The typical article written about Chicago politics by a journalist from somewhere else tells us as much about this city as does the too-long-by-an-hour “Dark Knight.” You come into the city, talk to some of the approved journalists and political outsiders (the so-called independents), clip stories from newspaper archives, and begin to write. Thus American Pharaoh, a biography of Mayor Daley Pere. The metaphor of a sacred king of Egypt for Da Mare would be hilariously funny if it were not so grotesquely irrelevant.
Similarly, in the current attack on Sen. Obama by the New Yorker, the theme is “How Chicago shaped Obama.” Told from the point of view of the “independents” (Independent Voters of Illinois), it purports to describe how Chicago political style taught the senator to betray his friends and allies. He pretended to be a liberal independent, but as soon as he had maneuvered himself into a position to seek a place in the United States Senate, he “sold out” to the Daley “Machine” and betrayed his early supporters and allies.
Ryan Lizza, the author of the article, clearly worked hard and got the facts right. His Sen. Obama is a very bright and articulate politician. Many of us would rejoice in those characteristics. Politics is the art and craft of building coalitions and winning elections. It is an ancient and honorable vocation, held in contempt by many liberals and many “independents.” Unfortunately if Sen. Obama had played by their rules (you have to wait your turn, a norm that the “Machine” endorses, too), he would be running for the state Senate this time and might or might not win. From the perspective of the article, the senator was guilty of being independent among the independents.
One thing that Lizza doesn’t get around to telling us early on is that the independents are not exactly a powerhouse in Cook County, to say nothing of the whole state of Illinois. They win few elections outside of the University of Chicago neighborhood and the North Side wards of the lakefront limousine liberals. They are hardworking, intelligent dedicated men and women, with high ideals, including a willingness to be satisfied with moral victories. Some of my best friends . . .
To carry counties beyond Cook, their candidate needs a lot more voters, and the place to go to collect them is City Hall. So the senator embraced the mayor. Or the mayor embraced the senator — in line with one of the few unquestioned theorems of Chicago politics, “Don’t make no waves, don’t back no losers.”
He let his friends down. He permitted ambition to corrupt him. Do you really want such an opportunist in the White House? the article asks implicitly, especially someone who has sold out to the Daley Machine?
Lizza gives us a hint that maybe that is what politics is about — building coalitions. He quotes two independent-voter types, “I am not thrilled with Barack simply because we elected him as an independent, and he switched over to Daley. When we won the primary out here, he went downtown. It appears that Daley took over the campaign for him. . . . We were excluded.”
Lizza then quotes David Axelrod (the senator’s guru and himself a certified independent), “some of the independents blame Daley for everything. There’s this Wizard of Oz mystique. Daley had no role in the Senate campaign.”
Regardless of what Axelrod and the independent-voter types say, coalition building is the way to win elections in Chicago. And that’s not something to be disparaged.