Obama as McGovern
Consider Barack Obama. He is running against a long, unpopular war, a solid majority of young people support his campaign, he supports universal health care, and almost the entire print and television media support him. According to many, perhaps most, political experts, that sounds like a winning combination.
Not really. It sounds more like George McGovern. Obama has widened his base among hardcore, ultra-liberal Democrats—but has probably narrowed his base of support among moderates and undecideds. Obama’s core of support is similar to McGovern’s: African-Americans and elitist white liberals.
Obama’s campaign has had some surprising parallels to McGovern’s. Both endured tough nominating fights, which alienated significant parts of the Democrat party. Both represented the most liberal section segment of their party, and each made ending the war their campaign’s signature issue.
McGovern became known as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion and acid.” It’s not hard to imagine Obama becoming the candidate of Jeremiah Wright, appeasement, and unpatriotism. In many ways, Obama is even more liberal and vurnerable than McGovern.
Barack Obama’s biggest attraction to many slightly-left-of-center moderates was the fact that he was a nonthreatening, sympathetic black man who they could vote for and feel good about themselves. He wasn’t a radical like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton who just made white liberals feel guilty—he was a nice friendly Bill Clinton Lite, or maybe Bill Clinton Dark. Obama was the incarnation of Spike Lee’s “magic negro”—he seemed to exist only to help whites feel good about themselves, without forcing them to really do anything. He represented a new era in racial politics.
Not anymore. Now, it’s hard to see Barack Obama as a friendly moderate. His friendship with Jeremiah Wright changed all that. To some, the relationship isn’t an issue, and their affection for Obama is no less than before. But no one can now claim that Obama is fundamentally different from Jackson or Sharpton—he obviously sees the world in terms of racial black and white.
Americans don’t like the Iraq War, and want to see it end soon, but they also want to win, and they want to be safe from foreign enemies. (Americans often expect impossibilities from their presidential candidates). Obama has firmly staked out the no-win position on Iraq, has received Hamas’ endorsement, and fanatically insists on negotiations between America and it’s adversaries. There is a fine line between “diplomacy” and outright “appeasement”—and Obama is creeping very, very close to that line.
Obama will certainly not be the electoral disaster McGovern was—but who could? McGovern chose Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, which wouldn’t have been so bad except for Eagleton’s history of electroshock treatment, which forced McGovern to hastily replace him. (Although things could have been worse for McGovern. Mike Gravel was seriously considered as a running mate). McGovern was an unprecedentedly awful candidate.
But Obama may share one of McGovern’s most devastating attributes—his appeal is largely regional, and the regions in which he is popular aren’t very important ones. Obama (like McGovern) isn’t getting very much Southern support—but he also lost the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire primaries by significant margins. Perhaps those Democrats who supported Hillary in those contests will flock to Obama in the general election—but the voters of these important swing states don’t seem to like Obama much. If even a quarter of them stay home next November, then Obama’s presidential aspirations would be ruined.
November is a long way off, and maybe Obama can overcome some of his difficulties (and even though Obama has had some problems, he and McCain remain more or less tied in the polls). But it is clear that Obama has some major weaknesses, and those who would coronate him as America’s next president are ridiculously premature. Obama has some major strengths—his youth, looks, and charm—but also some crippling weaknesses.