Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Can Any Democrat Beat McCain in November?

A couple of days ago there was a lot of buzz about a poll that asked voters who they would support in the presidential election if McCain were running against Obama or Hillary. (The headlines trumpeted that Obama had a better chance.) Forget that the results were within the margin of error; the whole premise of the poll was bogus. Asking voters who they'd support against alternative opponents in the future is about as useful as asking them what kind of sandwich filling they plan to order for lunch next November. By asking the question repeatedly, you might get some useful trend data, but as a snapshot it's close to useless. The discussion should be about vulnerabilities - what ways each candidate is vulnerable given various situations that might occur next fall, such as a full-blown recession, a national security threat, and so on - and possible ways around those vulnerabilities. And it's all very speculative.

So to start. The Democratic party has a lot going for it in the upcoming presidential election:

* The current Republican president is widely hated.

* The war in Iraq is very unpopular, and defacto Republican nominee John McCain supports it.

* The economy is heading into a recession, always a problem for the incumbents.

However, a savvy John McCain could turn those negatives into positives:

* McCain's strengths are largely in areas where Bush is weak: McCain is extremely qualified to do the job, has a well-deserved record as an intelligent, capable leader, is a plain-speaker, has demonstrated solid values in his strong opposition to torture, and has a history of bi-partisan cooperation.

* The war in Iraq is a fact of life, and requires a qualified person to deal with it. In a McCain-Obama race, McCain has such an enormous argument against Obama that I can't see Obama prevailing if the war or national security become the key election issue. Obama has scored points with a lot of Democrats through his record of opposition to the war, but that's all backward-looking; in the real campaign, Americans will want to know what the candidates can do in the future - and Obama is weak on experience and practical ideas. If Hillary is the candidate, she has problems on the war too: it's difficult to see how Hillary could use the war as a wedge against McCain since her Sentate votes helped lead to it, but she could highlight the differences between herself and McCain on how to get out of it, and how fast - I think Hillary could win that one.

* The recession, too, is a fact of life requiring qualified management, and economics is a weakness for both McCain and Obama. Both will probably argue that the president needs to hire qualified economists to run things, but doesn't himself need to know the details. (In this vein, the latest joke/insult/commentary about Hillary is that President Obama should make her his chief of staff.) I don't know how this will play out. I think Bill Clinton's deep insight into the economy was necessary to his steady guidance of it. Economic crises arise on a regular basis and need to be dealt with. Hillary has a big advantage in her grasp of economic realities, but it's unclear whether it would translate into votes.

McCain has real charisma. He has appeared on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show so many times that I feel like I know him. His appeal crosses parties and ideologies from the youth to the old, from the left to the right. He could pick up independents and even some Democrats. The demographics that support Hillary tend to be lower income people because those people are worried about their economic future and they want a qualified manager who can improve conditions for them: those people might see their interests served better by McCain than Obama. From the other side, it is not at all clear that Obama supporters would be willing to support Hillary if she were the nominee. The hate is so vitriolic that even venerable economist Paul Krugman is the target of it because he questioned the attacks on Hillary.

Another issue is the timing of the two parties in choosing a candidate. McCain has it in the bag, which is a bit of a minus for him in that the ongoing Democratic fight gets more air time, but is a huge plus in that he can start campaigning now while the Democrats are still tearing themselves to shreds. The ongoing Democratic race tends to highlight the weaknesses of both candidates, rather than their strengths. It is also pushing them farther to the left than might be popular in the election: Hillary, in particular, tried to position herself in a more centrist way for the election, but has been forced left in the primary.

But the Democrats have some things going for them too: The religious right isn't happy with McCain, and given Obama's preacher-in-a-revival tent style, some might like him enough to at least stay home on election day. In a debate, Hillary could beat McCain. (Obama is not a strong debater.) And many more people are voting in Democratic primaries than in Republican.

Perhaps McCain's biggest weakness, at least from the perspective of today, is that he can fairly be called a warmonger. This video is so effective:

But an anti-war message is tricky. One, it doesn't resonate with everyone. Two, the decision to go to war was made long ago and the practical questions are about what to do now that we're there. McCain may be able to change his stance from appearing pro-war to appearing practical in how long it will take to get out of it. And he has a point that there's no quick fix: Hillary was trying to explain this when her stance was twisted bizarrely into her being for the war and she was forced to back down.

I'm afraid that Obama will not be able to beat McCain. Obama is too inexperienced: he lacks substance. He's had a free ride from the Democrats, getting away with teleprompter speeches and softball interviews. I used to think that Hillary could beat McCain, but the character assassination by her own party has been so effective that I'm no longer sure.


No comments: