Posted on Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Leave it to Democrats to try drawing to an inside straight in the most
important presidential election of our times. For the uninitiated,
that’s a poker metaphor for making a long-shot bet against the odds.
Will America have its first woman president, its first black man or
neither? Nobody planned it, apart from Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack
Obama, that is. The other 37 Democratic candidates were of the customary
white-dude persuasion. Six months ago, amid the wreckage of the Bush
presidency, a Democratic victory appeared inevitable. Then the
Republicans nominated an extremely white 72-year-old dude who can’t keep
Sunni and Shiite straight, knows less about economics than my spaniel
Buffy and is considered unfit for the presidency by many in his own
party. The Washington Post recently quoted high-ranking Republicans
saying that Sen. John McCain’s screaming temper tantrums and propensity
for holding grudges make him a poor choice. McCain’s the ideal GOP
candidate for the influential white-sorehead demographic. The so-called
straighttalking-maverick-war-hero also happens to be much beloved by
Beltway media courtiers, largely because he feeds them donuts and tells
them funny stories about his youthful pursuit of Brazilian strippers.
Both Democrats handle reporters as gingerly as poisonous reptiles.
Hence, what ought to be the proverbial “lay-down hand” for Democrats now
Obama may have caught a glimpse of what a general election campaign
might bring during a recent debate on ABC TV. Badgered by anchors
Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos about arcane (yet predictable)
trivia such as U.S. flag pins and his relationship with former Weather
Underground terrorist William Ayers (who hosted his first political
fund-raiser in 1995), Obama came across as startlingly unprepared.
“Playing gotcha with Democrats and patty-cake with Republicans,” Joe
Conason explained on salon. com, “will remain basic operating procedure
for the mainstream media this year, no different from the past
half-dozen presidential campaigns.... [T]he same fuzzy but obsessive
focus on ‘character’ that plagues Bill and Hillary Clinton will be
turned on him with equal or greater ferocity by those who once claimed
to admire him. He is now subject to the ‘Clinton rules,’ which have long
permitted pundits, editorialists and reporters to indict the former
president and first lady for sins that other politicians, mostly
Republican, may commit with impunity.”
Conason compared the hullabaloo over Hillary Clinton’s exaggerated
account of her landing in Bosnia to the free pass that Ronald Reagan was
granted for his purely imaginary account of liberating Nazi
concentration camps, and President Bush for his unexplained “lost years”
in the Texas Air National Guard.
Obama’s inexperience left him vulnerable. If he didn’t want to talk
about flag pins, he ought never have explained why he doesn’t wear one.
(False patriotism, basically.) Dumb symbolic issues have a way of
looming large in November. Obama ought to have purged himself of
potentially embarrassing Chicago figures long ago, i.e., Rev. Jeremiah
Wright, Ayers and political fixer Tony Rezko. That he hasn’t suggests a
certain softness Republican smear artists are sure to exploit
Which brings us to the forbidden issue of electability. Is it realistic
to think that a gifted novice like Obama can win enough states to
prevail in the Electoral College? Among Democrats, it’s possible to
avoid the question by crying racism, as Obama supporters did early and
While it’s claimed that the Clintons “racialized” the campaign, Obama
surrogates brought up the so-called Bradley effect on TV the night of
the New Hampshire primary. Many white voters, they hypothesized, must be
secret bigots. The next morning, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Obama’s
national co-chairman, accused Clinton of faking tears on the campaign
“But those tears also have to be analyzed,” he said. “They have to be
looked at very, very carefully in light of [Hurricane] Katrina, in light
of other things that Mrs. Clinton did not cry for, particularly as we
head to South Carolina, where 45 percent of African Americans will
participate in the Democratic contest.”
For sheer, raw racial demagoguery, nothing that either Clinton has ever
said comes close. So spare me the histrionics. Let’s talk demographics.
Making himself the black candidate has definitely worked for Obama in
the primaries. But the unfortunate fact is that most African American
voters reside in states that Democrats either can’t win (the Deep South)
or almost can’t lose (New York, Illinois, California). So what about the
“Bradley effect”? Even granting Obama the 20 states that Sen. John Kerry
won in 2004—a big maybe in a couple—I’ve taken to challenging his
supporters to name two more that he has a realistic chance to capture.
They normally change the subject. Democratic super delegates can’t
afford to. That Clinton has obvious weaknesses, mainly high negatives
after 16 years of GOP pounding, should be obvious. But she’d win
Arkansas easily. There’s reason to believe she’d also take Florida. But
then, Obama supporters don’t like to talk about Florida, do they?
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.