Stepping back from advocacy for the moment, I’m trying to assess what will happen on November 4, and I realize that I haven’t the first idea. A persuasive case can be made that Obama will win in a landslide – largely because this is going to be such an overwhelmingly Democratic year, but also, to those of this persuasion, because of his tangy goodness as a candidate. But an equally persuasive case can be made that McCain will succeed in framing the election as the decision not between two parties, but between two men, and that Obama will lose.
What I don’t believe is that McCain can win big. If he wins, I think it’ll be a squeaker. But I do think it’s possible that we’ll hear that squeak.
Why? Here are a few reasons.
First, though Obama has a strong base of African Americans and Creative Classmates, he hasn’t succeeded in expanding that base, and it’s not enough to win. Obama’s bounce now from winning the nomination should be a lot bigger. Dukakis was up by 17 at the equivalent stage of that contest.
Second, McCain is a stronger candidate than the netroots likes to believe. His brand has proved remarkably resilient, despite his awkwardness as a speaker (or perhaps in part because of it), and despite his backpedaling on previous principled positions.
Most importantly, I think, Obama has pretty much failed to define himself. This was a huge error. There is a major opportunity cost to his quasi-disappearance during the last three months of the primary campaign, when he basically ran out the clock. And I think a good case can be made that that tactical error – or inherent incapacity – could prove fatal to his candidacy.
Obama is a new, unknown quantity. It’s Job One for a new, unknown quantity to define himself or herself. This is true for a new employee, a new boss, a new product, a new anything in a competitive arena. Since he hasn’t done so – for example, not having chosen a single economic issue to make his own in a clear and compelling way, so that his Q-rating on things economic isn’t much better than McCain’s – he remains vulnerable to being defined by the Republicans.
One way they could do that? Peg him as Jimmy Carter II. I was talking about this with a friend, and he laid out how the pitch could go:
“Remember when gas prices were skyrocketing and the economy was in the tank, before Ronald Reagan revived it?” (You and I know Reagan didn’t do that, but a lot of people – maybe most people – believe he did.)
“Remember when crime was rampant, before Republican and Democratic administrations stepped up to the issue?”
You get the picture. We’re already seeing signs that they plan to run against Carter – and Carter himself will make that so much easier, since he refuses to shut up, and can probably be counted on to respond personally to these attacks. In many ways, he’s a gift that keeps on giving to the GOP.
Jimmy Carter, in other words, could become the Willy Horton of 2008 – somebody a majority of voters don’t like or trust who gets hung around the neck of a candidate nobody really knows very well.
Now, of course, Obama will counter by saying that McCain will give us a third Dubya term. Can he make that stick? I have my doubts. As I say, McCain’s ‘maverick’ brand has proven very persistent, and as Media Darling Numero Uno, he has a lot of enablers. The image of him in the public mind seems to have been frozen at the 2000 primaries – so he’s seen as Bush’s opponent, despite caving to the Bushies on any number of things since then.
Also, the press may well now turn on Obama – not for ideological reasons, but for narrative reasons. A lot of his appeal vs.
Anyway, that’s just one possibility. I’m only suggesting it to show how vulnerable Obama may be. And to me, it underlines the rather astonishing fact that, despite what promises to be a Democratic sweep of 1936 proportions, the presidency remains a toss-up.