Gil Troy, The National Post, Thursday, August 28, 2008
As they are gathered in Denver this week to nominate a presidential candidate, Democrats are feeling a bit woozy — and it is not from altitude sickness. Convention-goers are realizing that the conventional wisdom about this election is wrong. For months we have heard that 2008 will be a Democratic year, with Americans fed up with George W. Bush ready to repudiate any Republican candidate. Most reporters, blinded by Obamania, have treated Barack Obama’s lead in the polls over John McCain as permanent, predicting an easy victory for the young, charismatic Illinois Senator over the ageing, pro-Iraq war imperialist.
Yet, the Obamomentum has slowed. Obama’s poll ratings have softened. The criticism is mounting. John McCain suddenly looks like a contender. The Democrats have a race on their hands — thanks to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s lingering anger, the world’s constant chaos and Barack Obama’s lost summer of missed opportunities.
Presidential campaigns mix the high and low deliciously — high stakes and noble ideals combine with base motives and lowball tactics. Obama’s Clinton conundrum — how to handle Hillary — reflects this range of motives that makes politics so compelling. Many women were bitterly disappointed that the strongest female presidential contender in their lifetimes failed. Their discontent mixes with the Clintons’ personal pique at this upstart who ruined their plans to create a significant anti-Obama sentiment. The more than 17 million votes Hillary Clinton amassed in her campaign for the nomination demonstrated a tremendous political force that Obama must manage.
On Tuesday night, Clinton gave an effective speech about party unity, but the “catharsis” she nonetheless demanded through a roll call vote last night stole the spotlight from Obama, and injected a Clintonesque psychodrama Democrats do not need barely two months before election day. Every interview with Bill or Hillary Clinton, every journalistic reading of their flat tones or hostile body language, diminishes Obama.
Even before the convention, reality intruded on Obama’s campaign. Russia’s invasion of Georgia — and John McCain’s forceful denunciation of Russian aggression — reminded Americans about the treacherous world they face. Even the summer’s feel-good story, the Olympics, showcased America’s growing rival, China. Here, the conventional wisdom applies:
The more Americans worry about world affairs, the more they will prefer the experienced war hero, John McCain, to the young upstart. The foreign policy concern is not that Obama is black — but that he might be too green.
While Obama may blame Hillary and Georgia for his softening polls, he contributed to this slide himself. After a nearly flawless winter and spring, Obama made three basic mistakes this summer. Like too many of us in vacation-mode, he spent too much time planning his grand trip abroad without properly tending to business back home. The European tour stirred loyalists — and non-voting foreigners — but struck many swing voters as premature and presumptuous.
At the same time, Obama fumbled the traditional post-primary move to the centre. Lured by the money streaming in from private individuals, he violated a core principle by spurning public financing for his campaign. Meanwhile, he allowed other, constructive adjustments on national security and energy to be dismissed as flip-flops. Obama needed to state forcefully that playing to the centre is not always pandering — and is an essential move when trying to unite 300 million people behind one leader.
This failure to embrace his centrism played into his larger mistake — he did nothing this summer to advance the narrative, to give Americans a new reason to vote for him. In the absence of a new plot dictated by Obama, the growing case of buyer’s remorse dominated the headlines, and shaped the pre-convention plot lines.
Just as it was a mistake to count out McCain prematurely, it would be foolish to underestimate Obama’s chances. Four years ago, a self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” wowed the Democratic National Convention–and most Americans — with the greatest convention speech since William Jennings Bryan’s populist Cross of Gold speech in 1896. That 2004 speech catapulted Barack Obama into the Democratic stratosphere.
Obama plans to accept the nomination tonight on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s now-legendary “I have a dream” speech. Obama actually has the skill to match that historic moment. The race is indeed on — but in order to win it, Barack Obama will have to use his tremendous assets, both personal and political, to overcome his disappointing summer. –
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.