Several months ago I predicted a serious schism in the Democratic party if the Edwards and Obama campaigns continued on their chosen courses. When it comes to national politics and decisions that directly affect the health and wealth of the nation, there’s little consolation in saying “I told you so” when something goes wrong. I have heartfelt concerns about the course of our national government, its whacked-out priorities and the terrible human and material expense of war, its off-kilter checks and balances, and the incompetence with which its institutions have been run. I also have a growing concern about our social fabric and our economy; these are not theoretical concerns, they go to the heart of people’s lives including the lives of my family members, and the future offered to my daughter, my sister’s children, and all of the other young people of this nation. I experienced firsthand the Clinton boom which allowed me to go back to college and lifted me out of poverty with a tech career; I see the layoffs, slow-downs and soaring tuition costs cutting into people’s dreams all around me today. So I’m passionate about what happens this year.
Early last year I saw a troubling development in the Democratic Presidential race. At the time I was leaning towards Hillary but I was detached and excited about the whole field. I thought, let’s see what happens; the main thing is that we need a good, capable, winning Democrat with a strong, broad party coalition. I did my research and thought Hillary the most qualified and was impressed with how well she won over people in upstate New York; people like Hillary when they get to know her, and trust her abilities.
The troubling development was the negative turn taken by Hillary’s two main rivals. Its warning shots occurred last summer and even earlier; I heard these men, who claimed to be running as positive, ethical, unifying, and “hope” candidates, take shot after shot at Clinton, most often not by name but clearly just the same. They talked not-so-vaguely about politicians who “planned to run for President”, who had to “take a poll to make a decision”, who “were in the pocket of corporate America”, who “said things people wanted to hear.” None of this applied overwhelmingly to Hillary looking at her very progressive voting record but the point of such attacks is that they’re not debatable. If Hillary responds, she’s blamed for attacking; if she doesn’t respond, these political paper-cuts build up and build up until her record and her image are distorted, which is what her opponents want. (They throw on top of these character issues a constant reductio ad abusurdum attack about the war vote, the hypocrisy underlying which I’ve discussed at length.)
On the MSexistNBC October 30 debate Tim Russert and the whole gang of Hillary’s rivals declared it open season; it was the anti-Hillary debate. She weathered it well, and it’s ironic now to recall that what was supposedly her weakest moment: she gave a nuanced but evasive answer on the issue of drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. Her nuanced answer had a simple cause: she did oppose them as a national solution (and she never said otherwise), but the Democratic governor of the state of New York was at that moment pushing the idea, and for her to simply oppose the idea would undermine him, her ally and colleague. The reason that’s ironic is because Barack Obama – who pretended he didn’t understand where she stood then – gave almost verbatim the exact same answer in the next debate in Las Vegas. But he didn’t have the excuse she had.
At any rate, the new momentum of the campaign was never about such policy nuances; it was about character assassination. Edwards and Obama had put their messages out there and they had excited supporters but not in the number that Hillary was getting; she was well ahead of them with the party base. And so they made the call: to win, we have go negative to take down Hillary. Never mind that she’s the best-known name in the party, the most admired woman in the world for thirteen of the last sixteen years, and the sixteenth most progressive member of the Senate in lifetime voting record; Hillary is in the way of the young men. And so it’s been open season, with Obama making attack after attack after attack, either on distortions of her statements and policies or on nearly every indefensible character issue you can think of. Let’s be frank: when he claims as he did on tonight’s 60 minutes interview that all he does is make policy distinctions, Barack Obama is lying. And he’s insulting our intelligence. He has been the advocate of a divisive strategy in this race. There have just been too many swipes at Hillary’s character and too much false rhetoric spilling out of the side of his well-intoned mouth to believe that fabrication.
And so I made that prediction: if they take this risky road, if they attack Hillary and diminish her stature rather than simply running positive, unifying campaigns, they will divide the party bitterly. I knew that they were underestimating the zeal of the base in their support for Hillary. But I didn’t underestimate the traction they’d get with that theme, because less-scrupulous Republicans worked so hard for so long to smear Hillary when she was First Lady. She proved in New York she could overcome that, but in New York she was respected by fellow Democrats, not assaulted by rivals (and their party-establishment backers) who were playing winner-take-all. I wrote to both the Obama and Edwards campaigns urging them to not go negative and “take down” Hillary; it would divide the party and hurt us all in November. If they win on positive points it’s a wonderful thing and I’m on board; if they stay positive and don’t win this year they’re both young, there are future campaigns; we need this election.
I was right about the risks, and I wish I hadn’t been. They didn’t listen, and now it’s getting more bitter by the day. Howard Dean is concerned. Party regulars who thought we’d have a cakewalk into the White House are concerned. A feud is reigning in the party and I feel myself swept up as I see more and more double-standards, biased coverage, and polarizing intolerance on behalf of the “uniter” Obama. The anti-Hillary zeal, the vilification and ostracism hurled by Obama supporters on the internet, has started to have some blowback; in spite of Obama’s naive claims about all Hillary supporters flocking to him in November, there are many now starting to speak up and say: you’re wrong, Barack. We will not support you, and you can’t take us for granted like that and pretend smugly that we’re in your pocket. You have not treated our candidate fairly, you have exaggerated her faults and exaggerated your virtues, and we may stay home or we may even opt to vote for a moderately conservative war hero with whom we disagree in November rather than vote for a Democrat who has demolished our favorite candidate and our party for his own vain and premature ambition. And we tried to not take that tone, but after the 10,000th Obama supporter pontificating about how they’d never vote for Hillary – with your blessing, obviously – it’s our turn.
So now, today, I will make a second prediction. I hope it does not come to pass – even moreso than the last – but it looks just as inevitable as the party split that I predicted.
My prediction is that Obama may win some key contests – ones that we’ve been expecting Hillary to win – and he will end up with the nomination of a bitterly divided Democratic Party. And he will lose to John McCain in the most staggering loss since Mondale’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984 – though perhaps more similar demographically to Nixon’s 49-state win in 1972.
I predict that Obama will lose the general, and lose it big, for several reasons.
Obama has proven he does not have the character to stand up to a deeply respected figure like McCain. He is extremely vulnerable because of the way he’s run against Hillary. McCain would even be able play the “chivalry card” and defend Hillary, saying she’s his respected colleague and that Obama has bad-mouthed her for his own ambitions. Imagine him making just that statement: independent women now think about voting for McCain even though he’s pro-life (since Obama’s been tepid on the issue anyway). All those Americans from across the spectrum who really -do- want to see the good guy win – the positive campaigner – are now for McCain. There are countless more angles McCain can take, giving Obama a dose of his own medicine. Obama made a speech against going to war; well, McCain warned the Bush administration about the Rumsfeld plan and pushed to get Rumsfeld fired, but McCain has risked his life in battle for his country, has been a POW, and most importantly has not changed his position. Why did Obama take his anti-war speech down when he was running for Senate, and then dust if off when opinion changed? Why did he tell folks he was against the Patriot Act and then vote to renew it? Seems that Obama’s the one with the straight-talk problem. McCain will bring all of this to light, and demonstrate what’s been clearly obvious to anyone paying close attention: all of the character issues Obama’s been accusing Hillary of are actually his own issues. It worked for him against Hillary in a schoolyard sense: you accuse someone of your faults and if they say “no, that’s not me it’s you” it seems petty and reactionary. But such a schoolyard tactic will not work with against someone with McCain’s grit and gravitas.
Obama will also lose because his illusory coalition will collapse against McCain. Obama has the youth vote, the elite progressive vote, and the African-American vote; they will stay with him. That is an extremely narrow coalition; it looks larger because he (erroneously) claims to also be getting a lot of moderate independent and Republican votes. It’s clear that many of those votes are sabotage votes; this has been a known tactic in caucus races in swing states since at least the 1980’s, probably a lot longer than that. There is simply no way that a truly moderate and risk-averse independent or Republican is going to vote for an experimental Obama candidacy over an American Hero McCain candidacy. I believe Obama’s treatment of Hillary will cost him a lot of women’s votes, though many will show up to vote against McCain just on the issue of choice; but they certainly won’t turn out with the high numbers and passion that they would have if Obama had treated Hillary well (or if Hillary is herself the candidate). But there’s no doubt that working-class Democrats – especially those who have favored Hillary over Obama – will see in McCain a very attractive moderate Republican, and if they come to sense that they can believe McCain but can’t believe Obama (who after all has no proof to show that his non-partisan experiment will work) then McCain gets a lot of them. Just as likely as any wave of “Obama Republicans” is a large, middle-America segment of McCain Democrats based on the qualities of skepticism and patriotism that characterize that voting block. McCain is also likely to win a large portion of the Latino vote, which has strong ties to Clinton but is open to McCain as an immigration reformer, and has likely been insulted by Obama’s neglect followed by a few weeks of pandering and the trotting out Ted Kennedy at the last minute before Super Tuesday; it didn’t work, as 70% of them voted for Clinton. McCain may only need about 33% of that group to win the White House.
Finally, Obama will lose to McCain because his vaporware credentials will finally be vetted among the general public, who are much, much more concerned about the critical mission of commander-in-chief than the somewhat dreamy base that Obama has been courting on the left. The general election will be skeptical, and rightly so. And Obama’s record just will not stand up to skepticism; a speech, two books, and a very brief time in national politics do not qualify someone for our nation’s highest office. Obama is not the “Google” of candidates: Google put out a functional product that did what it promised and did it better than anyone else’s. So far, all Obama’s really done is promise; he has not achieved results that will make the skeptical and fair-minded American support him, regardless of how much of a media halo he’s given.
I hope that my prediction of Obama’s Democratic nomination win does not prove true; though even if Hillary wins it may be that my earlier point will still hold: that her fellow Democrats have so undermined her in this bitter campaign that she also has a very hard time winning (though I will fight my heart out for her). I also hope that we do not see a McCain presidency, though in defiance of Obama’s presumption I insist on declaring myself an undecided in an Obama-McCain contest. Overall, I hope these predictions of mine stop coming true.
I don’t want to say “I told you so.” I’d much rather say “President Clinton” for eight more happy, prosperous years.
Cross-posted at Pan Metron