Friday, February 22, 2008
Obama as Icarus?
The insurgent is now the clear frontrunner and Democrats have a final chance to scrutinize the potential vulnerability of an Obama bid: could he really go toe-to-toe with John McCain in November and win? Will Higham of the think-tank Demos dreads an Obama candidacy, articulating the fear that Obama 'is a political Icarus who's just now nearing the beating sun'.
I think there are three big fears about Obama's General Election resilience. And each threatens to evoke recurring Democrat nightmares from the ghost of elections past.
The first is that Obama wlll prove 'achingly vulnerable' (as Higham puts it) to the negative politics of personal destruction which have dominated and polarized US politics for a generation. Unlike the Clintons, that 'vast right-wing conspiracy' just haven't gotten around to him yet.
The second is that 'outing' Obama as a liberal, not a moderate, could damage him just as it destroyed Michael Dukakis in 1988.
The third is that McCain versus Obama would expose the Democrat vulnerability on national security, so that Obama follows John Kerry in 2004 in being beaten in an election which seemed to be the Democrats to lose.
Any one of these threats could prove fatal to Obama's White House bid. Yet the alternative - audacious, hopeful - view is that a Clinton candidacy which would replay once again the Democrats' nightmares, in the hope of exorcising them, and an Obama candidacy which might transcend them.
Indeed, the Clinton campaign essentially accepts these Democratic vulnerabilities as fixed, operates within them, and attempts to win despite them:
On negative politics, that means treating the war wounds of having been 'vetted' by a generation of partisan wars as a credential. This means accepting polarisation as a given, mobilising your own base, and hope to shift one or two decisive states from red to blue.
On policy and ideology, it means triangulating within the accepted centrist constraints, while persuading your own side not to foster false hopes.
On national security, it means being acutely aware of the Democratic vulnerability and try to neutralize the issue. Don't let the Republicans open up any space to your right, and try to get the campaign back onto the economic and healthcare.
This approach was tried and failed in 2000 and 2004. Gore and Kerry made avoidable tactical mistakes and could have won those knife-edge contests. The Clinton campaign fears that any alternative approach risks forgetting the lessons which enabled the Democrats to win in 1992 and 1996. But Obama rightly believes that the Democratic Presidential campaign playbook now needs to be rewritten for different times.
I believe Obama is well placed to fend off negative personal attacks with style and grace. John McCain is much less likely to fight the type of Bush-Rove campaign of which he was himself the victim in South Carolina in 2000. Might we be heading for a deep clash over issues and future visions for America in which each candidate respects the other's integrity? That may sound naïve, yet eschewing the politics of personal destruction will be in the enlightened self-interest of both candidates in an Obama-McCain race. It would damage McCain's 'straight talk' brand of integrity and Obama's appeal to a new politics. (Obama called McCain 'a genuine American hero' in his victory speech on Tuesday, before contrasting their views on the economy and foreign policy).
So far, this has been the year that going negative failed. (Sorry Mitt, sorry Rudy, sorry Bill Clinton too). Of course, Obama can expect Republican surrogates to attempt to 'swift boat' him, but his biography long ago put potentially damaging material on the record on his own terms. His entire campaign frame has built in resilience to the 'same old politics'.
Could his liberalism be more damaging to Obama? Karl Rove now advocates making this the central Republican attack. A fascinating study of voter perceptions of the ideological positions of various candidates was published last month by the Pew Research Centre: Obama does needs to persuade an electorate which perceives itself as to the right-of-centre to back a left-of-centre candidate. (And there is something in the charge that Obama has rarely challenged his own supporters or gone outside their comfort zone yet).
However, despite his impeccably liberal Senate voting record, Obama's domestic policy positions are often a slight step right of Hillary's, for example on universal health care mandates. Obama's authenticity demands that he stands up for his public record, rather than triangulate away from it. That need not reduce his crossover appeal. Andrew Sullivan, who has been the most articulate pro-Obama Republican, has stressed Obama's ability to debate difference with respect: 'What strikes me about Obama is not that he is conservative or liberal, it is his policy liberalism with conservative temperament', Sullivan has written.
The central McCain theme against Obama will be the contrast on national security: 'is Obama ready to be Commander in Chief?'. Again, here Obama seems ready to break with the conventional wisdom of how Democrats deal with this vulnerability. EJ Dionne worried this week that 'every political consultant worth a six-figure fee will tell the Democratic nominee that fighting the election on broad foreign policy questions (as opposed to a limited dialogue built around a simple "Bush Bad, Iraq War Dumb, McCain Backs Both" theme) would be to play to McCain's strengths'.
Yet Obama's audacious strategy could well be to challenge McCain directly on national security. There was a glimpse of this when Obama was accused of foreign policy 'gaffes' early in the campaign last summer, over his comments on meeting leaders hostile to the US and his willingness to pursue al-qaeda into Pakistan. The audacious nature of the Obama challenge was fleshed out in a revealing memo on 'conventional Washington' versus change from academic rising star and Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power. The spirit of that memo would lead Obama to offer a significant challenge to McCain's foreign policy philosophy - to articulate clear divisions over national security, not to minimize them.
Each of these choices would involve risks. But the most striking feature of Obama's campaign to date is that he has forced his opponents to run within his campaign frame, which has enabled him to anticipate attacks and turn these into a reconfirmation of the choice he is offering voters. He has dealt head-on with the charges that he is offering 'false hopes' or that 'talk is cheap'. (Comprehensively out-organising the Clinton machine in every caucus state counts as action as well as words). Win or lose, it is hard not to conclude that the candidate who began as a clear outsider has won the campaign.
Still, there remains a final chance for buyer's remorse in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and beyond. Some cases of 'Obama comedown syndrome' have been diagnosed. And it would take a very serious dose of Obama-mania indeed not to admit that his nomination involves a leap of faith. It is a risk which Democratic voters seem ever more ready to take.
As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.