Friday, February 15, 2008

Does Obama have the right stuff?

Back to the Polman mailbag, where an emailer newly touched by Obamamania shares his deepest fears: "Are we high? Are we intoxicated by love? Are we casting Hillary aside for this dream boat, only to wake up in summer and fall to find a candidate who doesn’t hold up?"

It's a tad early for buyer's remorse. Still, many grassroots Democrats, chastened by experience in recent presidential elections, are already thinking hard about electability - and whether Barack Obama, so new to the national stage, has the right stuff to successfully withstand Republican attacks. Some of the primary voters in Wisconsin, Texas, and Ohio are surely wondering about this; some of the uncommitted superdelegates, who may be called upon to choose between Obama and Hillary Clinton in the wake of a stalemate, are undoubtedly wondering as well.

If he wins the nomination, here's what the Republicans are likely to say about him:

1. Obama can't be entrusted to keep us safe in the age of terror, because he is woefully inexperienced. Actually, they're saying that already. Strategist John Brabender (who is not working for John McCain) tells Harper's Magazine, "Russia is becoming an energy superpower, Iraq seems to be on the verge of getting a nuclear bomb, there's Iraq, China, Islamic fundamentalists. Who's going to be tough enough to deal with these threats: a guy whose only full terms were as a state senator from Illinois, or McCain, who has a lifetime of service to the country. That will be a long, drawn out comparison....These are turbulent times, and the safe pick might be the best pick."

In response, it would not be enough for Obama to assert that the Republicans are running on fear. The threats cited by Brabender are real. Nor would it be enough for Obama to assert that the Republicans have blown their credibility on national security, thanks to what he is already calling the "Bush-McCain" disaster in Iraq. he would have to articulate his own detailed blueprint for fighting terrorism - one that marks a significant departure from the Bush doctrine, but also reassures crucial swing-voting independents that he is no Bambi on matters of life and death.

2. Obama is liberal, liberal, liberal. The L-word has been a reluable Republican attack staple for more than a generation, and it would surface again, particularly since the nonpartisan National Journal has rated Obama the most liberal member of the Senate, in terms of his '07 voting record. One of McCain's top aides has already sniffed that Obama is "a conventional liberal," under the assumption that the word can still be spun as a synomym for wimp. They would highlight some of his votes in the Senate, and his positions back in Illinois, and contend that, behind all the hype and hoopla, there lurks an out-of-the-mainstream lefty.

For instance, Obama at one time supported a total ban on handguns. This was in 1996, back when he was running for the Illinois Senate. He no longer backs a ban, but one can envision the GOP telling gun owners in key states such as Pennsylvania - fair game - that Obama was for a gun ban before he was against it.

Again, it would not be enough for Obama to assert (as he did in a recent debate) that the GOP has lost the right to complain about liberals, given the way George W. Bush and the GOP Congress betrayed conservative principles by spending lavishly and racking up record budget deficits. Obama would need to articulate an affirmative, fleshed-out liberal vision, and frame it as patriotism. Running from the label, or trying to explain it from a defensive crouch, would not be good enough.

3. Obama is all rhetoric, and no substance. I question whether this would be an effective theme in the long run, because by the time the autumn campaign begins, Obama would have already provided more policy details than most Americans would even bother to read. (Just this week, in Wisconsin, he laid out an economic plan.) He still has months to get sufficiently wonky.

Besides, Republicans have long demonstrated that candidates win on the intangibles (character, values, inspiration, the flag), not on the issues. Brabender, the GOP strategist, acknowledged this: "Obama...brings a lot to the table in terms of electability. In a presidential race, the issues are somewhat seconday to leadership, hope and vision, which seem to be strong suits for Obama."

Lastly, here's how the Hillary Clinton campaign is questioning Obama's electability:

He would whither under fire from the Republican attack machine. Hillary's chief strategist, Mark Penn, is correct when he points out that Obama has no experience on that front, and that in fact Obama "has never faced a credible Republican opponent." Obama's '04 Senate race was a cakewalk; his strongest opponent had to quit the race in the wake of a sex scandal, and his autumn opponent turned out to be Alan Keyes, the right-wing rhetorician and perennial loser.

It's unknowable, of course, how Obama would deal with the fact-challenged rumors likely generated on talk radio, direct mail, and web videos. Some voters have already received mysterious emails that show Obama at an Iowa event, purportedly declining to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. (Obama says that the photo was taken during the playing of the National Anthem, when the hand-on-heart gesture is optional.) I've heard that this moment is already common grist in grassroots Republican circles.

But here's a thought: Can we necessarily assume that the noxious smoke from the GOP machine would be as strong, with McCain as the nominee? Would he be comfortable tolerating, or condoning, the same kinds of rumors and attacks that derailed his own candidacy eight years ago?

This past week, one of McCain's key advisors told NPR that he would stay on the sidelines rather than participate in any attacks on Obama; as Mark MacKinnon put it, "I would simply be uncomfortable being in a campaign that would be inevitably attacking Barack Obama. I think it would be uncomfortable for me, and I think it would be bad for the McCain campaign." All this, from a guy who did ads for Bush in 2000 and 2004; clearly, he has no appetite for another season of slime, and I suspect that McCain feels the same.

And then we have this today, from the GOP-friendly commentator Fred Barnes: "Every poll I've seen this year shows that Obama would attract far more independents in the general election against a Republican than (Hillary) Clinton would. Indeed, there's a growing consensus among both Republican and Democratic strategists that Obama would be the stronger general election candidate. He may be more liberal than Clinton, but by almost every other yardstick he's a more appealing candidate."

Perhaps that might calm the nerves of Democrats who are fretting about the downside of Obamamania...unless they decide that Barnes is just playing with their heads, hoping to lure Democrats into picking the candidate whom the GOP secretly believes is weaker. Paranoid? Probably. But that's what happens to the mind after losing two close national elections.