Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How Barack will win

I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately, so it seemed worthwhile to try and organize my thoughts a bit and see if I can’t make the case here. My support of Barack should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, but lately a ton of you have been asking (mostly with an air of resignation) whether the Democratic race isn’t already over. After all, Hillary seems to be holding steady in the polls in the high 40s (a few weeks ago she’d even crested 50%) and Barack doesn’t seem to be making a dent.

I’d love to have Barack in the lead in those polls, but I don’t see them as really indicative of much. National polls — especially at this stage in the game — are popularity contests that gauge little more than name recognition and comfort. Hard as it is to believe for us political junkies, the rest of the country is only vaguely aware that 47 different men (and one woman) are running for President right now (at least I think that’s the number, I lost count). So when a national poll asks who you’re likely to vote for for President, the responses are really more reflective of the voters’ overall comfort with Clinton as a potential candidate, not a referendum on whether Barack should win.

More important than the national polls are the polls in the early states: Iowa and New Hampshire to be precise. Right now Iowa is awfully tight – the latest polls I’ve seen have Hillary and Barack within a few points of each other, within the margin of error. (You can see this poll and all others aggregated at Slate’s magnificent Election Scorecard if you’re interested.) And while New Hampshire is less tight – Hillary leads Barack 40-20 there – that’s less of a concern. Remember 2003? At this point in Iowa, Dean led Kerry by double digits, and was up in New Hampshire by 40 percentage points. A 3rd place finish in Iowa (thanks to a rejuvenated Kerry campaign, a masterful push by Edwards, blistering attacks on Dean by Gephardt and a complete implosion by Dean) and the New Hampshire lead evaporated, and Dean was toast.

Which brings me back to how Barack will win.

Back in January I asked whether this country really wanted to keep the White House in the family:

Look for everyone on both sides of the aisle to ask rhetorically whether we want to keep the Presidency in the family. As in, “since 1988, we’ve had two families control the Presidency: Bush and Clinton. Do you want to give those families another 8 years in charge?” (It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it: if Hillary were to win, that would mean that two families controlled the White House for 28 consecutive years.) I think that’s a surprisingly powerful argument against Hillary, regardless of how you feel about her, her politics, or her suitability for the office.

Surprisingly, I haven’t seen this issue get raised in any concentrated effort. That’s not to say it’s not being discussed – it most certainly is. But given the earlier dynamics – that the race is still early for most observers – I think we’ve not yet seen this point reach its crescendo. And once it does, Hillary will have a very hard time fighting it – because, as I observed in January, this is not a critique of her credentials, or of her suitability for the office. It’s much more about how we see ourselves. And if the drum gets beat loudly enough, often enough, I think you’ll find larger and larger groups of people looking for an alternative. (Come to think of it, 36 years is the even more dramatic number: Bush’s Dad was in the White House starting in 1980… and a Bush or Clinton has been there ever since.) If she’s elected, nearly half of the country will have lived in a time when only a Bush or Clinton occupied the White House. That will, I believe, strike many people as instinctively wrong.

Lest it seem that I’m ignoring Sen. Edwards, I’m not. But I think he’ll play a spoiler role in Iowa – he is ratcheting up the attacks on Senator Clinton, at precisely the time that she’s showing ever so slight signs of pressure. (Her waffle on drivers licenses for illegals runs the risk of becoming this season’s “I invented the Internet” meme – completely unfair, but it’s a thread that reinforces preexisting concerns about the Clintonian triangulation that drove Clinton’s critics up the wall.) Let’s not forget that Edwards was a legendary trial lawyer, known for his ability to synthesize complex cases into a compelling, comprehensible narrative. If he can chip away at Clinton’s armor – and I think he may well sow seeds of doubt as people look ever closer at whether or not she should be president – I think the most likely result is that he opens the door for Barack to surge ahead. (See Taegan’s thoughts on this as well – I agree with his take.)

I won’t go so far as to suggest Barack is a “darling” of the Republican crowd – but for an unabashedly liberal Democrat he sure is garnering lots of praise in unexpected places. I recently pointed out praise from Reagan and Bush speechwriter (and WSJ columnist) Peggy Nooonan but it was this month’s article in The Atlantic by Andrew Sullivan (yes, that Andrew Sullivan) that demonstrates the role Obama can (and I think will) play in 2008 and beyond.

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

… If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.

In the aftermath of the Bush Administration, Democrats are desperate to win. Right now, casual observers assume that a Clinton is our best chance at doing that. I disagree. I see her as a polarizing figure – one who would energize the Republican base, and not only make the Presidential contest tighter, I think she’d hurt candidates down the ballot as a result. In a tight race, she could easily mean the difference between picking up additional seats in Congress and losing ground we made up in 2006.

Contrast that reality (I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that there are countless Republicans who have a very personal dislike of Hillary Clinton) with the reality that more Republicans favor Barack than any other Democrat. For those voters in the primaries who are momentum voters – they go with who they think can win – I think Barack becomes a consensus choice in much the same way that Kerry’s win in Iowa helped him run the table and win the nomination.

A lot has to go right for Barack to be our party’s nominee. But he’s raised more than enough money to be competitive. I think everyone who will have an opinion about Hillary already has an opinion – and in many cases, those opinions will make her election in November of next year more difficult. As more Democrats pay attention to the presidential race, they’ll take a hard look at her and look at their alternatives.

If Barack is our nominee – and I’m confident he will be – then, to borrow the words of a Republican I admire, it’s his race to lose. That makes for a very exciting year.

We will elect our next president one year from today. Let’s get to it.


  1. Rick, my wife has been making a similar case for quite some time. She says out of 303 million people in the U.S. we can not find another president besides a Clinton or a Bush.

    -Jeff O'Hara

  2. Interesting take, Rick. I think you're right that it's really early and anything is possible. It's not clear to me how a candidate gains momentum going into Iowa and NH at this point.

  3. [...] Rick’s take is here - and see this complimentary take by Tom Schaller. I see a lot of merit in it - but am not as convinced, particularly about how many people will be swayed by the ‘dynasty’ issue. These are some things I’d consider in reading the tea leaves - and I’m sure there’s a lot more I don’t know about: [...]

  4. I hope you are right! Go Barack!!!!

  5. I hope you're wrong. The best hope for the Republicans in 2008 is to have Hillary on the ticket.