A Tale of Two Elections

My thinking on the election at this point has been twofold. First is that a Barack Obama-John McCain matchup is good on either theory of campaigning, base mobilization or capture the middle. Senator McCain fails to mobilize the base, but has a lot of crossover appeal. However, the base just won’t give him a break so the need to throw them red meat will be endless and in his desperate attempts to mollify the base, he will sacrifice whatever crossover appeal he has. Senator Obama also has crossover appeal, but with a base more than enthusiastically behind him, he will be free to concentrate entirely on capturing independents. That’s an equation that just works for Democrats.

On the other hand, I’ve thought that 2008 could see an election in which spending by 527s could dwarf that of the actual candidates campaign committees. In 2004 the John Kerry and George Bush campaigns together spent $957 million and independent advocacy groups spent another $436 million. In 2008 it is anticipated that the 527s will constitute an even larger portion of total campaign spending. The candidates’ message could become only one of many voices, lost in the din. Their ability to shape their message could be totally lost amidst the interest groups with only limited commitment to the candidate’s agenda and no organizational connection. For instance, the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth specifically said that even if the Bush campaign or the RNC has asked them to desist their attack ads, they would not. John McCain has said that he wants to run an honorable, respectful campaign, but that may be out of his hands. Barack Obama may want to avoid any divisiveness, but similarly he may only have partial say in that.

These two thoughts are at odds because a wildly out of control, dirty campaign could end up mobilizing that right wing base that had originally resolved to stay at home. Adequately convinced of the depravity of Senator Obama, Senator McCain might start looking pretty good. The sentimental types have a hard time acknowledging this about the American character, but hate is a far more energetic motivator than affection. Similarly independents, always unsure about this black man, could be easily swayed once the flowery rhetoric is displaced by the images of an angry radical. I believe it was Karl Rove who said watch political commercials with the sound off to understand their true impact. Language is only going to get Senator Obama so far.

And so Kevin Drum gives me pause today (“Why Hillary Fights,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 30 March 2008):

Of course Barack Obama can win against John McCain. And I still believe that.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the Jeremiah Wright controversy has shaken my confidence a bit. This has nothing to do with the substance of the thing, which I think has been wildly overblown, but by the conservative reaction to it. Go scan The Corner and you’ll find Mark Steyn and Victor Davis Hanson and the rest of the gang still in an absolute lather over Wright. Ditto for other conservative sites. They have no intention of allowing this to die, and I have no doubt that it will resurface with a vengeance in every last swing state this fall. When Obama continues to fail to denounce Wright thoroughly enough — and believe me, no denunciation will ever be enough with this crowd — then eventually the crossover Republicans who were singing Obama’s praises after Super Tuesday will, sadly but inevitably, use this as an excuse to switch their support to McCain. Can’t vote for a guy who doesn’t have the balls to disown an outraged black guy in a dashiki, after all. Ditto for a lot of political moderates who have fallen under the Obama spell but are really more anti-Hillary than they ever were pro-Obama.

Now, my guess is that, in the end, this won’t work. The polls taken after Obama’s race speech showed, gratifyingly, no reduction in his support, suggesting that a sleaze campaign will have a harder time working against Obama than it did against John Kerry. Still, it’s out there, and it’s pretty clearly part of the game plan for the fall campaign. I think Hillary’s folks are wrong to believe that Obama is doomed, but I’m not sure I think they’re delusional any more. There’s every sign that we have an ugly campaign ahead of us.

I just wish that once in my lifetime the Democrats would nominate someone legitimately hungry and angry, someone who had justice in their veins and realized that instituting in the world was going to require blood and who was willing to destroy the forces that stood in their way. I want the Dean scream, I want the crazy Al Gore circa 2004. I want Lyndon Johnson. Instead we get these wheedling, whining, preening milktoasts who think that an election is a word-emitting contest. I don’t know, maybe I’m a lunatic partisan at this point.

I too still think that Senator Obama will win, but it’s going to be ugly and Senator Obama still looks to me like a guy with a lot of on the job learning to do about the workings of a national campaign.