If you love Barack Obama, as almost everybody interested in U.S. politics does right now, ask yourself this simple question: What do you know about his opinions on any subject?
You probably remember he gave a masterful speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. You recall how he spoke and that it was he who spoke: a poised and handsome black man with a deep voice that's reassuring and commanding at the same time.
But what did he say?
Admit it. You don't really care.
Obama is an uncommonly opaque rock-star politician, though not through any fault of his own. He's written and published two wildly successful books, a memoir and a rumination on politics and policy. But of the million or so people who've bought his books, I'd wager only a tenth have sampled more than a few pages. They don't need to read Obama to love him. They love that he writes and he publishes. They love how he speaks. They love the fact that he exists. They love the way he makes them feel.
This is the key to his appeal, and it places Obama in a very unusual position for an elected politician: He is now the semi-official Rorschach Candidate of 2008.
The Rorschach Candidate is the one who provokes enthusiasm not because of the positions he takes but because of who he is. He doesn't seem like a politician; he seems to be better than a politician - fresh, new, different.
The Rorschach Candidate is especially exciting because under normal circumstances he couldn't possibly take the nomination, and his race for president would seem like a revolutionary and transformative act in itself.
Rorschach Candidates have hovered around presidential contests for the past couple of decades. In 1988, some Republicans were excited by the prospect of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick taking a shot, even though she'd never run for office. She didn't go for it - nor did Colin Powell, the subject of intense speculation in the run-up to the 1996 GOP race.
The Democratic Party had its Rorschach Candidate emerge in 2003, as Gen. Wesley Clark enjoyed a boomlet rather like Powell's and chose to make a run for it. His experience is the cautionary tale for any Rorschach Candidate - because Clark's best day as a potential president was the day before he announced his bid. A political novice, Clark pretty much blew up on the launch pad.
And then, of course, there's the ultimate Rorschach Candidate: Ross Perot. In 1992, speaking in generalities about fixing what's broken in Washington without ever providing a single bit of guidance about how he'd do so, Perot spent hundreds of millions of his own money in an independent bid for office. And even though he acted like a nut and left the race for a while, he managed to score an astonishing 19 percent of the vote.
Obama is a different kind of Rorschach Candidate, because he's actually run for office and won. A sitting senator, albeit one with only two years under his belt in Washington, he's already cast hundreds of votes - and his votes suggest only that he is a down-the-line liberal Democrat with nothing remotely unconventional about him.
Indeed, his close relationship with a crooked Illinois fund-raiser - a relationship that will surely become clearer and more public if he runs - suggests he is a conventional politician in another, more distressing way.
There's no way of knowing whether Obama will run. But his emergence as the Rorschach Candidate makes it clear that Democrats don't want this nominating process to turn into a Hillary Clinton coronation - and that's healthy for the party and its prospects. Just as George Bush was tested by John McCain in 2000 and made battle-ready for the general election, so Hillary will need some testing as well.
All the Obama talk also reveals just how easy Hillary might have it if he isn't the one to test her: The enthusiasm he provokes is a sign that John Edwards, Tom Vilsack, Evan Bayh, John Kerry and others are exciting to no one.
It's true that only a candidate who provokes serious excitement will dislodge a frontrunner like Hillary (absent self-destruction on her part). But it also takes an all-consuming hunger and drive to win under these somewhat unfavorable conditions. There's no evidence Obama has that kind of drive, that fire in the belly, at this moment in his political career.
He's already become king by acclimation. Why would he tarnish his crown at this moment by getting into a bruising battle - when at some point in the next decade he can have the Democratic nomination with a snap of his fingers?
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