The GOP’s apparent candidate, Senator John McCain, is not a Bush-clone, so the get-Bush strategy doesn’t apply. He supports the current war, but otherwise he is independent of the standard GOP line (whatever that is). Mr. McCain is an elusive opponent – politically adept and very hard to lay a glove on. More than that, he is a patriot – a former POW who conducted himself honorably as a captive of the North Vietnamese. He’s a straight arrow. You know where the guy stands, even if you don’t like everything he stands for. And when he says he was in a war zone, you know the bullets were real.
Democrats’ more serious problem is their own candidate. First, there is the question of who it will be – either Senator Hillary Clinton or Senator Barak Obama. A year ago, Mrs. Clinton seemed a sure bet for the nomination and then the presidency. Democrats had grabbed the Congress in the 2006 elections. The war was going badly. Republican reputations and prospects were in the toilet. And George W. Bush had the lowest approval ratings of any sitting president in history.
Today, the political landscape has changed. Congressional Democrats have failed to end the war and recall the troops – in fact, have failed to accomplish much of anything except talk. Their approval ratings are lower than Mr. Bush’s. And the war – to the surprise of everyone (and the silly denials of Democratic leaders) – is actually going well. We seem to be winning and pacifying Iraq. The slam-dunk strategy of running against Mr. Bush’s war has been tossed into a cocked hat. Democrats now hope the economy will tank and the stock market will crash, to open the door for them in November. They weep crocodile tears over $4 a gallon gas and the sub-prime mortgage crisis, but otherwise, (as DeNiro might say) they have nah-thin.
The brightness of Democratic prospects a year ago motivated Senator Obama – first elected senator in 2004 – to try for the presidency, too. Unimpressed with Mrs. Clinton’s “inevitability”, and unintimidated by her vaunted “machine”, Mr. Obama used his impressive oratorical gifts and attractive persona to dazzle a party already grown weary of Mrs. Clinton’s strident tone and schoolmarm-ish personality. Although he’s green as a bean, Mr. Obama surged ahead with a string of victories until various gaffes – notably, the disclosure that his pastor, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, preaches radical racist hate under the rubric of Black Liberation Theology – stopped the Obama express-train and let Mrs. Clinton back into the race.
Democratic leaders want their candidates to stop cutting each other up – fearing that a divided party will drive them down to a disastrous defeat. If only Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama will stop throwing stones at one another (goes the official line), all will be well and the party will yet win.
Their problem goes much deeper, however. It is twofold: the “empty suit” and a retrogressive platform. The former evokes the worrisome fact that neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Obama has ever run anything beyond a political campaign or a Senate office. Lacking any real executive experience, both have pushed a stylistic approach to the presidency.
Mr. Obama preaches a message of hope and sweet reason. He would foreswear military action, sit down reasonably, and work things out with thugs who would have his head, given the chance. A child schooled in playground-dynamics could tell him that you just can’t reason with some people. Until all leaders are as enlightened as Mr. Obama, we shall have to keep our swords bright and our heads clear of delusions about the universal brotherhood of man.
Mrs. Clinton’s signature style touts her as ready to govern from Day One. She will act decisively when the red phone rings late at night. And (implicitly) she will combine these leadership skills with the wonderful emotive advantages of being a woman. She has shed a tear or two on the campaign trail to show how much she really cares. Those who refuse to accept her schizophrenic femininity can expect to be stomped by her attack machine. She is Xena the Warrior Princess in a pantsuit, wearing pastel lipstick and flashing more teeth than Jimmy Carter.
In truth, Mrs. Clinton has become Anyface, master of a thousand disguises. She has so many personas that the public can’t be sure which one is the real Hillary. Some strategists think this is good because people will think of the persona they like when they see her. But people might also identify her with the persona they hate, so the Anyface strategy is a crapshoot. The dice might come up either sevens or snake-eyes. (Do you feel lucky?)
There are signs that these stylized poses are wearing thin with the body politic. Against Mr. Obama’s naiveté and Mrs. Clinton’s posed “toughness”, Mr. McCain looks presidential – with an underlying toughness that tells voters he can’t be either snowed or snowballed. 70+ he may be, but you wouldn’t want to mess with him in a scrap. You can like Mr. McCain or not – and there are things about his past record I haven’t agreed with – but you know who the guy is. He won’t have reinvented himself next week or next month.
The platforms of both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are the more serious part of the Democrats’ problem. As George Wallace liked to say, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them. Indeed, some observers argue that the Democrats’ emphasis on style represents an attempt –conscious or not – to divert the public’s attention away from platforms they know won’t sell.
Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton are two of the most liberal senators in the country. Both want to reprise the glorious past – the halcyon days of the New Deal and the Great Society. They will raise taxes on “the rich” – really on taxpayers with incomes above $75,000. (Does that sound “rich” to you?) They want to expand government by $1 trillion a year in new spending – an amount the rich couldn’t fund even if you took all their income. This will greatly increase government control over our lives. Those new taxes will come from productive Americans who might have used that money to provide for their own families and futures, to build new businesses and create new jobs.
Clinton and Obama are a blast from the past. They might have flown “back in the day” when voters had golden memories of FDR’s Fireside Chats and only 20% were investors in the stock market. Today, half are market investors. A minority of voters identify themselves as Democrats; a small sliver calls itself “liberal”. By contrast, a large majority is fiscally conservative.
Socially, the two Democratic candidates show slight differences that vanish on close inspection. Mr. Obama tried to run a “post-racial” campaign as a reasonable candidate who happens to be black, instead of as a black candidate. But his affiliation with Pastor Wright has tarnished that attempt. Mrs. Clinton tried to show that being female won’t keep her from being a strong, effective president, but she has had to appeal to the boo-hoo feminist sisterhood at crucial moments. At day’s end, each is running as a candidate of an aggrieved special interest group. By doing so they have split their own party. The jury is out on whether either one can reunite the party to win the general election.
My assessment is that Humpty Dumpty cannot be reassembled. The Democrats have undone themselves with their own grievance politics. Poetic justice.