Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote a must read piece about Barack Obama and how his appeal among voters depends on their definition of "change." A lot of what Rothenberg wrote reinforces my argument that Obama's support is inflated because it seems that many of his supporters are more attracted to his presentation than his politics, even though these politics may be out of line with their own long held views. Of course, these supporters would likely retort that this is exactly why they like him so much. Obama is not about politics; he's about people and progress.
I identified this inflated support as one particular potential weakness of Obama's candidacy. Assuming that Hillary Clinton does not become the nominee, it is a valid point that conservatives and Republicans should be able to take advantage of in a general election. Some of them are already trumpeting that he is "extremely liberal."
The "L-word" is a tried and true way to gin up the base and fill Republican campaign coffers. It's as common as Democrats linking their Republican opponents to President Bush. Both lines of attack may seem petty, but at least they are not out-of-bounds. Unfortunately, however, it appears that many conservatives and Republicans are choosing to attack him for something that is even more childish and more contemptible.
Now that it appears Obama is on the verge of securing the Democratic presidential nomination, John McCain's surrogates, Republican pundits, and conservative talk radio hosts have recently been making a conscious effort to remind voters about Barack HUSSEIN Obama. I already wrote about this contemptible political practice last fall, but it appears that a too-large segment of the electorate is either 1) willing to continue perpetuating this smear, or 2) too uninformed to assess the validity of these attacks on their own.
Of course, John McCain is not going to be so politically stupid as to refer to Obama by using his middle name himself. However, his supporters and those campaigning for him will likely continue the despicable practice. The media will then get angry, the Obamas will probably draw more attention to these "fear bombs," McCain will repudiate the remarks, and another Republican will start the cycle all over again "without speaking for McCain himself."
This approach allows McCain to benefit by getting the smear out there while maintaining plausible deniability. His supporters and partisan Republicans can "speak for themselves" while McCain can appear to take the high road. Meanwhile, the uninformed and easily spooked segment of the electorate will begin to have more doubts about "Obama the Muslim" and either defect to McCain's camp or simply not vote for Obama.
Obviously, accusations of bigotry will continue to fly. Seeing that the GOP's image among minority groups is already in tatters, they don't have so much to lose by attacking "Barack Hussein Osama-I-Mean-Obama." However, aside from the contemptibility of this practice, it is a politically foolish approach that does not take the future of McCain's candidacy and even the Republican Party in general into account.
To start, Obama's electoral base is much larger than McCain's base, as the enthusiasm gap exhibited by caucus and primary turnout so far suggests. John McCain should be more concerned with trying to broaden his appeal and snatch a few of Obama's supporters. However, McCain is not going to win over voters who are responding to Obama's message of hope by presenting them with the politics that preys on their fears.
Secondly, Obama has been quite adept at batting down the persistent rumors about his patriotism and religion. Even though there are voters who might not know Obama is a Christian, Obama's impressive grassroots organization is effectively fanning out and correcting any misconceptions people may have about him via direct mail, e-mail, and phone calls. Given how effectively Obama has been able to parry these charges so far, it would suggest that Republicans are wasting their time by trying to revive the Hussein innuendo.
Third, even though these innuendos are often coming from conservative-leaning talk radio hosts, columnists, and pundits, Republicans on the ballot may be the ones who are most affected by this behavior. There are many good Republicans who are embarrassed by the Limbaugh-Coulter-Hannity wing of the party and may simply decide to stay home in November. Fear was an effective message in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns, but voters clearly rejected it in 2006. Why would 2008 be any different? These plays on fear only make Obama's message look even more appealing, especially among the independent voters that McCain so desperately needs.
In fairness, it must be said that the people bringing up the "Hussein" line of attack may not necessarily be doing McCain's explicit bidding. However, as long as these people continue to speak in McCain's defense and at his campaign events, McCain will be tarnished by association. "Hussein" might win political points among Republican partisans, but it likely won't win over any new Republican voters--many of whom have already turned a deaf ear on the Republican brand.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote a must read piece about Barack Obama and how his appeal among voters depends on their definition of "change." A lot of what Rothenberg wrote reinforces my argument that Obama's support is inflated because it seems that many of his supporters are more attracted to his presentation than his politics, even though these politics may be out of line with their own long held views. Of course, these supporters would likely retort that this is exactly why they like him so much. Obama is not about politics; he's about people and progress.
According to the Politico, Republicans have quietly been polling voters about their attitudes regarding attacking female and ethnic minority candidates. This research is being conducted in preparation for waging a general election campaign against an opponent who, for the first time, will not be a White male.
Given today's era of hypersensitivity, identity politics, political correctness, and coded language, it would seem wise that politicians are wise to engage in this kind of research. And it would seem especially wise for the Republican Party to express an interest in this kind of research seeing that they are generally seen as less sensitive to the needs of women and people of color. However, the fact that such research is even necessary illustrates the problem both political parties have with race and gender.
Why is the GOP is conducting this research? Fairly or unfairly, the Republican Party has produced lots of evidence to suggest that it is a party for White Christian males who are comparatively better off financially than other Americans. Consider the paucity of non-White Republican politicians and the isolated dark faces you see in a sea of lighter ones at Republican campaign events. Regarding the GOPs appeal among Blacks, George Bush received less than 15% of the Black vote in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns, which mirrors Republicans' dismal performance among Blacks in general.
Why the GOP is conducting this research is easy enough to understand. However, why the GOP feels it even needs to conduct this research is quite revealing. Do Republicans believe that criticizing Obama's environmental policies, for example, will lead to accusations of racism? Let's hope not. (If it does, then it's not Republicans who have the problem.) Criticizing Obama on something a bit more loaded, such as welfare reform, however, would likely cause them to act a bit more cautiously. However, if they are worried about accusations of racial insensitivity, perhaps they should have a little more faith in others. And if voters misconstrue something benign or innocuous as a racially insensitive remark, then those hypersensitive voters have some serious soul-searching to do. And in the event that this happens, Republicans could at least say they tried. Republicans in particular have a lot of work to do in regards to making inroads into various minority communities, but they can't give up if their overtures are rebuffed.
Politicians should understand that it is perfectly okay to criticize or attack a political rival, so long as it is done on the merits. It doesn't matter if the rival is black, brown, purple, female, left-handed, vegetarian, or short. However, when you invoke race for the sake of invoking race or to appeal to the worst in voters, that's when you will run into trouble. It doesn't require thousands of dollars in commissioned studies and focus group testing to know this. Voters understand that race exists, but politicians should also understand that the lion's share of voters simply don't care about race and strongly object to having it thrown back in their faces.
Hillary Clinton's South Carolina campaign is a textbook example of how not to use race. Ideally, race shouldn't be "used" for anything, but if it must be addressed, then it is far better to reference it to show empathy or cognizance of a group's needs than to employ it as a wedge issue. Should Clinton's presidential campaign end in failure, trying to link Barack Obama with Jesse Jackson and make hay out of his past drug use would be the moment that sent her presidential campaign from its zenith after its come-from-behind New Hampshire victory to a lonely trip back to the Senate. In addition, that race-baiting strategy also probably permanently tarnished the Clinton brand among Black and White Democrats alike.
The Clintons' race-baiting in South Carolina is not the first time prominent Democrats have tried to use this as a wedge issue to drive voters into their corner, as anyone who has followed alleged Black spokesmen Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton knows. However, knowing that Democratic politicians have not exactly been innocent regarding race themselves, why do ethnic minorities continue to ignore Republicans at the ballot box? The image of the Republican Party being a White party is obviously an obstacle, but another problem that they might not be aware of is that people of color often don't think that Whites and Republicans come down hard enough on "their own" when they make remarks that disparage other groups.
Put another way, whenever a Republican puts his foot in his mouth regarding issues of race or religion, it is usually Democrats who complain the loudest about it. While their outrage may be predictable and political, the fact remains that Republican outrage seems comparably muted to these voters, thus causing members of these "outgroups" to believe Republicans in general tacitly approve of the offensive or insensitive remarks by not condemning them strongly enough. Consider this piece I wrote last August regarding Tom Tancredo and his idea of bombing Mecca and Medina (the two holiest cities in Islam) to tell the terrorists that "America means business." Republicans tended to distance themselves from those remarks, but it was more because they viewed Tancredo as a fringe candidate instead of because of how offensive his remarks were.
Compounding this is the lack of attention Republicans pay to reaching out to ethnic minority groups. Republicans may say they don't like pandering to various interest groups, but the way the Republican presidential candidates were essentially tripping over each other to appear more Christian, more conservative, more of an illegal immigration hardliner, more of a tax cutter, and more hawkish on defense than their rivals suggests otherwise. This hypocrisy suggests that Republicans are fine with pandering, so long as it doesn't involve people of color. That may not be true, but that's certainly how it comes across.
Perhaps the most egregious snub of ethnic minority groups concerned the absence of the then leading Republican candidates (Giuliani, McCain, Romney, and Thompson) to participate in the Republican forum on Black issues hosted by Tavis Smiley at Morgan State University last September. Four empty podiums were set up on stage to signify their absence. It is simply not enough to say that you are committed to at least listening to the concerns of certain groups of people and then blow them off because of "scheduling conflicts" when you have the perfect opportunity to speak to them directly. There's no other way to spin that. Simply put, these Republicans need to show a bit more courage and not just "hunt where the ducks are."
A cursory examination of voting patterns among people of color would suggest that Republicans are wise not to waste their time in infertile political environments. But this is foolish. Republicans write off the Black and Latino vote because they think they'll never be able to win a majority of their support. However, they don't need to win a majority of their support in order to put together a nearly unbeatable electoral base of support. Consider purple states like Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida. If Republicans could bump up their percentage of Black support from 10% to 15%, for example, that would be enough to give Democrats heartburn and swing these politically competitive states and their congressional districts in their favor. But blowing them off as they did at Morgan State suggests they simply don't care.
Given the Democratic Party's reliance on lower income voters and their perpetuation of class and racial differences, an argument can be made that they really don't deserve the support of people of color, many of whom are more likely than Whites to be poor. However, the Republican Party should be ashamed of its lack of outreach regarding these politically ripe constituencies. Rather than spending its money researching how to best attack a minority candidate, as the Politico addresses, they should invest more in voter outreach and explaining why they may be better able to address the needs of people of color than the Democrats who may take their support for granted.
Here are some other entries from The 7-10 on this subject that may be of interest:
Part of the main draw of Barack Obama is that he is branded as the post-racial, post-political, unity candidate. He is the candidate that will deliver "change" and forge a new working political majority that will accomplish great things for the American people. Given the disillusionment of the American people regarding Washington, this is a powerful message he has adopted and it has served him well, as he is on the cusp of securing the Democratic nomination.
Obama fares better in a general election against John McCain than Hillary Clinton and is flush with cash. Combine all this with the lopsided voter turnout in the primaries and caucuses so far and it looks like Obama is a safe bet to become the nation's 44th president.
However, a premature coronation and projections of an electoral rout in November would be unwise. For all of Obama's good fortune, it must be noted that his greatest strength also stands to become his greatest weakness. And this would suggest that his electoral appeal is actually inflated right now.
As was stated earlier, "change" is at the center of Obama's platform. However, "change" has nothing to do with legislation, nor does it have anything to do with government policy. "Change" is primarily defined by Obama as a change in the way the nation conducts its politics. It's about reducing partisanship, forging relationships with political adversaries, and accomplishing the nation's business. This is fine, but the problem is that legislation matters.
Do voters really value political unity over legislation they agree with? Are voters really prepared to abandon their ideological principles for the sake of reducing partisanship? Does the fact that Democrats and Republicans can work together compensate for a tax policy, Supreme Court appointment, immigration policy, and foreign policy that you fundamentally disagree with?
The inspiration for this post you are reading came from watching the most recent debate on CNN between Obama and Clinton in Texas. Both candidates were asked about solving the immigration problem and the perils of the United States becoming a bilingual nation. Both candidates gave respectable and thoughtful answers, but how were these remarks received by independents and Republicans who are leaning towards Obama? Not once did Obama mention the fact that illegal immigrants had broken the law or that there was a national security component to the issue. Not once did he mention border fences, enforcing current immigration laws, or even tightening restrictions on visas. The closest he came to addressing these concerns of more moderate and conservative voters was saying "we could be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants at the same time."
That may have pleased the Democrats, liberals, and Latinos in the audience, but what about other voters? Even for so-called Obamacans, hearing Obama's immigration position probably didn't sit too well with them. Will they really be prepared to compromise so much of their long-held beliefs about such a contentious issue just because they are so inspired by Obama's candidacy? Tom Tancredo's candidacy should have served as a warning to Democrats, but it appears that Obama has yet to heed this message.
Clive Crook of National Journal made a similar observation about Obama's economic policy:
"What Obama's ideas look like, when you see past the brilliant salesmanship, is boilerplate leftism."Obama was ranked as the most liberal senator of 2007 according to his voting record. While there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong being a liberal (or anything else), it must be noted that Obama is more liberal than what most voters might be comfortable with. It seems that Obama's appeal is largely based on the idea that voters simply aren't digging this deeply when it comes to assessing him.
This is not to say that voters aren't taking their politicians seriously or that they are wrong for supporting Obama. However, the potential for an Obama letdown is very real. No politician can sustain this level of enthusiasm forever, and there will come a time when Obama's record and platform must come under greater scrutiny. David Brooks of the New York Times has even gone so far as to coin the term Obama Comedown Syndrome.
I warned last summer that Obama was setting himself up for his own downfall:
"The problem with this is that Obama is not a rock star. He is a candidate for President of the United States. And as the president, issues of character, experience, and policy positions become important. During Obama's ascent to media and political stardom, not much attention has been paid to his policy positions and his experience because his freshness trumped any other nagging doubts people had about him. However, these doubts are becoming more difficult to ignore now."In that post, I incorrectly predicted that some of the other more experienced candidates stood to benefit from an Obama letdown. While those experienced so-called second-tier candidates never took off, the possibility of Obama crashing back down to earth now seems more realistic than ever. And in the event that this happens, it won't be because of anything he did wrong or because of his supposed lack of gubernatorial experience. His downfall is more likely to stem from a more thorough examination of his policy positions which would reveal that he is too ideologically dissimilar to more voters than both he and the media seem to realize right now.
Hillary Clinton is probably not going to win the nomination (at least not by amassing more pledged delegates), but David Brooks' Obama Comedown Syndrome may be the best thing she has going for her right now. Obama certainly has style. And unlike the "all hat and no cattle" barbs used against him would suggest, he does have substance. The problem is that his substance is simply unpalatable to so many of his supporters who are still captivated by his style. Of course, there's always the possibility that these voters are indeed aware of this disconnect, but have concluded that it simply doesn't matter. But I doubt this.
Having said all that, Obama is probably more likely to win the presidency than either Hillary Clinton or John McCain at present. However, he is not as formidable as his fundraising and polling suggest because, simply put, ideas matter. Inching towards the center might be a prudent course of action for him to take, lest he risk having his political base reduced to that of a traditional liberal Democrat.
Barack Obama's lopsided victories in the Hawaii and Wisconsin primaries have made him the almost certain Democratic presidential nominee. Most of the states have voted, and most of the states that haven't yet done so are small states. The last plausible chance Hillary Clinton will have to catch Obama (or at least slow him down) is on March 4, when Texas and Ohio have their primaries. Once those contests are finished, the last major states will be Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Indiana. North Carolina is essentially off the table, given Obama's strength in the South Carolina and Virginia contests. And Indiana's demographics are quite similar to Wisconsin's, so that might be tough sledding for Clinton too. Pennsylvania seems a bit more doable, but if Obama takes Ohio first, Pennsylvania will be off the table as well. In short, barring some unforeseen event, it's looking increasingly obvious that the general election will come down to Obama vs. McCain.
Because of how long and divisive this primary has been, no matter who emerges as the Democratic presidential nominee, that person will be charged with healing a severely fractured party. The Obama and Clinton camps simply don't like each other, and it seems that Democratic voters are pretty much set in terms of who they support. In other words, don't expect many Obama and Clinton voters to defect from one campaign to another at thie stage. If you're not a Clintonista by now, you never will be. And if you aren't an Obamamaniac yet, no one will hold their breath.
In light of all this, there has been increased speculation that the best way for Obama and Clinton to bridge the gap and unite the party is to choose their rival as their running mate. Some people have refered to Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton as the Democratic dream team.
Before I go any further, it would be prudent for me to offer these three words: Not gonna happen.
Proponents of the "dream team" say that any combination of Obama and Clinton on the same ticket would unify the base and be a fundraising juggernaut. You could have the star power of the Clintons augmented by the star power of Obama, which would translate into incredible fundraising. And these same proponents say an Obama-Clinton ticket could lock up the women vote, the Black vote, and the Latino vote all at once. Seeing that those are three solidly Democratic constituencies, this presidential ticket would theoretically enter the general election with a high floor of support. This would allow them to make a play for swing voters, particularly independent or moderate suburbanites who might be more ideologically receptive to Clinton and/or Obama.
That is the conventional wisdom. However, the reality of the Clinton-Obama dynamic would suggest that pairing them up on the same ticket is a really dumb idea.
To start, Clinton needs Obama far more than Obama needs Clinton. After the scorched earth South Carolina campaign in which the Clintons offended a large chunk of Democrats, including most Blacks who subsequently left her campaign in droves, Clinton has been branded as an overly politicized, race-baiting opportunitist. Black voters in particular were quite offended by Clinton's South Carolina campaign and will have long memories regarding it. Sure, some of them will "come home" should the race come down to Clinton and a Republican. However, more of them will also be likely to simply sit this election out because they aren't enthused by her candidacy. So she will need to fortify her street cred among Black voters. Obama could help her do this, obviously, but even if he were to campaign for her, a lot of Blacks may mutter to themselves that Obama would have been the nominee had it not been for Clinton's dirty campaign tactics.
While Clinton may need Obama to help ameliorate relationships among different Democratic constituencies, she offers comparatively little to Obama. Clinton is a walking contradiction of the crux of Obama's message: change. How can he claim to be the candidate of the future if he is teaming up with someone he has referred to as the candidate of the past? Why would he risk neutralizing the potency of his Iraq message by having his vice president exhibit "the mentality that got us into war in the first place?" Why would he put himself in a position to have to abandon his message of the triumph of hope over cynicism? Clinton is too antithetical to Obama's platform for her to be worthy of serious consideration as a vice president.
Simple political geography also enters the equation here. Seeing that Clinton and Obama both hail from solidly blue states, neither candidate really expands the electoral map. Obama certainly has more appeal overall, but he does not put any new states in play by virtue of being "from there." With Obama at the helm, a Tim Kaine vice presidential nod, for example, would turn Virginia into a competitive state that Republicans could no longer take for granted. Evan Bayh could potentially do the same with Indiana and Clinton. Pairing Obama and Clinton up would only serve to make already blue states even bluer. Winning 75% of the vote in New York or Illinois might be good for running up the score in terms of the popular vote, but it won't count one iota in terms of the Electoral College.
Obviously, both candidates have tremendous egos and are loathe to risk being overshadowed by their vice presidential nominee. Obama and Clinton are both political superstars. And throwing Bill Clinton into the mix only further complicates things. Bill and Hillary Clinton may serve as too much of a distraction for Barack Obama, just like Obama could take the limelight away from Clinton. Too much dischord and no center of gravity are a volatile mix that both candidates should be aware of.
Should Obama become the nominee, he may come under increased pressure to select a woman as his vice presidential running mate. And Clinton may come under pressure to select a "Black" running mate (note my use of quotation marks). However, this would reek of identity politics and further buttress my argument that Republicans and conservatives may be better on issues of race and gender than so-called "open-minded" Democrats and liberals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Obama choosing a woman as his vice presidential pick, but if he is doing it only to placate women, rather than add heft to his ticket, then Republicans would be able to argue that Obama is merely pandering. Potential politically attractive female picks include Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Kathryn Sebelius of Kansas, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, all of whom are less polarizing than Hillary Clinton with the added bonus of hailing from red states. The only bonus Clinton adds to Obama is galvanizing Republicans and allowing them to run against their favorite nemesis even though Obama is at the top of the ticket. Obama would be wise to take a pass on that.
People who consider an Obama-Clinton pairing as a "dream ticket" are definitely dreaming. However, the clock struck midnight on this idea a long time ago. Given the reality of the overall political situation involving both candidates, these proponents should not be taken seriously. As initially attractive as they may appear, they would only serve to drag their ticket down and make it harder for them to appeal to a wider swath of the electorate. And should that happen, this dream ticket will quickly become a one-way ticket to four more years of being locked out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
When Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, the media and chattering classes could not stop talking about how he was the first viable presidential candidate of color, how he was the child of an interracial and intercontinental marriage, and how his ability to appeal to both Blacks and Whites could make him the nation's healer.
By now, most people know Obama was born in Hawaii to a White woman from Kansas and an African man from Kenya, raised in Indonesia, sidetracked by drug abuse, and admitted to Harvard Law School where he became president of the Harvard Law Review. America has never had a presidential candidate with such a biography before, so it's easy to see how Obama is a dream candidate for the media to cover. The possible angles through which one could assess his candidacy are as varied as Obama's background itself.
Unfortunately, the media have chosen to fight the same old battles and conduct the same old discussions, and a lot of average people are also either buying into these same tired discussions or behaving just like the media are in regards to not thinking outside the box. Obama's candidacy has been highly educational, but not in the way it seems most people think.
To start, why do people, including Whites, consider Obama "the first Black candidate" with a real shot at winning the presidency? Conventional thinking would immediately recall previous failed (and perhaps quixotic) presidential bids by candidates such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Shirley Chisolm. Yes, Obama has far greater crossover appeal than any of these candidates, but that is missing the point.
Rather than "Black," Obama is really biracial. To call him "Black" is to essentially marginalize half of his identity or family history. Why are biracial, or mulatto, children called Black? Why is it more common for mulatto children to be identified as "biracial" or "Black," but less common to call them "White?" The point of this is to provoke thought, not guilt. What do Whites think when they see a mixed child? If they think of mixed children as Black, then why? Is the element of racial purity required to be White, but not necessary to be considered part of another race? And what about being proud of both sides of such a person's heritage?
And why does any of this even matter? It shouldn't, but to many people it does.
Republicans and Democrats essentially traded places in the 60s and 70s. Since then, fairly or unfairly, Republicans and conservatives have often been branded as racists. Any people of color who were Republicans were derided as tokens, Uncle Toms, oreos, bananas, or apples. (An oreo is someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside. Bananas [Asians] are yellow on the outside and white on the inside, while apples [Native Americans and Latinos] are red on the outside and white on the inside.)
Anyway, racial minority groups viewed the Democratic Party as being more hospitable to their concerns, and the fact that there were more Democratic politicians who looked like them (often because of gerrymandered congressional districts) allowed Democrats to win overwhelming majorities of support from non-White voters. The Republican Party was seen as the party of well-off, heterosexual, White Christian males. While a cursory examination of voting patterns would support this notion, it is unfair to conclude that Republicans as a whole are more racist or less racially sensitive than Democrats are, and Obama's candidacy is proving this point.
One of the dominant storylines of Obama's candidacy last year was the "is Obama Black enough?" motif. This was an incredibly insulting question to ask, but the media (and even a lot of Blacks) could not stop talking about it. The political challenge for Obama was to show that he could deliver for Black Democrats without appearing "too Black" for his White Democratic audiences. And of course, when Oprah Winfrey endorsed Obama, that ripped the scab off of this stupid discussion so we could fight about racial loyalty and racially appropriate behavior yet again.
Republicans generally eschew identity politics and seem more inclined to support a candidate based on his ideas rather than his skin color. However, because there are so few Republicans of color, they are unfairly branded as racially hostile. This may or may not be a valid assessment, but Republicans certainly weren't the ones asking if Obama was Black enough. So it appears that the racially neutral Republicans came across as more racially progressive than the racially obsessed Democrats in this regard.
Obama's cross-racial appeal cannot be denied, as he is commonly winning the majority of the White male vote and about 85% of the Black vote in the primaries and caucuses this year. The media and pundits have labeled Obama as the candidate that Whites could feel proud voting for and even going so far as to cast this in the light of them atoning for any past prejudices they may have had.
This is certainly an encouraging narrative, but unfortunately it has given rise to accusations of racism anytime a White criticizes Obama. It's as if Obama is not fair game, lest one be branded as racially insensitive. However, Whites do not have a duty to support Obama, just like females don't have a duty to support Hillary Clinton and Christians don't have a duty to support Mike Huckabee. It's incumbent on voters, journalists, and pundits of all types to ask the tough questions before committing to any single candidate.
John McCain is being raked over the coals for not being conservative enough. Hillary Clinton is being pilloried for her ties to lobbyists and the Democratic establishment. Mitt Romney is no longer in the race, but he was ridiculed for flip-flopping. Mike Huckabee was criticized for using Christianity as a political weapon against Romney. And John Edwards was lampooned for his expensive haircuts and his North Carolina estate.
When these candidates were attacked, they and their supporters fought back, usually by attacking the merits of their opponents' arguments. But it seems that skepticism about Obama is often met with cries of bigotry. If Obama is supposed to be the post-racial unity candidate, why are so many of his supporters so quick to accuse his opponents of racism? Could it be that these supposedly open-minded voters are rather closed-minded when it comes to handling philosophical disagreements with others?
One of the most interesting observations I made on Super Tuesday earlier this month concerned the results of the Connecticut and Massachussetts primaries. Both states are in the same part of the country with similar demographics and similarly strong Democratic leans. However, Obama beat Clinton in Connecticut 51-47% while Clinton trounced Obama in Massachussetts 56-41%. People may cite Clinton's establishment base in Massachussetts (which also came out for her in New Hampshire) as her key to victory, but I think there's another reason.
In 2006, Massachusetts elected Deval Patrick as the nation's second Black governor. (Virginia's Douglas Wilder was the first.) However, Patrick's race is not as important as the platform he ran on. Like Obama, Patrick was a compelling and talented public speaker who was running on a message of optimism and change. (Patrick endorsed Obama, by the way.) Massachusetts voters were proud to send a Black to the governor's mansion and had high hopes for his leadership. However, shortly after his inauguration, he became embroiled in embarrassing scandals and made some silly mistakes. His approval ratings dropped, but it wasn't because of latent racism. It was because he wasn't doing a good job as governor. So when Barack Obama came to Massachussetts this year, it is quite possible that a lot of voters there remembered Deval Patrick's shortcomings and were a bit more skeptical of the "change" Obama was selling.
John McCain will try to attack Obama for being long on talk and short on specifics. Will he and his supporters be branded as racists? And if McCain were to win the general election, would Obama's supporters attribute this victory to prejudices percolating beneath the surface among Republicans? Do Whites feel afraid not to support Obama because they don't want to be seen as "racially progressive?" Do Blacks feel afraid not to support Obama because "he's one of their own?" Again, these are Democrats who are using race as a wedge issue. Which party is it that can't move beyond race again?
At what point does politics matter more than identity? It seems like even though Obama is supposed to be the candidate who can help improve our race relations, the media and his supporters are doing more to further poison them. Obviously, Obama will have to explain his policies in greater detail in the future. Momentum, hype, and inspiration have carried him this far, but the serious questions about his candidacy must be confronted eventually.
Ironically, Obama's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Millions of voters absolutely love Obama and are genuinely inspired by him. But it will be impossible for Obama to sustain this level of enthusiasm among his supporters. What will happen when the initial excitement wears off, the tougher questions begin, and voters don't like what they hear? Will they be seen as racists? Will they be seen as discerning? And how would an Obama defeat be viewed by the nation?
It goes without saying that there are many openly racist people in America who would never vote for Barack Obama, and there are many more voters who purportedly support Obama only to "change their minds" in the voting booth. However, there are far more voters out there who harbor no ill will towards Obama, but simply can't support him because of his lack of experience, his liberal platform, or his lack of specifics. Should Obama lose and his loss be attributed to racism on behalf of these pragmatic voters who simply disagree with him on the issues, that would be a much sorrier commentary on our state of racial progress than if he were to lose to flaming racists. Given the absurdity of our current dialogue as is evidenced by the media, pundits, and regular people, it would seem that this fear may very well become a reality.
With his sweep of the so-called Potomac Primaries last night (Virginia, DC, and Maryland), Barack Obama is now the undisputed frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. He has won more states, has more pledged delegates, has won more demographic gropus, and has more momentum than Hillary Clinton. In addition to this, even if you include superdelegates in the candidates' delegate count, Obama still comes out ahead.
Obama's victories last night revealed some particularly troubling results for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Obama did better among Black voters than Clinton did among Hispanic voters. Obama won with White men and closed the gap considerably with White women. White women form the core of Clinton's base, but yesterday's results show that Obama was able to make inroads with this voting bloc. He is now officially playing on her turf.
As a result, Obama has swept all the primaries and caucuses that have taken place since Super Tuesday. This success obviously gets reported in the daily news cycle, which serves both to elevate Obama and cast a pall over Clinton. Thus, Clinton hasn't really had a single day of good press for most of February so far. She is now banking on Texas and Ohio, the two biggest electoral prizes remaining, to revitalize her candidacy. However, their primaries aren't until March 4. And before then, there are caucuses and primaries in Hawaii, Wisconsin, and Washington. Needless to say, if Obama wins those three states, it will be even more difficult for Clinton to hold Texas and Ohio because it is unlikely that voters there won't be affected by what's happening elsewhere, namely the Obama political wildfire. Politico has likened Clinton's Texas-Ohio strategy to a game of electoral roulette that is similar to Rudy Giuliani's ill-fated Florida strategy.
Dick Morris of The Hill wrote a good column showing why Clinton was going to lose. The main points of his column were that Clinton's message was more in sync with Republican primary voters than Democratic ones, her fundraising apparatus was inherently weak (I had written about this here), and having their (yes, "their") racialized campaigning backfire in their faces.
That's a pretty good summary of what ails the Clinton campaign. However, I believe there are a few other problems and a few other explanations that Morris did not mention. These problems are more related to simple marketing than actual gaffes.
To start, Clinton's calling card was "experience." Morris said that was a winning message for a Republican primary, which is true. However, there's another simpler problem with the "experience" message: Democratic voters in the early states roundly rejected candidates who had adopted that exact same message. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden were the first two casualties, and each of them has more gubernatorial experience than Obama and Clinton combined. The similarly experienced Bill Richardson quipped in the New Hampshire debate "is experience a leper?" before being forced out of the race after finishing a distant fourth. Clinton should have learned from her departed rivals that even though experience is commendable, it's simply not the strongest card to play in this year's Democratic primaries. And being famous or a former First Lady doesn't exempt you from having a losing message be rejected. As would be expected from a savvy businessman, Mitt Romney was especially adept at retooling his message whenever his previous ones failed. Clinton simply failed to do so.
A second problem is that the Clinton "brand" cannot easily be described. Obama is clearly the "change" candidate. Everyone knows his slogans: "Change we can believe in! Yes we can!" The fact that he's able to perform so well among so many different types of voters while maintaining a generally civil campaign only lends further credibility to message of "change."
John McCain successfully ran as the "strength" and "straight talk" candidate. These labels relate to his support for the mission in Iraq as well as his ability to stand up and go against members of his own party when he believes they are wrong. McCain might be the recipient of a lot of bellyaching from the conservative wing of the Republican party, but they must at least acknowledge the fact that his "straight talk" may be the only thing that keeps him competitive among independents and conservative Democrats come November.
Mike Huckabee won't be the Republican nominee, but he is clearly the "compassionate conservative" candidate. His populist rhetoric and socially conservative values have endeared him to Reagan Democrats and frequent churchgoers. Many people think of Huckabee as "the Christian candidate who doesn't talk like a Christian candidate." Even though it looks like he'll finish second or third in the delegate count, at least voters know what the Huckabee brand represents.
However, what about Hillary Clinton? Is she running as the senator from New York? The former First Lady? The hardworking, pragmatic senator who established good working relationships with her Republican colleagues in the Senate? The partisan warrior who knows how to beat the "right wing machine?" A feminist who wants to break the glass ceiling? Bill Clinton in a pantsuit? Part of the "two for the price of one" Clinton duo of old? A hawk? A dove? A centrist? A progressive? Clinton seems to have run as all of these candidates at one point or another, thus further muddying the Clinton brand. As a result, nobody can really pin her down with any certainty when it comes to who she really is and who her constituents are. Voters aren't comfortable with candidates who aren't comfortable with themselves.
And regarding slogans, in addition to adopting the ineffective "experience" mantle, her main slogan is "Ready to lead from day one." The problem is that this slogan seems a bit disingenuous. By saying she is "ready to lead," is she saying that no other candidate (read: Obama) is capable of doing so? Nobody (at least not Democratic primary voters) will buy that argument. Obama is obviously capable of being a leader. And McCain is too. And if she's "ready" while Obama is not, then shouldn't the onus be on her to make the case against him? The reason why is because Obama could easily counter with his position on Iraq and turn Clinton's slogan back on her, which he has done successfully. ("Being ready on day one means being right from day one.") So not only is her message ambiguous, it's also difficult to defend. How are voters supposed to rally behind that?
Another problem with her slogan is the apparent contradiction between "being ready to lead" and "being able to beat the Republicans." If she means she can "lead" the fight against Republicans, that means Americans are in for another four years of polarization. And are partisans really leaders? Obama talks about getting a few Republicans and independents to join his campaign and work for the common good. This sounds more like what a leader would say than reminding voters that Republicans are scared because she's beaten them before and she knows how to beat them again.
And in terms of political communication and linguistics, "Ready to lead" is an egocentric slogan. There's no sense of "we" or community there. It's all about Hillary Clinton (I AM "ready to lead." HILLARY CLINTON IS "ready to lead."). Unfortunately, this ties in with some of the negative impressions of her being selfish or driven by her own ambitions. Obama's "Change WE can believe in" slogan makes voters feel more like they are a part of the process. They feel a greater sense of ownership and have a greater stake in his campaign. Some of his campaign signs also say "stand for change." That message is written in the second person and directly addresses "you." When Obama gives a speech, you commonly hear the crowd chant "yes we can" or "stand for change." It's because they feel a sense of involvement and connection with Obama's campaign. You don't hear crowds chant "ready to lead" at Clinton's speeches.
To summarize, Hillary Clinton is running on a message that does not match what voters are looking for, chose a poorly worded campaign slogan that embodies the worst conceptions people have of her, and is unable to strongly make the case for her candidacy (e.g., support her brand image) without inviting blowback that would lessen the potency of her attacks. And this is all on top of the reasons Dick Morris mentioned in his column. While it is still possible that Obama could stumble and Clinton could emerge victorious, her once near-certain chances of snaring the nomination have gone up in smoke. And a lot of these problems are due to simple marketing problems, rather than Obama's strength.
Barring a cataclysmic collapse, John McCain will be the Republican presidential nominee for the 2008 general election. McCain turned out to be the last man standing, as he peaked at just the right time. However, McCain will enter the general election with a fractured party and quite a bit of resentment among the Republican base.
There are two types of conservatives: ideological conservatives and Republican conservatives. Dissatisfied ideological conservatives will likely have fewer qualms about sitting this election out or voting for the Constitution Party nominee. These ideological conservatives want the Republican Party to remain true to its conservative principles, even if that means splitting the Republican vote so much that it allows a Democrat to win the election because that would show Republican presidential aspirants that their electoral chances hinge on how true they are to their conservative base. These conservatives gave the Republican Party fits in the 90s by throwing their support behind Pat Buchanan.
McCain's problem, however, doesn't lie with ideological conservatives, as they likely threw their hands up in resignation after Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson dropped out. It's Republican conservatives that McCain must somehow mollify. These Republican conservatives, who are doing most of the griping, are intensely partisan and have the largest megaphone. They dominate talk radio and blast McCain for not being a "true conservative," as Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have done while firebrand Ann Coulter recently said she would campaign for Hillary Clinton if he became the nominee.
Conventional wisdom suggests that these Republican conservatives, while quite angry, are bluffing because it is highly doubtful they are going to sit back and let Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama become the next president. After all, the next two Supreme Court retirements will likely be those of liberal Justices Ginsburg and Stevens. Surely these Republicans who are dissatisfied with McCain are cognizant enough of this to at least hold their noses and vote for him when they enter the voting booth. And surely they are passionate enough about continuing military operations in Iraq to not let their pride interfere. The same holds true for tax policy, conservative family values, and the Second Amendment. Why would they let their hatred of John McCain send a Democratic president to Washington with what will almost certainly be a Democratic House and Senate? McCain might not be the most conservative or most partisan nominee, but he's the most conservative candidate left in the race. So in the end, these conservatives will essentially "come home" in November because they have nowhere else to go.
I used to subscribe to this conventional wisdom regarding conservatives' angst about McCain. However, now I'm not so sure they are bluffing. Could it be that partisan Republican conservatives view a Hillary Clinton presidency as more delectable than a Hillary Clinton candidacy that ends with a John McCain inauguration? After all, a second Clinton presidency would provide these partisans with no shortage of material they could use to gin up their ratings and jumpstart their fundraising. And because of all the complex challenges the next president will face (particularly regarding the economy, China, and international conflict), 2008 is not really a good year to be president. Should Clinton (or Obama) become president and fail to improve these problems, the Republicans would be well-poised to stage a comeback in the 2010 midterm elections similar to their 1994 takeover. A McCain presidency would also likely result in an extended military presence in Iraq, which could spell disaster for the Republicans in 2010. And even if Iraq is not going badly, a McCain presidency would be more likely to prolong Democratic congressional control for the sake of checks and balances.
If this is really the psychology involved, it would suggest that Republican conservatives are more concerned with conflict than governance. Consider the three biggest reasons why they harbor so much animosity for John McCain in the first place:
1. He supported a compromise on illegal immigration. There are many Republicans who favor deporting all illegal immigrants and denying them all social services. However, this is impractical, as it would be impossible to locate all 10-12 million illegal immigrants and send them back to their countries of origin. And denying them an education or jobs or social services isn't going to make them go back "home" of their own accord either because being poor in America is more preferable than being poor in Guatemala, Mexico, or the Philippines.
2. He did not support all of President Bush's tax cuts. Taxes will never be low enough for anybody, regardless of their political leanings. And one can't simply keep cutting taxes without making up for the lost revenue somewhere else, especially given the military operations taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that "fiscally responsible Republican conservatives" see nothing wrong with cutting taxes during wartime and not asking all Americans to pitch in to avoid placing our national debt on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.
3. He actually works with politicians across the aisle. This is probably the issue that annoys partisan Republicans the most. Any Republican who works with the likes of Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton is essentially a blasphemous traitor. This kind of thinking is unfortunate, however, as it does no one any good to essentially say that half of the government (and by extension, half of the nation) doesn't matter simply because they don't agree with you. If conservatives are angry at McCain now, imagine how angry they would be if a partisan Democrat won the presidency and rammed a liberal agenda down everyone's throats. The fact that Democrats control the House and Senate show that Republicans must work with Democrats if they want to get any parts of their agenda passed because if they don't, they'll get shut out as they are in the minority.
And do these partisan conservatives honestly expect the Republican Party to control all the levers of power in Washington permanently? Al Gore received more votes than George Bush in 2000, Bush won reelection with less than 52% of the vote in 2004, and Republicans failed to pick up a single seat in 2006. The United States might have a lot of Republicans and conservatives, but there are just as many voters out there who disagree with the Republican platform and have the right to have their voices heard. That's one of the reasons why Ronald Reagan was so revered, even by Democrats and people who might not have benefited from his policies, Blue states are a part of the United States too, and given the 2006 election results, it seems more voters are willing to give the Democrats and their left-of-center ideas a chance, just like they did with the Republicans in 2002 and 2004.
However, if McCain is indeed so unpalatable, these Republicans have no one but themselves to blame for his likely nomination. Some of them who long for Mitt Romney have tried to blame Mike Huckabee for splitting the conservative vote that otherwise would have gone to him. But these criticisms don't hold water because these same conservatives who griped about Huckabee splitting the conservative vote also criticized him for being a liberal earlier on, especially regarding economic policy.
It's not McCain's fault that Mitt Romney turned out to be a lousy candidate.
It's not McCain's fault that Fred Thompson sleepwalked his way out of the race.
It's not McCain's fault that George Allen called someone a "macaca."
It's not McCain's fault that Jeb Bush's last name is "Bush."
It's not McCain's fault that George Bush is so unpopular that Jeb Bush could not run as his successor.
It's not McCain's fault that nobody paid attention to Duncan Hunter.
It's not McCain's fault that Rudy Giuliani rendered himself irrelevant by relying solely on Florida.
It's not McCain's fault that no "true" conservative entered the race this cycle.
And it certainly isn't McCain's fault that he won his primaries with 30-40% of the vote. That only means he was more acceptable to more voters than any of his rivals.
It seems like conservative Republicans have become a bit spoiled. No political party or ideology can remain on top forever. Fairly or unfairly, George Bush has been the face of the Republican Party and conservatism for the last 7 years. His unpopularity has caused many voters to tune out the same old arguments and look for something new. McCain is a conservative pragmatist who realizes that moderates, Democrats, and even liberals live in the United States too. And to successfully govern, he's going to need their support in addition to that from his own party. The fact that he knows these voters even exist rubs Republican partisans the wrong way. Bush's nonconciliatory style of governance might please the Republican base, but the nation is worse off as a whole because of it.
These partisans should be happy because their most electable candidate will likely be their party's nominee. But if they'd rather sulk and take potshots at Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama for four years instead, then they deserve to have the opposite of their political agenda enacted. Then they'll really have something to complain about. Also, if they'd rather elect an unacceptable Democrat over their own party's nominee, they will expose themselves as being rooted more in pettiness than in conservatism. And they will deserve to lose.
The most recent bombshell in the presidential race concerns the fiscal health of the Hillary Clinton campaign which has come under increased scrutiny as it was revealed that Clinton had loaned her campaign $5M. This is a big deal because the only candidates who loan themselves money and have staff working without pay are candidates who are having major problems raising money. And if you have problems raising money, that means you have problems generating support for your candidacy.
John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney have all made similar moves in the past, and all three candidates have dropped out of the presidential race, with Romney being the most recent candidate to call it quits. The fact that this news comes on the heels of Barack Obama's $32 million haul in January has exposed one of the greatest weaknesses of the Clinton campaign.
Clinton started her presidential campaign with high negatives and high name recognition. This suggested that she would have the most difficulty winning over new supporters. However, she also had a fiercely loyal following and a hugely popular former president at her service. The talk about her "inevitability" last fall played right into her campaign strategy--to overwhelm the opposition and wrap up the nomination quickly so she could enter the general election without any scars or any giving her skeptics any further reasons to dislike her. Last fall in the debates, people often viewed the Democratic field as "Hillary and the Seven Dwarves." While they might not have used those exact words, the fact remained that she had no clear rival. Because Obama was being lumped with the rest of the pack, Clinton could simply stay above the fray.
But not anymore. Thoughts about a quick Clinton coronation vanished in the Iowa cornfields when Obama won the state caucuses and Clinton placed third. That turned this race on its head and threw the "inevitability" narrative out the window. And that forced Clinton out of her comfort zone of a quick blowout and into a much riskier slugfest.
The Clinton campaign is simply not designed to survive a tough, protracted campaign. It is true that she was raising a lot of money last year, but the problem is that this money often came in $2300 bundles from a small number of donors. Barack Obama, on the other hand, was raising just as much money from a much larger number of donors who were ponying up $20 or $50 at a time. So now, a greater percentage of Clinton's donors are tapped out because of campaign finance limitations. And because of her difficulty in attracting new support (and new donors) because of her high negatives, she will obviously have more trouble keeping up with Obama financially from here on out. Obama's campaign apparatus is designed to go the distance. Clinton's is not. And the fact that Obama is drawing in so many new voters only further complicates matters.
Remember, there never would have been any negative stories about Bill Clinton playing the race card or Hillary Clinton's surrogates sliming Obama had she won Iowa and put Obama away early. But those terrible news cycles have soured a lot of voters on her campaign, thus making it less likely for them to come around and donate to it in the future. And the more these kinds of stories poison the news cycle, the more tarnished the Hillary brand becomes and the worse off her campaign is.
The race for the Democratic presidential nomination likely won't be settled anytime soon. Obama failed to win the mega-states of California and New York, but at the same time, he has held his ground. His critics may wonder when he's going to deliver the knockout punch to Clinton and beat her in one of "her" states, but if Clinton's emergency $5M cash infusion means anything, she may very well end up starving herself out of the race. The challenge for Clinton now is to somehow generate support faster than she loses it to attrition.
Obama is peaking at the right time, and Clinton is helping him do so.
Aside from Super Tuesday and the presidential race, one of the biggest issues facing the country regarding its government is the economic stimulus package currently being debated in Congress. Economic volatility, a slumping housing market, and a weak dollar have contributed to a pervasive sense of pessimism among many voters.
To address these voters' concerns, President Bush, members of Congress, and even the presidential candidates have talked about the need for some sort of "stimulus" that will benefit American families and help jumpstart the American economy. However, their rhetoric and the very nature of the economic stimulus package on the table blatantly contradict some of the principal tenets of their political philosophies. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this, but it seems that conservatives are a bit more egregious in their hypocrisy because what should be their argument is actually quite credible.
One major part of the package involves mailing out rebate checks to people who paid federal income taxes last year. The size of these rebates depends on one's marital status and how many children they have. Republicans, including the presidential candidates (both current candidates and those who have recently dropped out), have talked about the need for Americans to get those rebate checks so they can "put that money back into the economy" by buying consumer goods, such as clothes or electronics.
However, these wishes fly in the face of traditional conservative campaign rhetoric about the importance of saving money or encouraging people to invest it. Encouraging people to spend money they received as some sort of "gift" from the government sounds more like telling people to take advantage of a government giveaway--something that appears more in line with liberal philosophy.
On top of this, the people who are struggling financially can't really afford to spend this money on a new pair of shoes or a new television. And if they did, then they would only risk plunging themselves deeper into debt. But then again, since many Republicans want Americans to spend these checks, it seems like they are only exacerbating the financial squeeze many families find themselves in at present.
People are generally pessimistic about the economy, but this pessimism has a lot to do with the choices one has made in the past. For people with mounting credit card debt and rising mortgage payments, the economy is obviously not so good for them. This is where true conservatism (not the current "conservative" rhetoric) could serve as a remedy. Many of the people struggling with their mortgage payments are those who had obtained subprime loans. In other words, their previous poor financial decisions are directly responsible for their poor credit and their poor decision to purchase a house they could not afford. And now they are struggling and need help.
True conservatism would warn people that they should live within their means. A house is the biggest investment any person will make in their lifetime. It takes decades to pay off a mortgage, and it takes stable and reasonably lucrative employment to be able to cover the payments. If someone is not able to handle these conditions, the solution is not to call for the government to bail you out. The solution is to rent an apartment.
As for credit cards, smart consumers know that if they are not able to pay for something in cash or if they can't pay off the bill in full at the end of the month, they should not use their credit cards for anything at all unless it's an emergency. However, consumers in all income brackets are buying iPods, PlayStations, and flat-screen televisions--often on credit.
Conservatives would rightfully argue that people who are not financially independent should be more careful when making these kinds of purchases. Put more bluntly, poor people should not have a Nintendo Wii in the house. People making $35,000 a year should not be making payments on a BMW 3-series. People who get paid by the hour or who work for tips should not be upgrading their cell phones every year.
For these people, their own poor past decisions are directly responsible for their current economic plight. For people who have lived within their means and managed their credit carefully, the economy is doing fine (save for declining property values and high gas prices). Renters aren't worried about rising mortgages, and people without credit card debt aren't worried about rising APRs. However, it is too politically risky for a politician to say this for two reasons: 1) it makes the politician seem "out of touch" with the voters who are suffering from problems they really brought upon themselves, and 2) their "you should have been more careful" rhetoric doesn't provide a solution to the fact that families are struggling now.
One of the tenets of liberalism is that if you do your part and play by the rules, the government will help you or protect you if you are down on your luck through no fault of your own. The problem with this argument is that in most of these cases of current financial hardship, consumers did in fact break these rules and brought about their own ruin. Consumers who paid their bills on time never had to worry about subprime mortgages. Consumers with tight wallets who bought board games or comic books for Christmas instead of DVD players and laptop computers aren't worrying about paying down credit card debt. Lower-income consumers who are driving Corollas instead of Camrys and station wagons instead of SUVs aren't worrying about expensive car insurance and high car payments.
Conservative voters realize this, but none of the presidential candidates are really addressing it. To his credit, Mike Huckabee has warned that the Chinese economy stands to benefit more than the American economy given the glut of Chinese products on the market. But most of the other candidates and congressmen are spending more time talking about extending unemployment benefits and getting these rebates in the hands of the American people as fast as they can. Conservatives look at their (usually Republican) political leaders and shake their heads in disbelief at their rhetoric. It seems like politicians of all persuasions are more interested in pandering than in principle, and that's a shame.
One of the most underreported stories in January has been the underwhelming performance of Ron Paul's presidential campaign. After shattering fundraising records and amassing legions of loyal supporters online, Paul's candidacy seems to have run out of gas.
To his credit, Ron Paul, the proverbial Repbulican punching bag, has performed better than several of his supposedly stronger rivals in the early voting states. For example, Paul finished ahead of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani on more than one occasion. This shows that he is not as much of a fringe candidate as his rivals have made him out to be. The fact that his campaign has survived longer than theirs further validates this argument.
However, his performance in the primaries thus far has served more to embarrass his rivals, rather than shed light on his own viability. The problem is, where does Ron Paul go from here? New Hampshire was supposed to be his breakout state because of its libertarian bent. But he only drew 8% of the vote there, and has struggled to break 10% in any other contest so far, save for Nevada where he finished second with 15%.
Again, the fact that he has outperformed some of his rivals more than once in the early voting states shows that he had been underrated. However, most of these rivals have since dropped out of the race. The only candidates left are John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. With the exception of Nevada, a state that was largely uncontested, Paul has yet to beat any of these remaining contenders for the nomination. And the national polling numbers suggest that he is too far behind to stage an unlikely victory in any Super Tuesday state.
It is no longer early in the voting process, so candidates cannot blame a disengaged or inattentive electorate for their poor polling. Voters have had ample opportunities to assess Ron Paul on the campaign trail and in the debates, so it is now safe to conclude that they simply aren't voting for him in large enough numbers to portray him as a viable candidate any longer. Prior to Iowa and New Hampshire, it was difficult to accurately gauge Paul's support because of his strength in straw polls and online polls. However, as Super Tuesday approaches, Paul has gone from a potential movement candidate to a potential spoiler on the cusp of irrelevancy.
Ron Paul generally pulls about 5-10% of the vote at most. Knowing this, the most obvious question becomes that of who is hurt the most by his candidacy. The immediate answer would be John McCain because he also has a libertarian streak. However, one could also make the case that Paul is siphoning votes off from Barack Obama because of the similarity in their positions on Iraq and the fact that younger voters, a core part of Obama's base, also comprise the lion's share of Paul's support. Paul also enjoys support among anti-abortion voters who would otherwise go for Huckabee. But because Paul's support is largely cobbled together from various demographic and constituent groups that do not appear to be natural allies (as I wrote about here), perhaps no other candidate is hurt more than any other by his continued presence?
Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani all had their firm supporters even if this support wasn't always reflected in the polls. However, they all dropped out because it was obvious that they had nowhere else to go. At this stage of the game, only the most viable candidates should remain on the stage. I wasn't quite sure how to classify Ron Paul when I first wrote about this last summer, but I can now say with confidence that he should no longer be included in the list of true contenders for the nomination.
Mitt Romney has emerged as John McCain's final rival for the Republican nomination. However, despite all of Romney's advantages, McCain is well positioned to demolish him on Super Tuesday and become the de facto Republican presidential nominee. This is all the more striking given how strong Romney appears to be on paper and how much dissatisfaction the conservative punditry has for McCain. Even those who might be sympathetic towards Romney are writing him off, as this article by Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard suggests.
So in this post I'll address why Romney has struggled so much and why so many people simply don't care much for him or his campaign. And I'll also address how these reasons for knocking Romney make his Republican detractors look like, well, Democrats.
For starters, Romney is personally wealthy. Of all the candidates remaining, Romney has the highest net worth. (He's worth over $200 million.) Republicans loved to criticize John Edwards for his large house and expensive haircuts. But Romney is almost four times richer than Edwards is. So why is Romney's wealth a source of scorn among the other Republican candidates? The answer, in a word, is fundraising. While almost all of the Republican presidential candidates have had to press the flesh and hold one fundraiser after another, Romney's personal fortune allows him to simply write a check so he can finance his own campaign. This would suggest a mixture of envy and frustration because his less well off rivals have to work much harder to infuse their campaigns with as much cash as Romney can lend himself with just a few strokes of his pen.
Why does this make these Republicans sound like Democrats? Well, Democrats are the ones commonly accused of engaging in "class warfare." Republicans often talk about the importance of self-reliance and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Mitt Romney entered the private sector and made a boatload of money. One cannot begrudge his financial success there because this success epitomizes the Republican success story. Given Romney's hard work and shrewd investments, he has earned the financial independence he is taking advantage of in this campaign. So why resent him the way they accuse Democrats of resenting "the wealthy?" If they think Romney's cash gives him an unfair advantage in this campaign, then why don't they think the wealthy have an unfair advantage in life? And if these millionaire candidates resent Romney so much, how do they think average people making $70,000 a year feel about tax policies that are perceived to benefit these same millionaires?
A second reason reason behind the ill will towards Romney concerns his family and overall appearance. Romney is a handsome man with good hair, an attractive wife, and five handsome sons. They seem to be the "perfect" family with a "perfect" marriage and "perfect" values. And he's rich too. Mitt and Ann Romney seem very much like Ward and June Cleaver from 50 years ago. Conservative Christians, a major part of the Republican base, should love this, especially since the Romney family seems to be a perfect fit for their values. John McCain is on his second wife. Fred Thompson is too. Rudy Giuliani one-upped them by getting married for a third time. And yet, they all had more support than Romney at one time or another.
Nobody wants to say it publicly, but the "perfection" of Romney's family is a source of resentment. Half of all American families are divorced. It is now more common for children to grow up with one parent, step-parents, godparents, estranged parents, abusive parents, or grandparents than it is for them to grow up with a mother and father living in harmony. Romney's "perfect family" makes it seem like he is incapable of understanding the struggles that commonly tear families apart. It creates the sense that he is not connected to average people. But if Republicans are supposed to be the party that supports "family values," why do they treat Romney with such disdain and elevate those whose families seem more like those you would see among Democrats? Are Republicans really practicing what they preach in this regard? Would a twice-married McCain really be the most credible person to stand for the "family values" platform?
A third reason behind knocking Romney involves his conversions on several conservative issues. One doesn't have to dig deeply to see that Romney has changed his rhetoric on gay rights, abortion rights, gun rights, and illegal immigration. The Mitt Romney from the 1990s and early 2000s was far more moderate than the Mitt Romney of the 2008 campaign. However, while Romney may have changed his positions on these issues, the fact remains that he is now the most conservative candidate remaining. He is saying the right things on social issues, immigration, and economic policy.
So if Republicans want to nominate a conservative, then why don't they throw their weight behind a conservative? So many Republicans, talking heads, pundits, and even voters complain that McCain is not really a conservative, yet he continues to rack up victories and build on his momentum. Romney is a potentially attractive general election candidate who could put Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida in play. But are Republicans really about to nominate someone who has criticized Justice Sam Alito for "wearing his conservatism on his sleeve," is moderate on illegal immigration, and was responsible for the most recent changes to campaign finance laws (that Republicans often criticize because they restrict free speech)? If McCain wins the nomination, the answer would be "I guess so!"
If these issues were really that important to Republicans, then why wouldn't they nominate Romney? Or is rhetoric more important than results? If so, then why wouldn't Romney's rhetoric about curbing abortion and restricting gay rights, for example, be better received even though his "results" are as suspect as McCain's?
This brings up the issues of character and consistency. Ill-fated nominees Al Gore and John Kerry were often lampooned by conservatives for being stiff and for flip-flopping. The windsurfing ad against John Kerry was absolutely devastating. Republicans have even tried to accuse Hillary Clinton of flip-flopping on Iraq. In light of all this, why has the charismatically-challenged, flip-flopping Romney been able to outlive so many of his rivals? Why is Romney better positioned to win the nomination than Mike Huckabee, who has been more consistent in his positions, even if not all of them toe the conservative line? In the improbable event that McCain stumbles and cedes the nomination to Romney, it would be impossible for him to attack Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama for flip-flopping on anything because the evidence showing Romney to be a hypocrite is simply too abundant.
Authenticity also ties neatly into this criticism. Republicans have riduculed Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, of pandering to various interest groups for the sake of votes. Much was made over Hillary Clinton's "Southern accent" when she was addressing a Black congregation at a church in Alabama a few months ago. And John Kerry was doomed by the photo of him donning hunting gear in an attempt to win over gun owners and sportsmen, who lean Republican. One could argue that Romney's conversions on social issues are akin to the very same run-of-the-mill pandering that they love to hate. However, one only need look at this YouTube video to realize that John Kerry and Hillary Clinton do not have a monopoly on such political absurdity. Has Romney been maligned by Republicans as severely for using the words "bling bling" as Kerry was for awkwardly toting a hunting rifle?
Political observers may have also picked up on the fact that Romney has adopted a lot of his opponents' rhetoric and even a few of their slogans. For example, Romney is now trying to present himself as a "change" candidate because "Washington is broken." (Never mind the fact that Republicans have controlled Congress for most of Bush's presidency and that he himself has talked about "doubling Guantanamo" and supports most of Bush's policies.) The Romney campaign now has signs saying "change begins with us." However, these signs look like ripoffs from Obama's "change we can believe in" and "stand for change" signs that he has been using for months. Even the font is similar! Compare this Romney sign photo with this Obama sign photo. It would seem that Romney is devoid of any ideas of his own, thus reinforcing the caricature of him that he has no core.
Romney probably won't be the GOP's presidential nominee, but his campaign perfectly illustrates the main problems Republicans have heading into the general election this fall:
1. The strength of the leading candidate (McCain) is out of step with the party base and suggests that nobody knows what a Republican is anymore. This is especially true given how more credible conservative candidates (Duncan Hunter, Fred Thompson, etc.) failed.
2. Defending the ideas and policies of the current administration while claiming "Washington is broken" and advocating "change" and "reform" suggests that Republicans seem to have run out of ideas. Both McCain and Romney regularly criticize Washington and want to "reform" it. But who broke it to begin with?
3. The dislike Republicans have for Romney and the support they have shown for candidates such as Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani in the past reflect the same type of thinking they commonly ridicule Democrats for. Resenting one's wealth sounds more like a Democratic talking point than a Republican one. And how can you claim to be the party of "family values" when you put forth nominees whose lives contradict your party platform?
4. The remaining candidate who best seems to represent the modern Republican Party (Romney) would require Republicans to accept or overlook the very same things they criticize Democrats for. In other words, Romney proves that Democrats don't have a monopoly on pandering, flip-flopping, and being unlikable. This would neutralize some of Hillary Clinton's weaknesses, in particular.
The fighting between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is threatening to turn a very winnable election into a potential nailbiter. But given the Republicans' disarray and identity confusion, it seems that even the Democrats couldn't lose this election even if they tried.