Saturday, February 23, 2008

The General Election Begins

It's been clear this last couple of weeks that Barak Obama's got ineluctable momentum. Things became pretty certain after the Illinois Senator swept the Potomac primaries, and a sense of Obama inevitability was confirmed with his win in Wisconsin the following week.

Michael Barone discusses the shift in focus away from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, and how we're increasingly seeing in essence a general election matchup between Obama and John McCain. It's fairly clear by now that Clinton's not likely to make a comeback (despite her claims she's not conceding the race):
She could win the nomination only with the votes of super-delegates or by counting the results in Florida and Michigan, where the national party commanded candidates not to compete.

Either move will strike many Obama enthusiasts -- and others -- as profoundly unfair. The way Clinton has run her campaign -- like the way she ran health care reform in 1993-94 -- undercuts her claim to be ready for the presidency from day one. In both cases, she had no fallback strategy, no Plan B, in case her best-case scenario failed to come to pass. She started campaigning in Wisconsin only last Saturday and had to cancel her events because of a snowstorm. Didn't anyone check

If you look at the numbers, if the general election were held today, Barack Obama would beat John McCain by a solid margin. (McCain would beat Clinton -- another reason the super-delegates are unlikely to foist her on the party.) But the performances of the candidates on primary night -- and the performances of their wives on Monday and Tuesday -- suggests that may not always be the case.

Obama's cut-and-paste job does respond to the complaint that he is without substance. But it's hard to mix poetry and prose and come up with an appealing product. Particularly when, as columnist Robert Samuelson points out, there's not much that's interesting about the substance.

Then there are the wives. In Milwaukee on Monday, Michelle Obama, who has spoken frequently in the campaign, said: "Hope is making a comeback, and let me tell you, for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change."

For the first time in her life? Coming from the realm in which Michelle Obama has lived her adult life -- Princeton, Harvard Law, a top law firm, a $342,000-a year job doing community relations for the University of Chicago hospital system -- this may not sound out of the ordinary. As Samuel Huntington has pointed out, people in this stratum tend to have transnational attitudes -- all nations are morally equal, except maybe for ours, which is worse.

This is not, to say the least, the view of most Americans, including very many who regularly vote Democratic. And it undercuts Barack Obama's most appealing rhetoric, which emphasizes what Americans have in common.

Cindy McCain, who ordinarily doesn't speak in public, picked up on this immediately. On Tuesday, she made a point of saying, several times, that she has always been proud of America. On election night, John McCain said he was "proud, proud of the privilege" of being an American.

I remember the electric feeling in the hall, at the first Republican National Convention I attended, in 1984, when Lee Greenwood belted out his country hit, "I'm proud to be an American." I don't believe that I've heard it at any Democratic National Convention, and I'm pretty sure that some nontrivial number of the delegates would find it off-putting, even obnoxious.

Barack Obama has explained that his wife was just saying that she was proud for the first time of her country's politics. But that's not what she said, and said with considerable emphasis. Tuesday night seemed to be the beginning of the general election campaign. But what was said on Monday may prove to be just as important.
I've made a similar point here. While some commenters have suggested that it's hasty or unproductive to focus on Michelle Obama's statements, I see them as part and parcel to the larger Obama message.

Barack's last few victory speeches have been considerably dour, for example, calling for unconditional surrender in Iraq.

McCain's message - muddled as it's been by recent media controversy - is likely to resonate with that great majority of Americans who love their country and want strong, seasoned leadership in the White House.

If the Obamas keep playing things the way they have, the Democratic Party
can forget about reversing the GOP advantage in the conservative states of the Electoral College.