According to the New York Times, Barack Obama’s new strategy in the wake of a double-digit defeat in Pennsylvania is to ignore Hillary Clinton’s persistent presence in the race and focus squarely on John McCain. Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod was quoted as saying, “There is a sense of urgency about the time we’re losing and a sense of urgency that we not savage each other to the benefit of Senator McCain.” Indeed, Clinton’s name occurred only once in Obama’s concession speech Tuesday night, whereas McCain’s occurred six times. In other words, Obama has begun presenting himself as the presumptive nominee immediately after losing his once famed momentum and also, judging by the cable television networks’ coverage of his latest defeat, the media-blessed heir apparency. McCain and Clinton should be hugging themselves with glee to behold this ill-starred move.
At this point, both Democrats are relying on superdelegates to determine who enters the general election in November. It’s mathematically impossible for Clinton to advance with her current number of pledged superdelegates, 255 to Obama’s 232, and so she’s relying on converting enough to her side and swaying the unpledged ones. Her electability argument just got stronger in the last 72 hours, with liberal pundits worrying that Obama’s chances in the big show are fast becoming slim and none. He lost overwhelmingly among whites, Boomers, women, trade unionists, non-college educated, and Catholic voters in Pennsylvania — a doggedly “blue” state where his notorious “cling” gaffe was said to not even weigh that heavily upon voters’ consciences. And with 20% of registered Democrats still vowing to declare for McCain in the event that their preferred party candidate loses the nomination (a contingency that benefits the GOP either way), Obama seems that saddest of political beasts, a marginal front-runner. John Judis has come out with a minatory piece in The New Republic suggesting that Obama’s numbers are so bad they hint at “the outlines of the old George McGovern coalition that haunted the Democrats during the 70’s and 80’s.” That’s the kind of ding-dong that should proscribe his acting as if the wicked witch were already dead. So why is he?
First, because it’s his least bad option. As Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post reported on the same day as that Times article ran, Obama’s quandary in continuing in the primary mindset is as follows. If he goes negative against Clinton “he risks undermining the premise of his candidacy;” if he refrains, “he underscores Clinton’s argument that he will not be able to beat a ‘Republican attack machine’ sure to greet him this summer.” So he is looking to bypass that minefield entirely by preemptively strafing the Republican attack machine. Clinton only gains politically from Obama’s self-inflicted wounds, never from the ones she tries to inflict herself, which make her look sour and desperate to voters. Obama hopes she will continue to fruitlessly slash away at him and blunt her own temporary edge. If he can convince the electorate that she’s a has-been waging a contest that now exists solely in her own mind, he might precipitate the “bandwagon” effect in which waffling Dems rush to support him for the sake of partisanship.
However, the trouble with this gambit is that pretending he hasn’t got an intramural fight left to win is a defensive posture more redolent of “Anybody But Bush” than “Yes We Can.” Obama’s style has never been to run on the threat that the alternative would be unspeakably worse; the “lesser of two evils” argument is a patented trademark of the Clinton family. Moreover, Clinton is not above scoring points for McCain if it means taking them away from Obama: Recall her “3 a.m.” ad and her comments about who’s ready to be commander-in-chief. Also, and perhaps most important, there is no reason to assume that McCain will sit idly by and suffer Obama’s forthcoming salvos without returning fire, making the long march from here to the Denver convention one in which the naturally non-belligerent junior senator from Illinois is buffeted by two battle-tested bruisers.
But there’s another element at play in Obama’s decision to prematurely adopt the mantle of inevitability: arrogance. He’s done earning the right to be president already. A catastrophic debate performance and not a few pressing questions about the company he keeps are mere “distractions” from the real issues. What hasn’t the vice of presumption cost him? It led him to ignore the molten topic of his gruesome pastor until it was too late (and note how no exit poll follows up its query about Jeremiah Wright with one about Obama’s speech on race; it seems so long ago that the 21st century witnessed its own Gettysburg Address). It led him to downplay his relationship with the domestic terrorist William Ayers to the point of absurdity. And now it’s leading him to do what his still very much relevant rival did less than a year ago: assume that his past accomplishments will carry him right over the finish line. He really must be the candidate of hope to bet on that.
Michael Weiss is the New York Editor of Pajamas Media. His blog is Snarksmith.