If all goes as expected this week, Barack Obama will go from being the Democratic presidential frontrunner to the presumptive nominee.
On Tuesday night, after likely wins in the Montana and South Dakota primaries, Obama holds a big rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he will speak from the very stage on which John McCain will give his Republican national convention acceptance speech in September.
The Clintons, who have dominated national Democratic politics since 1992, publicly lost control of what had been their party Saturday in Washington. There they made their long threatened move before the party’s rules committee to have delegations seated reflecting her “victories” in what her campaign and all the others had agreed beforehand were illegitimate primaries in Michigan and Florida.
Although Hillary Clinton had a plurality of backers on this committee, her move lost, with the clear majority of the committee siding with state party leaders from the states in question and Obama on a compromise that seats everyone, gives her an edge of 24 delegates from the two states, but moved Obama closer to the nomination.
There are some dark mutterings from the Clinton camp about appealing this to the party’s credentials committee. But on that committee, unlike the one that just handed the Clintons’ this defeat, the Obama campaign will actually have the edge going in.
Clinton did win the primary in Puerto Rico on Sunday, so the second half of a planned double-win going into the final week of the primaries and caucuses did come through. The Clintons’ insider machinations worked much better there. Bill Clinton, who pardoned Puerto Rican terrorists, is very popular in the Caribbean territory which has no votes in the general election. Helping the Clintons, PR party leaders changed Puerto Rico from a caucus to a primary. Why? Because the very last ditch argument for Hillary is that she has won the popular vote. Which talking point she arrives at by not counting the caucus states — which saw record turnouts — and then going on to count all her votes in the illegitimate Florida and Michigan primaries, and none for Obama in Michigan. (Where he wasn’t on the ballot, but where polls show he would have a slight lead over her today.)
It’s a non-serious argument, in any event. Clinton won her largest margin of popular vote victory in my state, California, where Obama, after closing in the polls, campaigned little in the face of Bill and Hillary making an all-out push in the state that President Clinton cultivated more than any other during his two terms in the White House. Obama went elsewhere during that crazy 23-state Super Tuesday to rack up some wins. Yet the Field Poll shows that Obama would defeat Clinton in California if the primary were held now, 51% to 38%. He also holds a huge lead over McCain.
So, back to reality.
Obama goes over the top with Montana and South Dakota and perhaps 20 more superdelegates. Then goes into what will be a more aggressive campaign mode against McCain and the Republicans than he’s displayed against Clinton, as you can tell from his decision to give his likely first speech as the presumptive Democratic nominee from the stage of the upcoming Republican convention.
Why aren’t the superdelegates bailing out Clinton? After all, the superdelegates were created to prevent an insurgent campaign from defending a powerful establishment choice. And Clinton was clearly the choice of the Democratic establishment going into this.
A few reasons, I think, why the superdelegates have broken heavily for Obama since he came from far behind in national polling to edge the Clintons ever so slightly in the coast-to-coast Super Tuesday contests of February 5th.
Obama has proved to be a much stronger candidate than most of them expected. He raises record-shattering amounts of money (via a new Internet paradigm that goes over the heads of traditional power brokers), draws huge crowds, is an excellent speaker, learns from mistakes, and has proved to be resilient in various crises.
Then, there are the well-known problems of the Clintons.
Before I wrote a thing about the 2008 presidential race, I seriously doubted Hillary Clinton could be elected president. Democratic leaders know her problems well. If they weren’t for her starting out, there was a reason. It was only when the consistent unpopularity of President Bush became apparent that I thought she could win.
But then new issues emerged, issues not played up by the media, and certainly not by Republicans, who by this point were out to try crack Obama and hope Hillary made it to the general election. Problems like the Clintons’ stonewalling over their amazing post-presidential wealth, their keeping secret over half a billion dollars in contributions to the Clinton Library (much apparently from Middle Eastern interests), and repeated misstatements about her experience. Even her past work for the Black Panthers law firm, undertaken as a young lawyer (a sore point for me, given that the Panthers murdered a family friend around the time she went to work for them) — something virtually unknown to the public — would be a general election problem.
Which is not to say that Obama does not have problems. He’s inexperienced, he’s exotic, he’s had some goofy friends. (Knowing Bill Ayers, incidentally, 40 years after his lunacy, is not the same as defending the guy when he was trying to blow up the Pentagon, to make Hillary’s problem of past radicalism clearer.)
Developer/fixer Tony Rezko? Probably not a problem. Obama’s name has barely surfaced in his corruption trial, despite fervent predictions on the hyperpartisan right. And John McCain, like many politicians, has problems of his own in that sort of area. The area being a zealous befriending financial supporter who gets caught. McCain, in fact, was criticized by the Senate Ethics Committee for questionable conduct with regard to his role with savings & loan scandal figure Charles Keating. (This was the scandal that ended the career of California’s Alan Cranston.)
Jeremiah Wright, as I wrote as soon as the controversy broke, is a significant problem for Obama, one he has not yet solved. Don’t expect a repeat of Wright’s National Press Club performance, however. He is under enormous peer pressure to do nothing more to scuttle the chances of the first black candidate with a real shot at the White House.
The white Catholic priest who mouthed off at Obama’s now former church about Hillary feeling “entitled” because she’s white? People are making a lot of hysterical statements on all sides in the heat of this campaign. And that’s before we get to two prominent — now, finally, former — clerical backers of John McCain, whose statements predate the campaign. One of whom, whose support McCain long sought, claimed that God caused Hitler to justifiably let loose the Holocaust in order to create the State of Israel.
McCain is the only Republican who can win in this electoral environment. He has the great credentials of a famous war hero, the great McCain family history in the Navy, the reputation of a maverick, and perhaps enough positioning away from that of the White House to overcome the Bush downdraft. He also, in this country in which a strong majority believes the Iraq War to have been a mistake — notwithstanding the relative success of the surge strategy — has the great talking point that the surge was in fact his idea. And that he is not responsible for many of the mistakes made for years in Iraq following the successful invasion of 2003.
Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards (especially before he moved farther left to try to retain relevance in the race) each would have beaten the other Republican candidates, though Clinton would have had some problems due to extreme baggage.
Rudy Giuliani started out very well, as I reported. But he didn’t improve much beyond his standard lecture, which he had delivered for very big money in the wake of 9/11. His Bernie Kerik problem, which I thought the McCain campaign would have to drive home or, failing that, the Democrats, brought his standing in the polls down faster than I expected. Fred Thompson is a nice guy, and a friend of this publication, but too conservative for the general election and, as his Tonight Show announcement made clear, not a very good candidate.
Mitt Romney was also too conservative for the general election, and had the added problem of having largely reinvented his politics in order to run for president. Mike Huckabee is a much better campaigner, and would have had a shot. But America is not going to elect a president who doesn’t believe in scientific evolution.
So we have a fascinating campaign ahead, between the best candidates in either party, notwithstanding their flaws. Obama also has to patch things up in his party, as McCain is continuing to do in his party. We’ll find out what the Clintons want, and what Obama and other Democratic leaders — let’s not forget that Obama has the backing of more of his Senate colleagues than does the former first lady — are willing to give them.