Barring a shocking turn of events, Barack Obama will effectively seal the nomination of the Democratic Party on March 4th. While Hillary Clinton may still pull off victories in Ohio and Texas, she would have to win by large margins to have a realistic path to victory – which seems unlikely given the increasingly desperate nature of her on-trail performance and a growing impression that her moment of opportunity has passed, if it ever existed.
Republicans are now confronted with a Democratic candidate who, as Fred Barnes has pointed out, is a candidate of a consensus party for the first time in more than a generation. With a delicate coalition that must come together around the controversial John McCain in order to win, the odds are strongly against the GOP in November.
But should they be?
As we all know by now, Obama comes equipped with many innate gifts that make him the most appealing and pop culturally significant Democratic candidate since John F. Kennedy. As recently as six months ago, I believed it was impossible for anyone other than McCain to have any hope of beating the young Illinois Senator. Yet the primary results led me to reevaluate my opinion, and I now believe that Obama presents not just an inherently flawed candidacy, but a kamikaze leftist candidate, whose out-of-step views will not last the duration of a general election without full exposure, and whose mawkish storytelling can’t carry him to the White House without some serious good fortune.
Read on, then, for the top ten reasons Republicans should not be afraid of Obama in a general election:
1. No McGovern has ever won
The Democratic Party has a long history of choosing candidates whose liberal views and ability to inspire their upper class white and lower class worker voting base make them ideally suited for caucuses and primaries, and terribly suited for general elections. They’ve proven that they can win when they choose triangulating centrist Southern candidates like Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992, but candidates like McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis all went down in the general. While Obama is certainly a more inspiring figure than Dukakis, it’s worth remembering that the Massachusetts Governor emerged from the DNC Convention with a 17 point lead in 1988 in large part because George H.W. Bush was a known quantity, while Dukakis was a bright unknown immigrant talking about change. One wonders whether Obama will be smart enough to avoid any tank incidents, since the modern equivalent would get six million views on YouTube in short order. In the end, the historical path just isn’t there – a fact which makes a win not impossible, but less likely.
Barack Obama has yet to prove that he can perform well or even consistently compete for Latino voters, who have been a key swing bloc in past elections. McCain is the best candidate out of the Republican field in terms of performance among voting Latinos – he has a long history of winning them in Arizona, and a good deal of cachet among the community – and Obama will have to overcome significant racial divides to compete among them, which is one of the reasons he has a distinct disadvantage in point 3.
3. New map is better for McCain
A McCain-Obama contest effectively throws out the Bush 2000/2004 maps. The battlegrounds shift, and in nearly every case, they shift in a way that plays to Republican advantages. Obama has raised money with an ease unlike any candidate in American political history – even George Washington had to buy scads of alcohol to cater his first campaign – but he will have to spend a large amount of those resources in traditional Democrat states to shore up his base after a divisive primary. On the other hand, McCain will run strong in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, and he is already running even with Obama in western states like New Mexico thanks in large part to Latinos and another key bloc, which leads us to a fourth point.
The so-called “older belligerent men” vote that granted McCain his come-from-behind victory is in large part a result of emphatic, overwhelming support from veterans and military families. This is no Kerry-Bush race where veterans could be split – McCain’s loyalty runs so deep, he wins both anti-war and pro-war vets. Yes, turnout for African-Americans will be at its highest point ever with an Obama candidacy – but on the other side, strong veteran communities plus Latino voters will enable McCain to realistically compete in states like California, which a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t had a shot at since 1988. It’s notable that Obama couldn’t pass Clinton there, despite his fundraising prowess in the state – but in the end, it’s less important that McCain actually wins in the Golden State than it is that he keeps Obama’s resources tied up there, allowing for gains in other contests.
5. Single Issues Matter This Time
On several hot-button issues, Barack Obama has views that are considerably to the left of both Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000 – and unlike those two candidates, his views have yet to be exposed on the national stage. Take this recent column from Stu Rothenberg on Obama’s gun problems, emphasis added:
Even more telling, possibly, was a recent interview Obama gave to television anchor Leon Harris and journalist John Harris. In it, Obama tried to have things both ways.
When he was asked by Leon Harris how he reconciles his support for the D.C. gun ban, which was declared unconstitutional by a federal court last year and which bars all handguns not registered before 1976, with his statement that he has “no intention of taking away folks’ guns,” Obama launched into a confusing explanation of “conflicting traditions in this country.”
He ended his monologue by saying, “We can have a reasonable, thoughtful gun control measure that I think respects the Second Amendment and people’s traditions.” But the D.C. gun ban is based on the premise that the Second Amendment doesn’t give individuals the right to own a gun.
This isn’t just leftism – it’s incoherent leftism. The idea that “reasonable, thoughtful gun control” is somehow not “taking away folks’ guns” might fly now, but just won’t play after every gun-toting middle and lower class white male in the Midwest has heard about it. Gore essentially ran as a pro-gun candidate in 2000, and even Kerry tried to soft-pedal the gun issue, but Obama simply can’t – any more than he can soft-pedal his views on partial birth abortion and other associated issues. Leading pro-lifer Gary Bauer recently sent an email to supporters pointing out that Obama gains roughly 10 percentage points over Hillary Clinton among pro-lifers in states like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Virginia. Some may view this as a problem, but in reality, it’s a huge opportunity for Republicans to completely define a candidate who struggles to define even his own positions on the matter. As we saw with Rudy Giuliani this cycle, when ignorance ends on a candidate’s views on life, the percentages swing.
6. Weakness among typical Democrat voting blocs
Obama’s success among groups like the young professionals, wealthy whites, and poor blacks have been unsurprising – but he’s been less consistent with a key demographic that he needs to win in November: union voters. While I don’t think there’s any question Obama will ultimately win them over, doing so is going to take more sustained outreach, and more attacks along the lines of his anti-NAFTA assault last week. And even after endorsements from the Teamsters and others, there’s a strong undercurrent of union voters who are unenthusiastic about a candidate they view as a weak advocate on their issues, and fundamentally out of step with their experience. You need only look at this recent rant by Tom Buffenburger of the machinists’ union to see the problem:
“Give me a break! I’ve got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius- driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won’t last a round against the Republican attack machine. He’s a poet, not a fighter.”
Reaching out to union voters is going to force Obama to take more divisive anti-free market positions, ones that McCain can absolutely exploit.
7. The New Southern Strategy
While Gov. Ed Rendell’s controversial comments about racial politics don’t reflect the situation in most states (if anything, this cycle has revealed it’s more a problem in New England than in the South – not even the Kennedys could deliver Massachusetts for Obama!), they do reveal another problem for Obama. He’s won throughout the primary season by having enormous turnout from African-American voters in places like South Carolina, where they made up half the voting electorate at the polls. It’s not going to be like this in the general. In fact, Obama has only won the votes of white Democrats in a total of two state primaries: Illinois, his home state, and New Mexico. There is not one Southern state where Obama did not have the advantage in a Democratic primary, and not one Southern state where Obama has the advantage going into the a general election. He must expand his base in the South in order to hope to win, and efforts to do that will be stymied without moving right on several issues – issues like guns, marriage, and immigration, all areas he can’t afford to move on. And how many incidents of rank racial politics of the sort Sean Wilentz (no conservative he) details here have the potential to backfire in a general?
8. The Experience Gap
This race has the widest experience gap since Wendell Willkie took on FDR in 1940, never having held elective office. While many members of the mainstream media are eager to make Obama-JFK comparisons, younger voters may forget that the war hero Kennedy had spend 13 years in Congress and the Senate by the time he ran for President. Obama’s inexperience and naivete have already revealed themselves in small moments when it comes to foreign affairs, and this is obviously McCain’s strength. As I noted earlier, McCain’s maverick tendencies are so ingrained that he wins independents and moderates who oppose the war, as well as those who support it and believe it was poorly waged.
If this election is about pop culture and style, Obama wins; if it’s about who is best suited to be Commander in Chief, McCain wins. In one of politics little ironies, the Democrats now have to hope that the surge in Iraq is so successful over the coming months that Iraq is essentially a non-issue: if foreign policy is a priority, either way, it plays to McCain’s advantages.
9. The Barack Obama is My Shiny New Bicycle
The “Building a Religion” cult of personality that has grown up around Obama has certainly propelled much of his success and fundraising. But anecdotal evidence suggests it’s now reached a point where it’s genuinely off-putting to some voters – certainly if it’s reached the point where Hillary Clinton herself is mocking it. Think John Edwards’ “Christopher Reeve will walk again, but only if you vote for Kerry-Edwards!” comment in 2004, but maximize it as the note hit by an entire campaign’s following. As anyone in Hollywood can tell you, all it takes is a few TMZ segments, and one day you go from being Hannah Montana to being Britney Spears. This is the kind of “Obama’s made voting chic” strategy that draws in susceptible young voters, but has massive potential to backfire in a general election where true believers are outnumbered and where a political novice is pitted not against a sluggish partisan candidate like Hillary, but an experienced campaigner who’s proven he wins Independent voters consistently.
10. Even if he wins, it’s not over
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that none of the previous eight factors break Obama’s way. Say the Republicans don’t come together, and he wins a narrow election over McCain, winning states like Missouri, holding onto California, and carrying Ohio and Pennsylvania. Now the hard part begins for the political left: how do you govern successfully as a liberal in the White House? How do you actually make this thing work? It’s not going to be easy to pull off Great Society Redux and post-partisanship at the same time, particularly if Hillary is Majority Leader as some expect. The problem for Democrats is that Obama is so unique, so fresh and new, and those he surrounds himself with … aren’t. They don’t have the farm team to support him in office – just the tired old partisan lions of big government and scandal, known quantities all.
If Obama is elected, his presidency may ultimately resemble Jimmy Carter’s: a candidate who convinced voters that he was nice and good, and then discovered that these good intentions just weren’t enough to actually run the country for four years.
The basic rule of branding still holds here: once you get the candidate out of the box, regardless of how good the branding is, it still has to work.