Watching the Obama campaign viciously attack perhaps the preeminent-eminent progressive economist, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, had the effect of waking me from some early winter political hibernation. Slammed with work of late, I'd been watching the polls from the corner of my eye and saw the slow leak toward the illusion of "hope" emanating from the favorite son of Illinois' political machine. The strange media-fueled Oprah mini-tour of arenas cast a pallid, intoxicating smog over the yacking televised classes, prompting Clarence Page to sweatily bleat "I doubted Chris, but now I'm sold!" on the newly-renamed Softball! with Chris Matthews, "brought to you tonight by Obama '08." So Page and Matthews inhaled, and the Obama campaign's win-the-media strategy continued on its course.
But that's big media, mainstream media, the "village" as Digby likes to put it. In blogland, things are turning on Obama, especially after his camp's tone-deaf Krugman slam. That was a wake-up call, a dash of cold water for progressives - and the question people are starting to ask now that the Clinton "inevitability" meme (always a lazy canard) has worn off is simply this - how does Barack Obama look as a general election candidate, as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States?
Which means, at least in part, how will Obama fare against the right-wing hit machine?
Oprah and the current media infatuation aside, I'd suggest "not so well" as one part of the answer - and "not nearly as well as Hillary Clinton," as the second part. In many ways, Barack Obama is a fat, hanging curve out over the plate for the slugging conservative attack dogs - and you can tell from reading the conservative blogs, plumbing their comments and links, just how much they hope Clinton will be dispatched this winter, rather than living to hurl high, tight fastballs next fall.
Look, I frankly admire Obama's message - both in its tone and its delivery. I do believe that our country should set its sights a lot higher than we have in the past, that we've grown fearful and defensive as a people, and that good government is part of the solution. I do not dismiss Obama or his supporters, many of whom are friends and colleagues. But in the cold light of day, with the billionaire TV star safely back on her studio set and middle class Americans still looking for a better deal, the bar for defeating the Republicans in the fall is a lot higher for Obama than it is for Clinton.
To begin cleaning up this mess, we need two crucial ingredients, I believe: experience and the ability to win.
I've written much more about why I support Clinton, but it really does come down to those key arguments - she knows how to make it all work, and she's by far the best bet to fight the hit squads next summer. So why does Obama give me pause, make me worry, and frankly scare me as the Democratic nominee?
Regular commenter Bruce B., a progressive who also likes the Obama rhetoric, gets at the problem as well as I can: "who will be the strongest, most resilient candidate in the general election?" Like me, he worries that Obama's record is not well-known, that his public policy positions are not well-formed (he especially dislikes Obama's right-wing take on the Social Security "crisis" and his Krugman battle), and that he may have played his trump card (Oprah) far too early in the game.
The attack on Krugman was instructive to many on the left. Jerome Armstrong linked it with Obama's strangely conservative Social Security stance and said, "It's mistakes like these that make me think that if Obama gets the nomination, it's going to be disgusting to watch as he turns against progressives in his bid for the middle, and as he says, that's the way he'd govern too." Chris Bowers agrees: "During an Obama presidency, progressive media figures could face regular attacks from a Democratic White House. It is a fear that I still hold, and which keeps me from getting excited about Obama's improving position in the campaign." Ezra Klein says that "...Obama's rhetoric has become much, much worse than his plan. That it's ended with him having to go on the offensive against the most forthrightly progressive voice in major American media is evidence of that fact."
Then there's consistency. Today's Politico (which has gotten much better since an uneven beginning last year) has a piece by Ben Smith and Mike Allen about a candidate's questionnaire Obama filled out in 1996 when he ran for state legislature in Illinois. Some pretty standard stuff in the Q&A, which was issued by a voter's group - abortion, gun control, single payer health plan. And Obama gave short, liberal answers - literally "yes" or "no" on some of the toughest issues:
“Do you support … capital punishment?” one question asked.
“No,” the 1996 Obama campaign typed, without explaining his answer in the space provided.
“Do you support state legislation to … ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns?” asked one of the three dozen questions.
“Yes,” was Obama’s entire answer.
Frankly, I agree with most of Obama's answers. They're far more direct and progressive on domestic policy than his current campaign's positions. He's more nuanced now. Which is fine, he's a national candidate with a weather eye out for the general election. But the Politico piece brings up a larger question: it's three weeks to the first caucus vote, and this bit of research only now sees the light of day?
Say what you will about Hillary Clinton, she's been vetted. Fully. Completely. The skeletons aren't in her closet - they're on the front lawn. She's by far the best-known quantity in this race nationally, on either side. Heck, we also know far more about John Edwards, who underwent the full national scrutiny of a campaign in 2004. In some ways, they've been inoculated - you can expose them to the germs, but the disease won't take.
Not so, Obama. Politico's piece on Obama is just a hint of what the Republicans would use against him as the Democratic nominee. I believe the disgusting "Osama" slips and whispers, which I railed against last month, are just the merest hint of what would await the Senator if he prevails in the Democratic battle. There's Obama's admitted drug use, his "lost" early years, his local political career in Illinois, any connection he's ever had. All of that will be fertile territory - I'm not saying it's fair or has any bearing on his fitness for office. Indeed, I'm arguing that the attacks will be unfair.
So far, the nastiness on the right has been trained on Hillary Clinton. But just look at what's happening to Mike Huckabee now that the Republican establishment perceives him as a serious threat. Suddenly, he's not the mild-mannered, socially conservative, successful and popular Governor of Arkansas anymore. Amazing how quickly he morphed into a rapist-pardoning, liberal, Mexican-loving, tax-and-spend, religious nutcase, isn't it?
That said, I advocate going straight at the attack machine - which still lives and breathes, despite the splintering of the Republican Party in the aftermath of the Bush presidency. To me, that requires the best weapon in the arsenal, the toughest warrior in the arena - somebody tougher than Al Gore or John Kerry, who both seemed tougher than Barack Obama.
I love the theme of the politics of hope. But not if it puts a Republican back in the White House.
UPDATE: I'd forgotten to include a key post by my friend Fred Wilson, a prominent venture capitalist who doesn't consider himself particularly active in politics. Here's his take off of last weekend's "scar tissue" story in the Times:
And so the other part of my reluctant support of Hillary is this scar tissue thing. I really respect people who've taken their lumps and risen beyond them. I look for that in people in business all the time. I'd much rather have a partner who has taken some losses and learned from them than a partner who hasn't failed yet. Failure is an asset in my mind if you've learned from it.
I have met a lot of very smart people in my life. A few of them are the type that know that they are smart, and think they are smarter than they are. They tend to over rely on their ability and it gets them in trouble.
I worry Obama might be one of these. That he might think is so intelligent that he can get by or get around a problem with just its wits. That he can talk his way out of it (or give a good speech). He shows some signs of having this type of ego:
1) He appears thin skinned. Novak and Krugman didn't do much to get way under his skin and to illicit a response that wasn't proportional to the percieved threat.
2) He doesn't take personal responsibility for mistakes. He consistantly blames low level staffers when this blow up publically.
3) He appears leary to let us learn too much about him. I have a real problem with the reasonsing that he gives for changing the names of friends and associates in his book.
Add to this that Obama has never been tested. He has never ran a race where his opponent has taken it to him and knocked him down, forcing him to get off the mat. You know that in a general that will happen. Kerry got sent to the mat with the 'Swiftboats' and he got up, but he was slow to get up and it cost him. Kerry was a veteran campaigner that had been in some tight spots previously. Obama has no such experience to draw on.
Furthermore, what Democratic voters need to understand is that to win the general election you have to do more than make some movie star, or U of I prof, or some liberal activist in NH feel good. You have to convince middle America, unaffiliated voters, who make will make a snap judgement in the final week, that you are the best person to defend them economically, militarily, etc.
These voters are not going to stare starry eyed at Obama, gushing about a some mythical movement that no one else can see, as they listen to a long speech.
UPDATE III: Here's the latest from ABCNews - it finds "no upheaval in national preferences in the Democratic race, where, again among likely voters, Hillary Clinton leads Barack Obama by more than 2-1, 53-23 percent, with John Edwards at 10 percent, all essentially the same as last month." I hope that's true.