Monday, May 12, 2008

Courage and the Fall

With Barack Obama looking set for a ~30 point thrashing in West Virginia tomorrow, I figure it can't hurt to kick off the negative news cycle for him a little early.

Accordingly, I'm offering an incomplete list of what I see as Obama's important political weaknesses going into the General:

1. He sometimes lacks the courage of his (liberal) convictions. This piece in the Times is instructive. Obama is a formidable politician, an excellent speaker, and a world-class organization builder, but he also has positions about public policy--positions that have been articulated in his books and his previous campaigns for office. Some of Obama's positions, like opposing the war, have carried him to national prominence. Others, like supporting gun control or taking a nuanced position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, are seen as impediments to Obama's general election campaign. His approach to these latter problem areas has been to blame the staff or obfuscate his thinking into hawkish dogma. This is beneath Obama's dignity, opens him up to flip-flopping charges, and sacrifices an opportunity to put his rhetorical gifts to use in reframing the issue. Let's have a debate about gun control in the context of policing a city like Chicago (rather than duck hunting or warding off bears). At the very least, Obama should take ownership of his earlier views and explain forthrightly what happened to change his mind. (He has actually done this, quite effectively, in explaining why he supported a gas tax holiday eight years ago, so we know he knows how.)

2. He frequently passes up opportunities to set the terms of debate. In response to John Edwards' health care proposal, Obama crafted a thoughtful plan that is less universal but much more likely to survive the Fire Swamp that is the general election and the legislative process. Reacting to the Jeremiah Wright foofaraw, Obama gave a widely-praised speech about race. After Clinton embraced McCain's gas tax holiday, Obama found his voice again denouncing the plan as a textbook Washington gimmick. Asked about Senator McCain's invocation of Hamas's statement of support, Obama branded McCain's tactics "offensive" and suggested that the Senator from Arizona has lost his bearings . . . . There's a pattern here, and it's not a good one. John McCain would very much prefer to talk about Obama's feelings regarding Jeremiah Wright, Hamas, and gasoline prices; Obama would presumably prefer to talk McCain's feelings about the war (and the future wars McCain might wish to start), torture, surveillance, Cindy's tax returns, investment in infrastructure, the state of the economy, the appointment of lobbyists to high-level positions, etc. Obama has allowed the coverage of McCain's (and Clinton's) preferred set of issues to dominate the media; that dynamic quite simply cannot continue.

3. He refuses to pander to the press. If Obama were going up against Mitt Romney, this wouldn't be an issue. But Obama faces John McCain in the general election--a man who has made an entire political career out of snowing the press giving journalists all the access and donuts they so richly deserve. Obama has made an unfortunate habit of antagonizing his traveling press during the primary. Surely as the sun will rise, that hostile relationship will lead to a harsh comeuppance in the General. It's a huge political liability that can be completely erased with a snack budget and regularly scheduled press conferences.

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