As the long, arduous, battle for the Democratic nomination inspires comparisons with the trench warfare of World War I, both candidates are struggling to stay positive and “on message.” Despite his well-received speech on race, Barack Obama is still trying to explain how he could sit through so many vituperative Reverend Wright sermons and apparently never object. (Particularly problematic is the post September 11 sermon. Whether or not Obama was in the pews Sunday September 16, he was already a State Senator from Illinois. Obama should have been outraged that his pastor chose to blame America for being attacked just days after America was attacked). And despite enjoying her opponent’s controversy-filled March, Hillary Clinton is now trying to explain how she could remember a warm, First-Lady-like welcome in Bosnia as a difficult landing under a hail of gunfire.
The controversies must make both candidates pine for the good-old days of early 20th-century campaigning, when candidates went around the country saying the same thing again and again. Crowds did not expect new twists, new content, new explanations – but actually wanted to hear a William Jennings Bryan, a Woodrow Wilson, do his well-practiced thing. As the advent of radio in the 1920s started emphasizing the new, the fresh, the unrehearsed, Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate in 1928, missed what he called those “happier speaking times.” Once upon a time, Hoover sighed, candidates “could repeat the same speech with small variations…. Then paragraphs could be polished up, epigrams used again and again, and eloquence invented by repeated tryouts.”
But the candidates are not just stumbling because, as Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed “the millions of words” they are forced to launch into the ether week after week. The two latest controversies strike at the heart of the respective candidate’s identities, zeroing in on particular vulnerabilities. I call this the “O-Ring Factor,” named after the rubber seals whose failures contributed to the first shuttle disaster. As the late scientist Richard Feynman brilliantly demonstrated at the time, the O-Rings failed during the Challenger’s launch only because of the particular combination of the Florida winter frost and the improper seals. In other circumstances, the launch would have been flawless, the O-Rings would have withstood the pressure.
In that spirit, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy is hurting Obama not, as the Senator suggests, because of race, but because Obama is so unknown – and so defined by his words not his actions. Obama’s passivity amid Wright’s invective, and the disconnect between Obama’s words and his preacher’s teachings, emphasize just how little is known about Obama, how he is far more defined by his rhetoric than his record. With Americans trying to figure out just who he is, individuals who have mentored him, leaders who endorse him, take on added significance.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s problem is that she is, perhaps, too well known – or defined. Her unduly heroic description of her Bosnia adventure raises questions about how serious her record was as First Lady. But, even worse, it resurrects all those worries about both Bill Clinton’s and Hillary Clinton’s elusive relationship with the truth. Hillary Clinton’s camp responded that Obama called himself a constitutional law professor when he was merely a lecturer, and took credit for passing legislation that never left committee. But Obama is not the one with the credibility gap, Hillary is. John McCain could stumble on some details during his Middle East trip without appearing to be an ignoramus; he would be much more vulnerable if he slipped up when talking about the economy.
Similarly, the Obama camp’s delight in producing a photograph of Bill Clinton greeting Jeremiah Wright was meaningless. The Clintons are in no way defined by Obama’s pastor – and if the campaign wants Americans to believe that Obama was being reasonable in keeping relations with Wright, trying to make Bill Clinton’s meeting with Wright appear controversial or more meaningful than it was is not helpful to Obama’s case.
All candidates have their strengths and their weaknesses. Inevitably, they will misspeak, controversies will erupt, mistakes, as they like to say, will be made. Ultimately, successful campaigns, in addition to minimizing the errors, will learn to respond quickly, and, with any luck, make sure that the gaffes don’t exacerbate existing problems, that amid the ever-mounting pressure of a campaign, the candidate’s particular O-Rings will hold, at least until the finish.