03 February 2008

The Ideal Primary Ad, and Thoughts on Election 2008

Slate writer and CBS News correspondent Jeff Greenfield narrates the ad he'd like to see this primary season:

—I'm Janet Napolitano, Democratic governor of Arizona—a state Bush won twice.

—I'm Kathleen Sebelius, Democratic governor of Kansas—a state Bush won twice.

—I'm Claire McKaskill, Democratic Senator from Missouri—a state Bush won twice.

If Al Gore had won any of our states in 2000, there never would have been a Bush presidency. Instead, Democrats lost the last two presidential elections because our candidates couldn't compete in our states, and too many others.

Any Democrat can win in your deep blue state. But to win the White House, we need someone who can win our states, too. We believe that candidate is Barack Obama.

—We think so, too. I'm Tim Kaine, governor of Virgnia, where Bush won twice. And I'm Ben Nelson, Democratic senator from Nebraska, where Bush won twice.

Please: Give us a Democratic candidate who can win the states that will decide who wins the White House. Give us Barack Obama.

By this time in the primary season I've gone hot and cold on a number of candidates. Last Christmas (and I'm Jewish, for crying out loud) I bought my in-laws Obama's book. Then I published a post about why I wanted to like Hillary. Then, though I loathe to say so now, I published a post about why I thought Mike Huckabee might not be a bad pick for the Republicans. (I'm currently dragging my feet on a much, much less flattering follow-up. Maybe if I wait a little longer, I won't even have to write it.)

So the question I'm struggling to evaluate is who will make the stronger candidate in the general election? Because here's the thing: watching the Democrats through the past couple election cycles has been like watching my home team the Detroit Lions. They just seem to have a way of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Now, neither Clinton nor Obama are a Howard Dean, subject to passionate, if guttural, howls of victory. Neither one is a John Kerry, so easy--and somehow so satisfying--to malign (I hate to say it but it's true: Politics aside, I sort of enjoyed watching the guy flail. It wasn't what he said, but how he said it. Just a little too imperious, in the end). And, in the end, I sincerely hope that having two good Dem candidates--and I think there were at least 3 or 4, earlier on--gives us all kinds of advantages, like elevated dialogue and substantive debate. As we've seen already, however, the Clinton and Obama camps could easily lead this thing into the sort of lowbrow Washington theater we can't stand to watch. I'm glad to see this sort of thing checking itself, because a nuclear war between the two most promising Democratic candidates since Bill Clinton would be disastrous for the party.

So, back to the original intent of the post. The ad Jeff Greenfield would like to see sounds like a pretty good one. I'm prepared to vote for Hillary Clinton in a general election and hope like hell that she could pull one out for the good guys. I'd go a step farther, with Obama, and say that I'd actually be excited for his prospects. This isn't to say which would make the better president. This is simply who I think gets to the Oval Office. I like to think it's a gimme for the Dems, but we've been fooled before.

I think in a head-to-head against McCain, Hillary Clinton looks more extreme and aggressive, traits we Americans don't like in our women, while Barack Obama sounds more inspiring, more authentic, and strangely enough, more seasoned than he actually is. John McCain is running on the war, a drastically unpopular platform. Obama would have an easy time, I think, reminding the country that all the experience of McCain's 72 years isn't worth didley if it means we stay in Iraq for 100 years, make a new Cold War with Iran, watch Afghanistan and Pakistan fall still farther out of step with our western, pro-democracy national ideologies, all while watching our friends and neighbors struggle with foreclosures as the housing bust and the domestic economy actually get worse before they get better, which seems sure to happen before the average American has a chance to wonder where that $600 tax rebate went. Also, Obama looks fit and vigorous, very presidential, against a McCain who will turn 73 this August. You can bet that voters will be constantly reminded that the guy is in a traditionally high risk age group among American males. If he won and was reelected, he'd retire at 81; Reagan, by comparison, was 79 when he left office, if my math is correct.

Here's the other thing, and this is pure speculation, so take it for what it's worth (as with all the rest): America once more wants a president who sounds presidential. I think we can't underestimate this right now. Most Americans sense that our standing on the world stage has fallen. If George W. Bush's dumbing down of executive politics has actually helped in some way, it's that Americans remember now why they want a president who speaks clearly and thoughtfully. McCain's not really that guy. His "My friends I can tell you" schtick comes off, to me, as just as faux-folksy as Bush's Crawford ranch brush shoveling routine. I don't believe McCain's the one who can restore the luster to the Republican party, nor to the Oval Office. Clinton and Obama both will take the American stock up a tick, at face value, though judgment will be withheld until the actual business of the presidency gets underway. In the meantime, I just think Obama can excite more people--to the Democratic advantage--than Clinton can.

Like Greenfield, I believe Obama has a better chance in the general election. Ask me next week and my wisdom could well change. It's been that kind of cycle, not just for me but for some of my favorites writers who have seen a lot more of these things than I have. The thing is that neither of these candidates are perfect. Obama's gonna get worked, hard, exactly because of the charm of his higher political discourse. The country will demand to see more than just rhetoric, and the opposition will remind folks that Bill Clinton had a way with words, too, and look what happened. We got a charismatic liar and philanderer in office.

In addition to getting specific about policy, Obama will have to balance and frame his policy prescriptions in such a way that they resonate across a very broad spectrum, because for some dumb reason it seems a whole lot of Independents and moderate Republicans still seem to think of John McCain as the maverick politico centrist he branded himself as eight years ago to run against the conservative's conservative, George W. Bush. This isn't unique, it's just that it seems more Americans--specifically more Republicans--are poised to calve from the glacier of habit if Obama actually succeeds in walking his fine line. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, doesn't bring that element to the general election.

Obama, I think, will peel off some of these Independents and Republicans that Clinton won't be able to touch. Also, if Obama continues to build momentum without losing his higher message, I think he'll draw out significant numbers of people who aren't inclined to vote, if simply to get involved in the next great hope. While it won't be that many, every bit helps, especially in the states that Greenfield mentions in his article. Between Obama and McCain, though, most of these people still stay home, and that'd be a good thing for the Dems.

Hillary Clinton, of course, will mobilize droves of these people, but not in her favor. The Republican machine is counting on getting the vote out like never before if Clinton wins the nomination, and I think they'll succeed. It won't matter how disenchanted the conservative base might be with McCain, and it won't matter how much Clinton works to soften her tone and deliver sound policy messages. For a lot of people it'll be more fun than swinging a Swiftboat stick at a Kerry pinata. The bottom line, for much of the country, will be Anybody But Clinton.

So I say okay, Jeff Greenfield. Obama doesn't have an easy road ahead, but you keep pushing for your ideal primary campaign ad, and I'll wait to see it on the tv (or on YouTube, more likely, since I'm in Mexico). Probably all this is a little premature, since we've yet to see what surprises may crop up this Super Tuesday, but it sure is fun.