Friday, June 20, 2008

What's Gonna Happen?

Beats me.

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?”

“Remember when America’s honor was tarnished due to inexperience and uncertainty?” (Cue pictures of the Iranian hostages.)

“Well, thankfully we’ve gotten past those bleak days of ‘malaise.’ But that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. They could come back, if we don’t exercise strong and steady leadership…”

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. Clinton was that the press could feel they discovered him. He was their creation – and what they made they can unmake. “See, we weren’t ‘in the tank’ for Obama. Sure, we may’ve roughed up Hillary… but now we’re doing the same to him.”

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.


Derek said...

Still clinging to your guns and religion, I see. Sad, really. But the three points you raise seem to require some sort of context to them.

1) "Expanding his base" -- given that we just finished the primaries, I expect that's what he's going to be doing now. I think his largely well-received meeting with Christian leaders in Chicago earlier this month was one such overture toward moderate Christians. His wife's largely well-received appearance on The View was an obvious appeal to women. His base won him the nomination; now he's in the general election, so that work begins.

Newsweek just announced Obama's lead over McCain at 15 points nationally, pretty much in line with Dukakis's lead once he won the nomination. So here on out it's a clean slate, like most other elections at this point.

2) McCain IS a stronger candidate than just about anyone else who was running in the GOP race; I don't think anyone denies that -- he won the nomination pretty handily, in fact. I know I would have much preferred if either Clinton or Obama would have had a Huckabee or Romney to run against rather than a McCain. I've certainly seen the netroots ridiculing McCain (which is what they seem to do best), but I think that's to undercut the seriousness of the threat he poses, not to deny it.

The Obama campaign seems to acknowledge this will be a squeaker as well, hence the decision to decline (you could even say abjure) participation in the public campaign financing scheme and looking to put McCain on the defensive in as many states as possible, rather than focus only on the closest races.

3) I find it rich that someone who argued for Clinton to stay in the race even after she had numerically lost the nomination by delegate counts would now be complaining that Obama hasn't done enough to define himself. Gosh, I wonder why that might be? With the brake off, he might be able to use the gas pedal a little more now to do just that. But if you spit at someone in the face, you can't very well turn right around and complain about their hygiene.

Again, as with expanding the base, that seems to be the task at hand. Witness the new ad he released, which is all about defining himself to a public that may not yet know his story. And it has occurred to me that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Chicago's Trinity Church did him one huge favor during the primaries, at least: it helped put to rest (although not completely) the rumors that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. They may not like the kind of church he went to, but by the time that kerfuffle was over, it was clearly a church and not a mosque that was at issue.

I can't say whether he knows what he's doing, but so far, he's certainly done well, winning the nomination and raising more money from more people than any other candidate by this point in history. Given the prevailing narratives of campaign coverage these days, a part of me would even prefer he and McCain were closer in the polls so that there could be more of a trajectory between now and Election Day. That's what the press likes to follow and if he's lying low now -- which I admit is probably just my own hopeful take on it -- that's at least what I'd like to see happen.

Falstaff said...


1) He's had months to expand his base, in a contest where it was pretty urgent for him to do so. Not only hasn't he reached out, or come up with *a single new or interesting idea that actually addressed those voters' concerns*, but when he's attended to any of Hillary's voters at all, it's mainly been to insult them. Michelle going on 'The View' doesn't exactly cut it. Will more PR gestures like this work? Frankly, I doubt it. Actual programs that address the actual economic needs of those folks would be more like it.

And maybe the Newsweek poll is a harbinger... but so far, it looks like an outlier.

2) You may think the netroots is taking McCain seriously, but even if that's so (and it seems a fairly willful twisting of what they're writing to construe it thus), it confirms my point. He is a formidable challenger, and the election's outcome is very much in doubt. (Much more so, according to the preponderance of the polling, than it would have been had Hillary been the candidate.)

3) Huh? When do candidates or competitors of any kind define themselves? When they're unopposed? Uh, I don't think so. The time when definition happens is in battle, not in peace. Definition doesn't occur in monologues -- which is, of course, what Obama does best. It doesn't happen in ads and speeches. It happens through decisions, policies, leadership, guts.

Just look at the primary itself. Obama's campaign played the race card against Hillary, her campaign and her supporters. They played footsie with the most vicious misogynists. They out-thought Hillary on the tactics of the caucus states. How did Hillary respond? By getting sharper, clearer, tougher. By coming back strong. By finding her voice. What did Obama do when he got hit with a punch? He danced away. He made one great speech... and then bupkes. He did "wheeze across the finish line." He did fail to propose a single innovative or even sharp policy position. And he did, instead, play the vilest card of all -- the blood libel that that Hillary called for his murder. In other words, he did spend these three months doing nothing very clear or impressive, and a lot that was pretty awful, divisive and certainly not likely to pull the party together -- long after, as you claim, he had "numerically" locked up the nomination and presumably could have *easily* focused on being a leader of the whole party. All this, despite having far more need to define himself than Hillary did.

I can't help but feel that your comment is symptomatic of the basic point and state of play that I've described -- namely, that it's still all about Hillary. If Obama hasn't defined himself yet... well, that's 'cause Hillary was so mean. If he hasn't expanded his base yet... well, it's just that Hillary wouldn't let him. If Obama is showing himself to be a cynical pol, rather than the Messiah of Hopeiness... well, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. This is how he handles opposition from Hillary Clinton? How's he gonna do against Republicans? How's he gonna do against the Chinese? How's he gonna do against terrorists?

Dismayed minds want to know.