispute over the limits of individualism in a country created for the "general welfare." Facts change, but the underlying creative tensions do not. The trick is to tap the heat of the friction in the service of progress as we struggle toward the Founders' "more perfect union." We've been doing it since 1607.
Forgetting this history, purveyors of conventional wisdom worry that we argue too much. The reality is that we do not argue enough—about what matters. (Think about the ferocious debate we did not really have in 2002 before the decision to go to war in Iraq.) Voters yearn for less "partisanship" in Washington, but what they really want to do is halt the fake wrestling match there and ask their putative "leaders" to listen beyond the Beltway. Voters see a government unresponsive to their economic distress; big corporations and K Street insiders throttling the government's ability to act, and the news media lost in the rush for "Idol"-like ratings. They see elites doing well and turning inward, while everyone else slips to the downside. In the permanent argument about the need for reform, today's answer is a resounding yes. The last time the national "wrong track" polling figures were this dismal was during Watergate.
Can Barack Obama, leading an Internet-generated reform movement, reverse those numbers? If there is a rhyme in recent history, it's in the aftermath of Watergate. A beleaguered country, facing rising oil prices and the constitutional wreckage of a rogue presidency, chose a Democrat with an exotic background. Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from rural Georgia, promised moral and political renewal based more on his own personal qualities than any specific policy proposal. He clinched the sale, his handlers later said, with the publication of what became an iconic photograph: Carter in farm duds on bended knee in a field, reflectively fondling his family's soil.
Now Obama hopes to ride to the White House on a similar wave of revulsion with Washington. He is pacing methodically toward the Democratic nomination: in the past month, Hillary Clinton hit him with her best shot—and Obama had to distance himself from his acid-tongued, Porsche-driving spiritual mentor and his "mangled" comments about small-town voters who "cling to" their guns and faith. At least among Democrats, no blood, no foul: Obama actually lengthened his lead over Clinton, from 45-44 percent a month ago to 54-35 percent now, according to the new NEWSWEEK Poll. While his favorable ratings have dropped some, Hillary's are now sulfurously bad. So far, it seems, Obama can defend himself from her attacks merely by accusing Hillary of practicing "the tired, old politics of the past," and Democrats agree. She is, in effect, making his case for him.
But will that be enough to carry him in a battle with John McCain, who possesses tarnished but still genuine credentials as a reformer himself? Obama must demonstrate—more convincingly than he has so far—that he understands where the full array of American voters are "coming from." As he prepares to do battle with Clinton in Indiana in early May, he is still struggling to make the sale to the Powder Shoot voters and their families. The new NEWSWEEK poll measures how far he must travel to do that. Obama leads Clinton, 52-35, among upper- and middle-income white Democrats, but he trails her by an even larger margin—54-35 percent—among the bottom half.
An Obama-McCain electoral map makes these voters all the more important. As an Arizonan and a moderate on immigration, McCain complicates Democratic plans in the Southwest. Nor can Obama expect a surge of Hispanic votes in Florida, where the Democrats' chances aren't great in any case. That turns the focus back to where it usually is in presidential elections: the Electoral College Crescent around the Great Lakes region, from Minnesota and Wisconsin through Michigan and Ohio and on to Pennsylvania. That's where the Powder Shoot voters are: traditional on economic issues, culturally conservative.
As he reaches out, Obama will frame his reform message in economic, not cultural, terms. But the GOP will attack on that turf. In the primary season, Obama has faced little criticism for his liberal voting record in Illinois. That is about to change, as Republicans try to make Obama pay for his South Side Chicago roots, which produced votes in favor of handgun control and against the filtering of pornography on school and library computers, to cite two examples. It's not clear how much this will matter in the midst of a recession and an unpopular war, but the senator can't afford to assume that it won't.
If he is going to argue that elites have too much power—that he is the reformer to roust them from the corrupt temple—he needs to show that he isn't an elitist of a different but equally haughty sort. Carter never had that problem (and neither—Andover, Yale and Harvard notwithstanding—did George W. Bush). But it is an ironic measure of social progress in America that Obama—the law-professor product of prep school, Columbia and Harvard—does. There is a long American tradition of upper-crust reformers, including both presidents Roosevelt and many of the Founding Fathers. But most of them were either born with, or developed through long experience, a sure sense of the common man's argument on any issue.
Obama is still learning. He can be companionable, and is genuinely curious about people, but he can come off as a little lordly and self-regarding. The first-term senator is racing against time to steep himself in the country before he has to face it in its entirety in a general election. He jettisoned references to his favorite green tea and the local Whole Foods, but still seems out of place in a bowling alley or a mill-town tavern. He can seem a little clinical (or even, let's admit it, journalistic) about the wonderful "folks" he meets on the obscure byways that he hopes will lead to the Oval Office.
Far more important—and problematic—is the sense that Obama sees himself as too principled, earnest and thoughtful for the grubby game he must play to reform the country. He doesn't appear to relish being challenged, especially in public. He thinks of himself as a broad-minded guy, and, before he ran, he constructed shrewdly empathetic syntheses of issues, each designed to anticipate every argument in advance. But presidential campaigns aren't lived in advance.
In a nation built on the idea of argument, the object of reform is not to reach a point where everyone agrees—because no one ever does—but to ensure that everyone is heard. That was what the Founders where trying to achieve in 1787 when they locked themselves in the State House—a building that still stands, two blocks from last week's ABC debate site in Philadelphia.
And on at least one American Argument last week, Obama was listening to, and responding to, another side. The issue was gun control. The U.S. Supreme Court, the debate moderators noted, was reviewing the District of Columbia's handgun ban. What did Obama think? He answered as the constitutional-law professor he once was. Yes, he said, the Second Amendment did imply a personal, individual right to bear arms—a "general principle" that might make a total ban such as D.C.'s problematic. As it happens, that's the NRA's considered opinion, too. Obama's ruling wasn't as vivid and colorful—or as loud—as a photo op at an Indiana Powder Shoot. But it was an argument worth considering.
You can buy Howard Fineman's book, The Thirteen American Arguments, here.