Monday, April 21, 2008

Trial by fire?

There are two schools of thought about the extended primary race for the Democrats' presidential nomination: one is that the slugfest will keep McCain out of the news and test the ultimate Democrat nominee's vulnerability to the rigors of the general campaign; the other is that the ongoing battle weakens the Democrats' eventual standard bearer. I used to lean to the former position, thinking that the process could result in a battle-hardened candidate primed to take on the GOP in the fall. Now, though, I think the primary fight may be doing the Republicans' work for them, supplying the McCain campaign with ammunition free of charge without preparing the candidate against the battles to come.

Much of the problem, I think, is that many of Barack Obama's vulnerabilities that have been exposed in recent weeks will matter more in the general election than they have in the primary fight. The "bitter" comment, the Bill Ayers connection and the Reverend Wright controversy have hurt him a bit among Democrats, but not enough to cripple his campaign. That's probably because many Democrats agree with the Thomas Frank-style thesis that Obama voiced about voters turning to social issues and voting against their economic interests out of bitterness, and find Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers to be, if not actually sympathetic figures, at least understandable. But the electorate at large is likely to be far more leery of cultural condescension, angry black ministers and former terrorists turned Marxist college professors.

I expected Obama's duplicity on trade -- telling voters one thing and the Canadian government something entirely different -- to be a bigger deal in the primary, but it hasn't stuck as an issue. That may be because Hillary Clinton was apparently playing the same game, so was in no position to exploit the matter.

The end result may be that the Democrats' primary process, in a year that was supposed to belong to the donkey party, is actually selecting for and reinforcing the final candidate's (almost certainly Barack Obama) vulnerability to the GOP in the fall.

Meanwhile, John McCain, a man possessed of many qualities worth criticizing, is having a relatively easy time of it. If Rev. Wright is worth mentioning (and he is), why isn't McCain's connection with John Hagee deserving of some air time? Then there's the certain Republican nominee's hostility to free speech and his love of ever-bigger government.

These and more will almost certainly come out as issues in the fall, but the information will have much less time to take a toll than do comparable points for Obama (or for the doomed Hillary Clinton).

I'm as guilty as anybody of selective attention. I actually find Barack Obama to be ... well, not the best; let's say, the least bad of the three remaining major-party candidates (though I very much doubt I'll vote for a major-party candidate this year). He's the most credibly anti-war, and he doesn't appear to be overtly hostile to civil liberties But I've written far more about Obama than about McCain, even though I'm technically one of the Arizona senator's constituents. Obama has been in the news and the subject of scrutiny, while McCain has largely flown under the radar. So I've focused my attention on what's in the spotlight, leaving Mr. Maverick to do his thing unmolested.

I'll see if I can't make up some of the slack in the weeks to come.

But honestly, I think the Democrats have taken what seemed like a sure thing for them and, without much outside help, turned it into a competitive race.



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