Thursday, May 01, 2008Many people I know are worried about the presidential nominating contest. For some reason it has become my appointed task to cheer people up when they get discouraged. I don't know how it became my job, given that traditionally I am a doomsayer, but life takes bizarre turns. Obama's campaign appears to be losing steam in the national and key state polls due to Wright's gratuitous re-appearance on the public scene. While I don't think the effects will be long-lasting, it is quite possible it will result in his defeat in Indiana. This changes nothing, as the contest has been virtually over since Ohio and Texas (which I did not realize until a few weeks ago, having failed to run the delegate numbers before then).
Having said that, the specific concern that has been raised to me is that Obama refuses to "fight back." If only he would be more aggressive with Clinton, if only he would respond in kind, she would be defeated much more easily. This is almost certainly true, but it is also irrelevant. Obama is not running to become the Democratic nominee - he is running to become President. And unloading on Clinton is not the way to make that happen.
First, Obama is attacking Clinton, albeit subtly in public and more aggressive through lit drops (which are way, way tougher than anything he says on the stump). He isn't really going to work on her the way she is on him because a full-force attack risks alienating her supporters in the very way she is alienating his. I wrote many, many moons ago that Clinton was in a strategic bind because she could not attack Obama without forfeiting black support in the general. Which is precisely what has happened, and why even if she were to by some miracle get the nomination, it would be virtually impossible to win the general election.
The cost of Clinton's attacks on Obama is widely understood, but it doesn't matter in the Clinton calculation because she are running for the nomination - the general, I suppose, will take care of itself. What is not usually mentioned is that Obama can't unleash a major critique on Clinton either. If he did so, he would likely alienate feminist voters, who are just as central to the Democratic coalition as African-Americans.
There are already many people who believe that Obama has indirectly exploited sexism, although I think these arguments reach a bit too far. If Obama were actually to do so - to say that she was cashing in on her (husband's) name, that she is just an ambition and nothing else, that she has never really accomplished anything on her own, other than a failed health care plan, that she is part of the problem - that she is, in so many words, a scheming bitch (which many people believe and is therefore precisely the way to destroy Clinton if one so desired) - then he would be just as guilty of taking advantage of perverse prejudices as it seems that Clinton has done.
I don't think there is any question that Obama will fiercely attack John McCain. He has already done so, although not in a consistent way. What he will not do is do so with Hillary Clinton. If she were a man, then he might be more willing to - there would be no political price to pay. But if I were taller, my pants would be longer. Neither supposition has any bearing in this reality.
It's a gamble, for sure. Obama's reticence could cost him the nomination. But Clinton's very different decision has already cost her the presidency.