The Washington Times
Several strands of conventional wisdom are gathering into an early narrative line on the 2008 presidential race. That being the case, it’s not too early to start picking them apart.
The story so far: The entry of the charisma-drenched Barack Obama into the Democratic presidential race has overturned Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presumptive smooth sailing to the nomination, and the Clinton people are running scared. Mrs. Clinton is also taking on water among Democratic primary voters for her failure to come out in opposition to the Iraq war. Her position has been dangerously anti-anti-war. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, front-runner John McCain is at a moment of high peril because of his poll-contrary support for President Bush’s Iraq surge, and the long-term political prospects of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have also been an Iraq casualty.
I agree that Mr. Obama is a rock star, that he wants to be president, and that of all American politicians except Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain, he is the most likely to be president some day. The only people who rank near him on the presidential probability scale are Jeb Bush, who is wisely sitting out 2008, and John Edwards, for whom 2008 is the make-or-break moment. But that doesn’t mean President Obama has to be a January 2009 happening.
It makes good sense for Mr. Obama to run even if he doesn’t get or expect to get the nomination. The experience of running is invaluable, and many eventual nominees are candidates who have run for president more than once. The contacts you make nationally and the network of funders you develop are seeds in the ground you can cultivate over time. You get a real taste of scrutiny by the national media, which often takes the form of zesty propagation of the opposition research your opponents have done on you. You need that stuff out anyway, and you need to know how to deal with sharp questioning.
What does not make sense is the notion that it’s now or never for Mr. Obama: that his charisma is a product of his freshness, which can only fade as he develops a record as a senator; that what’s attractive about him is that people can see in him what they wish to see, but only because he is not yet well known. He’s got plenty of time, and there is no reason he can’t convert the initial swoon into a long-term relationship.
As for Mrs. Clinton, the notion that she was going to coast to the nomination was always fanciful. That’s just not how the Democratic Party works. The Republican tradition is to nominate the person whose turn it is, but even Republicans tend to rough the frontrunner up before they ratify him. Democrats aren’t nearly so orderly, and the contest is almost always serious. One of the more impressive but still underappreciated achievements of recent presidential politics was Bill Clinton’s ability to ward off a primary challenge in 1996; Jimmy Carter couldn’t pull that off in 1980.
Yes, to the extent that Mrs. Clinton was planning to hang back in Iowa and New Hampshire, then come on strong with overwhelming African-Americans support in South Carolina, she has some revising to do. But the notion that she wasn’t going to face a serious contest for the nomination wouldn’t pass the John Edwards test, and that was true long before Mr. Obama stepped up.
As for Mr. McCain, one must not forget that he is running for the Republican nomination, where the preference (if not the expectation) is still for winning the war. Mr. McCain has been a consistent advocate for that point of view, but he has been neither an architect of the war planning nor an administrator of its execution, and he is seen as neither. If, miracle of miracles, the surge works and people see it as such, obviously it will not hurt Mr. McCain, but it’s still Mr. Bush’s war. If the surge fails, Mr. McCain will be the one to say so, which he will quite plausibly put in the context of too little, too late. Americans don’t like the way Iraq has gone, but the idea that the enterprise was doomed to fail is a strange-bedfellows characteristic of the minority view that opposed the war from the outset and of Bush loyalists who don’t like the results but are unwilling to lay blame on the president or his advisors; it’s not mainstream opinion.
Miss Rice is closer to the president’s policy than Mr. McCain, of course, but neither was she a general nor secretary of defense. Even as more Americans in 2006 were forming the impression that the war was going off the rails, her job approval rating remained high. The idea that any political future she has in mind will be doomed by a feast of recriminations over Iraq is a left-wing revenge fantasy. She is just as likely to emerge stronger rather than weaker from facing down the stepped-up interrogation she receives from the majority-Democratic Congress. Which is not to say that she is necessarily running for anything any time soon.
See, it’s never too early to debunk.