8/20/2008

Fickle Democrats' Buyer's Remorse

Several polls have indicated that the presidential race is getting considerably closer. Nervous Democrats are worried that Obama may choke and are giving him advice to right his ship. These Democrats are looking at the polls and are worrying that their nominee will blow the most winnable election for Democrats in decades.

Obama is not taking it to McCain the way Democrats feel he should if he wants to survive in November. And many Democrats are finding that they had grossly underestimated John McCain. So buyer's remorse is setting in, and some Democrats are grudgingly looking at Hillary Clinton as an increasingly attractive running mate because she has what he lacks.

But this scenario was entirely predictable. It was clear during the primary season that Obama was not the type of politician who would go nuclear on his opponents. His counterattacks were considerably more subtle than Hillary Clinton's "shame on you, Barack Obama" and "Obama had a speech he gave in 2002" broadsides. Part of Obama's appeal was the fact that he really did seem different, positive, and apolitical. But now that the general election campaign is upon us, many Democrats are looking at what was once a virtue as a real handicap. They want Obama to take the gloves off, but he is in a political straitjacket because as soon as he engages in kneecap politics, his opponents will counter that he is just another typical politician. And once that happens, Obama is finished. "Change" is Obama. Once voters no longer believe Obama is a credible change agent, there will be nothing left.

Barack Obama did not win the nomination by engaging Hillary Clinton in hand to hand combat. He did not win by practicing slash and burn politics. He won the nomination by winning Iowa, matching Clinton step for step on Super Tuesday, running up the score in February, and hanging on from March until the end of the primary season. In short, Obama won by fending Clinton off, not by pummeling her into the ground. But had the primary season lasted one more month, would Clinton have caught him?

Clinton clearly ran the better campaign in April and May. Obama essentially limped across the finish line. Now Democrats are nervous. McCain is closing the gap with Obama and has successfully turned the election from a referendum on Bush to a referendum on the Illinois senator. If the election is about Bush and the way things are going today, McCain will lose in a landslide. But if the election is about Obama, McCain has a fighting chance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

And finally, it was common wisdom that the Democratic primary race would come down to Hillary Clinton and the ABC (Anybody But Clinton) candidate. Some of Obama's support during the primaries was undoubtedly from pro-Obama voters. But a sizable portion also likely consisted of anti-Clinton votes. Running as an anti-Republican or not-Bush candidate now in the general election, however, is not enough for Obama. He needs to give voters a reason to vote for him. He didn't have to do that during the primaries, but he must do that now. "Change" is not enough.

Democrats should have known that running in a general election context is quite different from running for their party's nomination. So they should not be so surprised that Obama may not be as "tough" as they'd like. But that's what they voted for. Interestingly, several of Obama's former rivals are seeing their stock values rise considerably. Many Democrats are looking at Hillary Clinton and wondering "what if?" Joe Biden is commonly seen as leading the veepstakes. Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson have also been mentioned as potential running mates. (John Edwards, on the other hand, is finished.)

But if voters wanted experience, they should have nominated Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson. And if they wanted someone scrappy, they should have nominated Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. But instead they chose the gentile and cerebral first-term senator with strong oratorical skills and a disdain for bare-knuckle politics. These Democrats may have buyer's remorse, but they can't blame Obama for this. They're the ones who voted for him.

It seems, however, that Obama is showing signs of fighting back. He is sharpening his message and finding a way to respond aggressively to John McCain without being nasty. Democrats should find solace in the fact that Obama adopted this change in August and not October.

As for the polls, both Democrats and Republicans should remember that it is quite natural for polls to fluctuate over the course of a general election campaign. Obama was never going to lead McCain by 7 to 10 points all the way until November. John McCain is a known quantity with an appealing biography and significant cross-electoral appeal. Did Obama supporters honestly expect McCain to be polling south of 40% through Halloween? John McCain's fundraising is improving as Republicans rally behind him. Obama was largely absent from the political scene last week because of his vacation in Hawaii. And McCain has been far more successful at defining Obama than Obama has been at defining himself. So a tightening of the polls should be expected.

But this is all preseason politics. Once the conventions arrive, this race will reset itself and give both candidates their best opportunity to seize momentum heading into the debates.

8 comment(s):

Brett said...

Like you said, it's far too early to actually use the polls to predict the race. I'd wait until at least late September/early October, when it gets so close to the voting date that advertising just barely might make a difference in time. Right now, it's just too up in the air; we don't know what will happen.

Of course, they can use the polls to try to work on what is perceived to be their flaws right now, so that's something.

DB said...

The "polls" that I find most helpful are the state by state polls used for the electoral map estimates and even they are starting to show this as a closer race. While I agree with Brett that it is still up in the air, I must say that the Dems are rather good at blowing it during the general.

S.W. Anderson said...

Another fine post. Of course I'm going to quibble here and there, but it's excellent overall.

I admit to having the very misgiving you mention, AP. Do I want to see Obama resort to the kind of vile, below-the-belt rumormongering Bush's campaign used on McCain in 2000? Do I want to see Obama and his campaign torture the truth until it's unrecognizable? Do I want Obama to lie until McCain's POW experience becomes something to be ashamed of — the way Bush and the right-wing noise machine defiled John Kerry's war service?

No to all of the above. That would indeed make Obama no better than the Rovian Republican right.

But there is an area of fighting back hard, yet openly and honestly, that lies between bringing a pocket comb to a gunfight and behaving like a rabid jackal. I want to see Obama find that groove and work it with everything he's got.

I think a big reason Obama never went after Clinton with guns blazing, so to speak, was because, as the first African American presidential candidate to get as far as he's gotten, he didn't want to make people fearful of him as being too aggressive. That's especially so in how he competed with the first woman to get as far as Hillary Clinton got.

That consideration came on top of Obama's personality, which is clearly more comfortable with the kind of gentlemanly debates held at Harvard Law and in the Senate chamber than with national politics in the era of Bush, Cheney, Rove and their imitators.

Being liked is obviously important for any presidential candidate. Being respected is no less important. It's very easy for people to see a candidate who lets himself be bullied and bloodied on the campaign trail, without responding fast and hard enough, becoming a president who would let the U.S. be pushed around.

And, in case any voters might miss that fine point, you can be sure the right-wing noise machine will work overtime, at full volume, to fill them in, making even the slightest sign of weakness into a major, unforgivable, utterly disqualifying character flaw.

Keep in mind, even on the Democratic side, people lose patience with fighting for someone who doesn't seem that willing or capable of fighting for himself.

This year alone McCain has racked up a record — virtually all of it witnessed and recorded — bad enough to destroy his own credibility five times over. The media have all but given him a complete pass but Obama and his campaign don't have to. They should be nailing his hide to the wall right now over telling Larry King on a Friday a few weeks ago that the 16-month withdrawal timetable the Maliki government was pushing for sounded like a good plan to him, then going on ABC the following Sunday and flatly denying he ever said that. And oh, BTW, that 16-month plan is virtually the same one Obama has favored, which makes McCain's attack this week about Obama preferring to lose a war than an election all the more absurd and galling.

OK, maybe Obama shouldn't buy 10 minutes of time on network TV to go ballistic about that dishonest and insulting McCain attack. I think he should buy time and do his personal rendition of that protracted, heart-stopping battle scene in "Saving Pvt. Ryan" for the folks.

John McCain's no fair-haired lady, and we're long past time for intramural niceties with fellow Democrats. If Obama is serious about changing the way we do things, he's first got to win the White House. Like it or not, that means beating anything-to-win Republicans at their own game, at long last making their lowdown, dirty tactics no longer pay off.

I think if he goes about it as I indicated above, sticking to facts and truth, Obama can do that and in the process make this election about Bush, McCain and what they and other Republicans have done to our country and our political system.

Khaki Elephant said...

I hardly think Obama's campaign is above vile politics after how they meticulously painted the Clintons as racists (something I would have believed impossible) and Hillary as a whiner (not much of a stretch there). And as the race gets tighter, Obama's negative impulses are surfacing again . . . either that or it really is important for us voters to know how many houses Cindy McCain owns.

S.W. Anderson said...

khaki, I don't buy it that Obama or his campaign portrayed the Clintons as racists. There were hotheads in both camps who said inflammatory, regrettable and untrue things.

Anthony Palmer said...

Khaki,

I agree with SWA. I don't think it was Obama or his campaign that was primarily responsible for the accusations of racism. It was often blowback from the Clinton campaign's ill advised race-baiting comments and media feeding frenzies. Race will always be in the background, and I think both candidates are still trying to figure out how to address it without being accused of being racist or playing the race card. How unfortunate.

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Brett,

Yes, these polls are good for identifying and shoring up weaknesses while not too many people are paying attention. Once August is over, that's game time. So mistakes are even more fatal then because everyone's back from summer vacation, the Olympics are over, and there will only be TWO MONTHS LEFT before the election.

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DB,

I agree. State polls are more important than national polls. Keep in mind, Obama is probably running up the score in Illinois, the Northeast, and California. McCain is running up the score in the South and the Plains. That obscures the true closeness of the race.

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SWA,

I just read your comment. It deserves its own response. Stay tuned.

Khaki Elephant said...

Obama hasn't gone negative with the race card?? Are you saying it wasn't Obama's campaign who attacked Clinton for saying: “Martin Luther King’s dream became a reality when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964”? And was Ferraro lying when she told Good Morning America, "My comments have been taken so out of context and have been spun by the Obama campaign as racist." And are you saying that Obama hasn't continued to play the "racist card" when he talks about the fear McCain supporters have because he doesn't "look like" other presidential candidates . . . or perhaps he was talking about his eyes?

Let's not pretend that Obama is running some high-road campaign. He has accused McCain of being "in the pocket of big oil," has repeatedly said that McCain is no different from Bush (an accusation which should but hasn't energized the conservative base), and now he's even taking shots at the financial success of McCain's wife.

We know the routine. And we know that the Obama camp will continue to tout that they only go negative because the meanies at the GOP started it. But let's not kid ourselves concerning reality. Negativity works, which is why all campaigns use it, including Obama.

Anthony Palmer said...

Khaki,

I'm not saying Obama hasn't engaged in any race-based attacks (because he has), nor am I saying Obama hasn't played the race card (because he has). I said that I didn't think the Obama campaign was primarily responsible for playing the race card.

What I'm saying is that overall, I think 1) his political enemies bear more responsibility than he does for stoking racial anxiety, 2) the media have tended to play the race angle more than Obama has, 3) a lot of times, Obama has used race defensively rather than being the instigator, and 4) just because race is mentioned doesn't necessarily mean the race card is being played.

The media started a lot of this nonsense by complaining that Obama wasn't black enough or that he was too black. The Clintons joined in by trying to compare Obama to Jesse Jackson and slighting MLK by saying Lyndon Johnson got civil rights legislation passed. Keep in mind, that happened during the South Carolina primary race, which was the first state that had a large Black population. Blacks were offended by this and left the Clinton campaign in droves. That's one reason why he now has such high support among Blacks.

If someone said President Bush should be given credit for the surge instead of the troops, the military and regular voters would recoil in anger. The idea of the surge may have originated with Bush, but the military is the one that actually got the work done. The same could be said of MLK and LBJ with civil rights, and that's why so many people were upset by Clinton's remarks.

Republicans and talking heads continued to feed into this by reminding everyone that Obama's middle name was Hussein and calling Michelle Obama "angry."

Obama got in trouble by saying John McCain himself was going to engage in these kinds of attacks. If he had simply said "my political enemies" or "people on the other side," there wouldn't have been as much outrage.

I think a lot of people mistakenly think someone has to call a Black person a nigger or a monkey in order for charges of racism to be legit. But that won't happen in 2008 because it's not acceptable anywhere. That doesn't mean race doesn't matter, however. So now there are codewords that grate like nails on a blackboard the same way old epithets used to. Think of a statement like "I'm on your side." It seems innocent enough, but to some people, this is a dog whistle comment that could also mean "I'm not going to let those dark-skinned people ruin your quality of life." The fact that the Republican Party is much whiter than the Democratic Party makes it harder to know who supports the GOP ideologically and who supports it out of race-based fear. Calling Michelle Obama "angry" is another dog whistle comment that could mean she's an "angry Black woman with an attitude who doesn't know her place." Fairly or unfairly, some people do indeed interpret it this way.

I will agree with you on one point. Obama has engaged in negative attacks. They work. While Obama was not fully embracing the dark side earlier, he learned this month that he needs to put on the brass knuckles if he doesn't want to get beat down. There's plenty of outrage to go around, but it sounds to me like some of the outrage is misplaced because, as you correctly noted, Obama's doing the exact same things that McCain has done to him first (such as attacking his wife and calling him an elitist).

But that's politics, I guess.

Thanks for the comment.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.