Nearly every four years, millions of Americans who belong to that minority that cares about politics fall in love with an insurgent candidate for president. In 1964, conservatives swooned over Barry M. Goldwater; four years later, anti-war liberals rallied to Eugene McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy. More recently, Patrick Buchanan thrilled one section of the GOP but spooked everybody else; while fans of Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean seemed poised to defeat better-funded and better-connected Democrats.
Despite their obvious ideological differences, each of these figures cultivated the same image: a politician who candidly and aggressively takes on his party's establishment by defying its conventional wisdom. Each might have echoed Goldwater's slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right," if the Arizona senator hadn't suffered such a debacle at the polls against that consummate insider, Lyndon B. Johnson.
This time around, the only credible insurgent is Barack Obama. He's handsome, young and eloquent, and promises to transcend "divisive ideological politics" and to "develop innovative approaches to challenge the status quo." His remarkable biography is just as much a challenge to Hillary Clinton's as are those headlines on his website. If Americans truly want to avoid a quarter-century of presidents belonging to two white Protestant families, they could not find a better standard-bearer than a former community organizer whose father was African, stepfather was Indonesian, and mother identified strongly with the civil rights movement.
But is Obama an insurgent who can win? History isn't on his side. Since 1964, no dissenter against either party's establishment has been nominated. George S. McGovern can be considered only a half-insurgent, since there was no establishment candidate in 1972. Humphrey, Muskie, and Jackson split the old Cold War constituency within the party -- and Wallace, until he was shot, took away what was left of the white South.
The last true insurgent Democrat to get his party's nod was William Jennings Bryan, back in 1896. Bryan railed tirelessly and eloquently against both the incumbent president of his own party and against Republican nominee William McKinley. But his strength among small farmers and white workers in the West and South could not overcome the GOP's money and appeal in the industrial heartland.
Of course, Obama's base of support is quite different from that of the Great Commoner. In opinion polls, which Hillary Clinton has consistently led, he draws more support from professionals and college graduates than from working and lower-middle class people, who are the majority of voters. Obama's aversion to memorable sound-bites and his talk of compromise with Republicans can remind one more of the wonkish Tsongas or Bradley than of a visionary figure like RFK or a combative one like Dean, much less a populist like Bryan. "Obama girl" videos aside, it's not clear if he can win the love of most Democrats -- or will be able to carry that support into the general election campaign.
One cannot dismiss these worries but neither should they cause admirers of Obama to lose heart. For 2008 appears to be one of those years in which a fresh type of candidate from the out-party could prevail. Overwhelming numbers of independents as well as Democrats believe the country has badly lost its way -- both in Iraq and at home. Candidates with the most experience in national government, John McCain and Bill Richardson, have little chance to be nominated. Obama's ability to raise more money than Clinton and to best every leading Republican in the early polls suggests that he is more than just an appealing rebel.
In fact, this race may resemble that of 1976, more than any subsequent campaign. That year, a one-term governor named Jimmy Carter got elected in the wake of the Watergate scandal and defeat in Vietnam. His born-again faith, Deep South roots, and conservative inclinations helped separate him from all the other Democratic contenders, except George Wallace. And the public's widespread disillusionment with sitting politicians was enough to nudge him into the White House.
As the first caucuses and primaries draw close, Obama will have to rekindle the rhetorical fire and precision that impressed viewers of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. But, unlike Tsongas or Bradley, he has a huge and growing base of support among young people, and such enthusiasm should make for positive media coverage and a rise in the polls by the time the leaves turn.
Not since John F. Kennedy almost half-a-century ago has a Democrat candidate showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness - or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. And unlike JFK, Obama actually wrote the best-selling books that bear his name and can't depend on a wealthy father to finance his career. The more Americans learn about this intellectually gifted, self-made man, the greater his appeal should grow.
Barring a dramatic series of changes, the Democrats should enter the general election campaign with an excellent chance of winning the presidency and building on their majorities in Congress. Either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton could become a fine chief executive. But only one of them will not have to defend what happened the last time their party held the White House or worry about proof of a spouse's infidelity showing up on YouTube. And only an Obama victory will show world that Americans have rejected the arrogant, inept policies that destroyed the broad support the U.S. received after the attacks of 9/11.