Sen. Barack Obama is absolutely right, as he said in his Philadelphia speech on Tuesday, that Americans are "hungry" for his "message of unity."
But his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — and not only that, but his whole liberal-populist agenda — raises profound questions about whether he is capable of delivering on it.
By choosing — and sticking with — Wright as his spiritual adviser, Obama has damaged his ability to heal the nation's racial wounds. And his agenda offers nothing that will attract Republicans and end political polarization.
In the 1960s, black Americans had a choice whether to side with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X — the healer who sought to fulfill America's highest ideals through nonviolent struggle, or the raging polarizer who tried to mobilize blacks out of resentment of whites.
Wright — not just back then, but to this day — took the Malcolm X route. And Obama chose Wright as his pastor.
And Obama stuck with him. Whether Obama was in church the day Wright declared "Goddamn America" for systematically infecting blacks with drugs and HIV, or when he said that America's "chickens were coming home to roost" on Sept. 11, 2001, surely Obama had to have heard about it.
Surely, he heard about Wright's pilgrimage to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and his "lifetime achievement award" for Louis Farrakhan.
Now, Obama says, he rejects and abhors what Wright said and did. No doubt he does. But he could cite no instance when he ever intervened with Wright to protest his hateful nonsense. Reportedly, Oprah Winfrey quietly left Wright's church. Obama did not.
Obama aspires to be America's "post-racial" unifier, the political equivalent of Winfrey or Tiger Woods. In the political realm, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired general and a Republican, could perform that function. Maybe Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could.
But can Obama, now burdened by the record of his association with Wright? I doubt it.
Obama's speech on Tuesday was eloquent and sophisticated, full of history, hope and calls for healing. It got rave reviews from liberals in the media.
But what will its effect be on white voters in the Democratic Party and among white Independents in the general election?
Obama's leading problem as a candidate — also, to some extent, his advantage — is that he is new on the national scene, largely an unknown. He has become the Democratic front-runner by filling the data void with soaring rhetoric and promises to end the political polarization that prevents action to solve America's problems.
Sen. Hillary Clinton has been loudly protesting that Obama lacks the experience to be president and hasn't been "vetted," as she has. Her "vetting," not incidentally, leads nearly half of all voters to say they'd never support her.
In desperation, the Clinton campaign decided to use Obama's race against him, evidently figuring that — when all is said and done — there are more whites in the Democratic Party than blacks.
Whether a memo ever was written instructing her minions to play the "race card," lots of them did: Clinton, her husband, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro.
If Obama is trying to be Tiger Woods, the Clinton campaign has been stirring up the Fuzzy Zoellers. (Golf pro Zoeller infamously jibed that Woods would ask that watermelon and collard greens be served at the Masters champions dinner.)
And the Clintons have succeeded: Witness widening support for Clinton among whites, especially working-class whites, and African-Americans.
The Wright controversy will not dampen that trend. Maybe Obama's recitation of the wrongs done blacks that led to Wright's "anger and bitterness" will peel a few white liberals away from Clinton. But it will harden resistance to Obama among more conservative whites.
If Obama still wins the nomination, Wright will be an (unasked for) gift that keeps on giving to Republican Sen. John McCain. Obama and McCain will be in a battle for white Independents, and Obama's connection to Wright surely will repel them.
His relationships with Wright and indicted Illinois political fixer Tony Rezko raise questions about Obama's judgment. He may have been correct to judge the Iraq War a mistake from the distance of the Illinois state Senate. But, up close to Wright and Rezko, his judgment was lousy.
This isn't all that's dubious about Obama's claimed hope to bring about national unity. His method of reaching out to working-class whites was to find common enemies — "a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed, a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests, economic policies that favor the few over the many."
Were he to be elected, if he truly wanted to foster unity and end polarization, he would have to reach out to Republicans to reach a series of "grand bargains" on entitlement reform, health care, education funding and energy and environmental policy.
Yet there is nothing in Obama's agenda that a Republican could remotely be attracted to. It is liberal from top to bottom. His proposal for Social Security reform, for instance, is to raise taxes — period. No shaving benefits, no private accounts — no "bargain."
By one GOP estimate, Obama's new spending ("investment") proposals total $1.2 trillion over five years.
Rolling back President Bush's tax cuts for every family earning more than $250,000 a year would raise a little more than half that — meaning that taxes would have to go up even more.
Some funds would be saved by pulling out of Iraq — $9 billion a month is the figure Obama cites — but that, too, would be rejected by Republicans.
Obama could do what he proposes by means other than "bridging differences" with Republicans. He could assemble what he called on Feb. 19 "a working majority for change." "That's how we win elections, that's how we will govern."
He said, "I want to reach out to everybody." But if Obama could win a smashing victory in November and bring in five or six Democratic senators and 15-plus new Democratic House members, conceivably he could claim a 1964-style mandate and push through his program with next to no Republican votes.
This would not be "reaching out to everybody." It would be a repeat of the George Bush/Karl Rove strategy of 50 percent plus 1 — a very polarizing way to govern.
But that possibility probably has been spoiled by Wright — unless the economy and the Iraq War are truly wretched in November or if McCain stumbles badly. If he's elected, Obama will have to show a capacity for reaching out that he hasn't shown up to now — except rhetorically. He is very good at rhetoric.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)