March 24, 2008

THINGS TO DO IN DENVER...:

Slouching Toward Denver: The Democratic death march. (Noam Scheiber, 4/09/08, The New Republic)

If McCain winds up facing Obama, he'll enjoy yet another advantage: a nominee weakened by attacks from a fellow Democrat. "Clinton hit a raw nerve several weeks ago when she said she had thirty-something years of experience, McCain had twenty- to thirty-something years, and Barack Obama had a speech," says Representative Artur Davis, an Obama supporter. The suggestion that Obama isn't ready to be commander-in-chief is "unusually corrosive," Davis complains. Indeed, when I asked various Republican and neutral Democratic operatives to name the most damaging twist in the primaries, most cited this same critique. "It's very good messaging--that he's not fit to be commander-in-chief," crowed one Republican strategist. "When you get the Democrats saying it, that's kind of the nuke in the whole thing." One of his Democratic counterparts was even more blunt: "It's one thing for John McCain to say [Obama's] not as muscular. It's another thing to have a girl saying it. It has some influence on swing voters."

Of course, if Obama's the nominee, he's unlikely to win a national security debate against McCain, with or without Hillary's broadsides. Obama's best bet is to focus the discussion specifically on Iraq. On the other hand, debating national security credentials during the primaries invariably alters the general-election landscape. You can now count on seeing another "3 a.m." ad sometime this fall--not to mention a "3 a.m." debate question from Tim Russert, and a shadowy, "3 a.m."-obsessed 527 group. ("Insomniac Prank-Callers For Truth"?) "I do believe the winner of the 3 a.m. ad is John McCain," says Kevin Madden, a former aide to Mitt Romney. "It's like an NCAA bracket. She may get the play-in game [against Obama], but she'd lose that in the championship game."

And there will surely be more body blows to come. Ad hominem attacks are an almost necessary feature of an unusually long campaign in which policy differences are minimal. At a certain point, there's just no other way to get traction against your opponent. That's one reason Pelosi has informally spoken with colleagues about stepping in if the tone abruptly deteriorates. But there's a catch-22 involved here: Party elders won't forcefully intervene unless an attack does serious damage. But, by then, the damage will have already been done.

Worse, any missile that hits its target would also destroy the person who launched it. Given the delegate math, Hillary's only path to the nomination, barring a meltdown by Obama, is to destroy his electability. But harsh attacks on Obama will inevitably discourage African Americans from voting in the fall, and Hillary can't beat McCain without strong black turnout in places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Conversely, any attack on Hillary that alienated moderate Republican women could cripple Obama's chances.

Opinion journalists have a time-honored technique for dealing with news they don't like: Keep making phone calls. In my case, this yielded a depressingly meager haul. The most optimistic scenario I could plausibly construct didn't end the campaign until the second week in May. To make it happen, Obama would have to overtake Hillary among superdelegates--a key psychological barrier. He'd have to limit his margin of defeat in Pennsylvania to ten points, then hold serve two weeks later in North Carolina and Indiana, a pair of states he's slightly favored to win. At that point, Hillary would face nearly impossible odds of overtaking him in the delegate race.

Unfortunately for anyone who wants the race to end soon, there are several problems with this scenario. For one thing, even if all this comes to pass, Hillary would still have to bow out voluntarily--an unlikely twist in any event, but highly implausible if the limbo states of Florida and Michigan still offer her hope. Meanwhile, any one of the aforementioned steps could easily fall through. Polls currently show Obama trailing by double digits in Pennsylvania; the good Reverend Wright could make that tough to change. And, though Obama now leads in North Carolina and Indiana, his advantage is either small or, in the latter case, based on a single, flimsy poll. As for superdelegates, as of this writing, the last two out of the closet opted for Hillary.


Sadly, Democrats seem unwilling to learn anything from the mess they've gotten themselves into by running a campaign devoid of ideas and based solely on identity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 24, 2008 4:37 PM
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