Obama's Path

I don't know about you, but I never thought I would live to see this day. When Jesse Jackson ran for president, he was so ...
by | June 4, 2008

Obama_2 I don't know about you, but I never thought I would live to see this day. When Jesse Jackson ran for president, he was so explicitly a "black candidate" that it came as something of a surprise when white voters in, say, Michigan, supported him because of his economic populism.

There didn't seem to be an African American politician with the stature and the name recognition to get as far as Barack Obama has. I was even skeptical that Colin Powell could make it through the primary process, had he listened to calls to run back in 1996.

Obama jumped the line, coming from nowhere to the presidential nomination. I was impressed by his convention speech in 2004 along with everyone else, but dismissed the immediate talk that he would run one day as the usual sort of hype you hear about politicians having a future in national politics.

When his book The Audacity of Hope came out in 2006, however, I began to think differently. There was something about him that clearly tapped a deep nerve in millions of people. I was still of the mindset that there wasn't a Democrat who could deny Hillary Clinton the nomination. But I thought Obama should run this time, because he would never have the same kind of moment if he waited until he'd been in the Senate for a resume-burnishing 10 years.

It didn't surprise me, then, that he leaped ahead of all the Warners and Vilsacks and Richardsons and other white male wannabes to emerge as Clinton's main competition.

On the other hand, it didn't surprise me that she maintained a whopping polling and fundraising lead through all of last year.

Remember last fall, how everyone thought Obama had blown his chance and needed to change his game and go negative and all the rest? It turned out that he and his campaign had a strategic vision that they have now been able to pull off. They exploited Clinton's weaknesses and mapped out a way to accumulate the most delegates, largely through careful targeting of states most national Democrats would never think to set foot in. I can remember reading Obama's travel schedule at one point and thinking -- Idaho?

Despite all of Clinton's loud complaints about how caucuses are unrepresentative and rules don't matter and popular vote totals, he beat her. That's been clear for a couple of months now, even if the media has insisted on continuing to treat this campaign as a horse race. He had too big a lead to give up, even though his win-loss record in recent months has been close to awful.

Clinton will now hold her breath until her face turns blue. She'll insist on being veep in a way that will reassure Obama it would be a mistake to have her on board. The only effect may be to block him from picking someone like Kathleen Sebelius as that would seem like too great an insult to Hillary. When it comes to picking a running mate, white male wannabes will suddenly be back in fashion.

How much attention will Clinton continue to receive? I think the press has had more than enough of the Hillary as sore loser narrative. Nobody will be covering her. All the attention will turn to the general election and our collective anticipation for Republicans dishing it out for Obama. Do they really have anything new? Will it just be the anti-American stuff they've already trotted out? I'm more than intrigued to find out how the next phase of the campaign will shape up.

All year, I've been wondering how many of the people who would not vote for a black man would not vote for a Democrat anyway. Well, we've seen evidence in lots of states that people voting in Democratic primaries, no less, wouldn't vote for a black man. That doesn't bode well for Obama. Clearly most of Hillary's supporters will vote for Obama. But not all of them.

Conversely, it's worth wondering about Obama's supporters. Many are pumped up, still, despite the tarnishing of his image as something new and different. But how many of those who are excited were going to vote Democratic anyway? Who does he bring into the fold?

In addition to wondering about the Republicans' negative attacks, I'm wondering what their positive message will be. McCain has had a pretty free ride for months now and is even in the polls.

That alone is a big help. One of the reasons it looked like Republicans would be in trouble, back in 2006 or so, is that it seemed they couldn't possibly win the first post-Bush election. Their dispirited supporters would stay home in droves. But if it looks like McCain can pull it off, they'll all come out, including the ones who expressed so much disdain for him in the primaries. Republicans aren't like Democrats in this fashion.

But what is McCain going to talk about? He's been ladling out practiced free market litanies while markets implode and people get more nervous about the economy. He's also way wrong on the war, as far as the public is concerned. The surge may have worked better than nearly anyone predicted, but that doesn't mean people want to stay there indefinitely (or for 100 years). The average person isn't excited about bombing Iran the way he would have been 30 years ago, not after seeing what a serious war in the Middle East can cost us.

It's clearly going to be a big Democratic year. Republicans are barely putting up a fight in congressional districts that Democrats were lucky to win two years ago. Democrats will be able to pad their narrow Senate majority as well. This should trickle down to help Democrats in state races, as well.

It won't surprise me to hear McCain this fall talking about the country needing a Republican in the White House to prevent Nancy Pelosi from doing terrible things. It would be the reverse of 1996, when congressional Republicans essentially conceded that Bob Dole was a loser and that their presence in Washington would be needed as a break on Bill Clinton.

By all measures, as we've heard so many times before, a Democrat should win the White House this year. Despite any continuing doubts about Obama, it's worth stepping back and remembering how remarkable it is that he got this far.

He pursued the only strategy that was available to him -- simultaneously inspiring mass hope while winning through narrow tactical victories on surprising ground. He lost a bunch at the end but when you think back to how people were despairing about his chances last fall, you realize that he whupped her good.

And now half the Democrats in the country have joined virtually all the Republicans in hating Hillary Clinton. I've been wondering why. Is she really so awful? For Democrats, I mean?

Thinking back over the campaign, it's easy to remember her gaffes and mistakes. But what did she do that was so bad? It's true that she's not gracious enough to concede like a normal loser, but why does she inspire so much more enmity than that average loser?

Is it something about her, or was Obama able to plant some kind of narrative thread about her that the media and the public was willing to accept? Does he have some equally clever yet hard to detect negative strategy to pull against McCain?

I'm starting to feel intrigued about that question, as well..


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