POLITICS JULY 2, 2008
Two weeks ago, Obama was “Obambi”--a guy so innocent he’d struggle to cross a major intersection, much less survive a match-up against the GOP. Then Obambi opted out of the public financing system and stiff-armed McCain on some town-hall meetings, and all of a sudden he was Lee Atwater. The Washington Post’s David Broder wondered whether Obama’s “motives will be accepted by the voters who are only now starting to figure out what makes him tick.” Within a week, Time’s Mark Halperin--whose CW-setting powers rival Broder’s in his prime--observed that Obama was looking “more like an ordinary politician than an inspiring leader,” thanks in part to his campaign-finance decision and some rightward shading on policy. Perhaps more tellingly, McCain abruptly made the contrast between his honor and Obama’s cynicism the central theme of his campaign. “For John McCain, country first is how he has lived his life,” read a “memo” released by strategist Steve Schmidt last Thursday. “We have seen Barack Obama forced to choose between principle and the interests of himself and his party. He has always chosen the latter.”
So, there it is: What “serial exaggerator” was to Al Gore, and “wind-surfing flip-flopper” was to John Kerry, so will “shameless opportunist” be to Barack Obama. To highlight the point for the non-discriminating and the mentally obtuse, the GOP even hauled out its chief meme-smith, Karl Rove, to pronounce it thus. To which the proper response for an Obama supporter should be: Right on! John McCain may win the contest over “who is willing to put principle above personal ambition and self-interest,” as Rove wrote in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. But that contest will have very little to do with who wins this fall’s election.
The easiest way to see this is to consider one of the most persistent poll results of the campaign so far: The percentage of voters who identify themselves as Democrats is eight to 15 points higher than the percentage who identify as Republicans. Even if the GOP were to somehow convince Americans that Obama was typical, they would have to paint McCain as phenomenally atypical to overcome this disadvantage. (An eight-to-15 point deficit in party ID means you have to clean up among independents.)
The current polling dynamic already reflects this challenge. McCain has spent the last week and a half highlighting Obama’s profound typicalness. During the same time, Obama has maintained or built on his five-plus point lead in national polls and gained ground in several key states. What we’re seeing, I suspect, is that the effect of Obama consolidating Democrats completely swamps McCain’s assault on his character.
But, of course, it’s highly unlikely that McCain will succeed at making Obama look typical or himself especially atypical. For one thing, Obama is young and black and exceptionally thoughtful and eloquent. He could spend every day between now and the election executing plays from the “typical pol” playbook (not a very interesting read, I assure you) and still look far from typical on November 4.
Likewise, it’s going to be exceedingly difficult for McCain to fend off the taint of typicalness himself. Obama will in all likelihood spend ungodly sums of money to soak him in it. And, to this point, McCain has made the job remarkably easy. McCain has spent much of the last few months moving rightward on issues like tax cuts, immigration, and energy, which is a double-whammy of typicality. First, it moves McCain closer to the party’s ideological mainstream. Second, it requires a decent-amount of flip-flopping--a chronic typical-pol maneuver.
To believe McCain can nonetheless get away with labeling his opponent a typical pol without having the charge boomerang on him reflects a gross misunderstanding of campaign journalism. The political press corps will gladly recite McCain’s typical-pol indictment of Obama. But, each time they do, they’ll feel obliged to catalogue McCain’s own offenses in this regard. In fact, this is already happening. An AP analysis condemning Obama’s public financing opt-out devoted almost as much time bemoaning McCain’s breaks with principle as Obama’s. This Monday, The Washington Post ran an article headlined “GOP Sharpens Attacks on Obama: Allies of McCain Casting Democratic Candidate as Unprincipled, Opportunistic.” The piece laid out the contours of McCain’s typical-pol strategy, then concluded: “Targeting a politician's character flaws is a time-tested strategy, but it is a complicated argument for McCain, who has also shifted his positions in the course of the campaign.”
This journalistic norm will ensure that, by Election Day, McCain will have ginned up at least as many stories highlighting his own expedient maneuvering as Obama’s. Which will be an absolute disaster for him. A “typical Democrat” probably beats even a maverick Republican in a year when Democrats enjoy an eight-to-15 point ID advantage. But a typical Democrat clearly beats a typical Republican. That’s basically the definition of a generic party advantage.
I suspect one reason pundits and the McCain campaign see so much promise in the typical-pol strategy is that they’re confusing the risks to Obama during the primaries with the risks confronting him in the general. There’s no question that getting stuck with the typical-pol label would have been deadly six months ago. Many primary voters believed Hillary Clinton had more experience, that she was more prepared to be president, that she would do a better job protecting the country. Obama’s greatest asset was the credibility of his change message. Had Hillary somehow managed to convince voters he was no different than any other calculating, self-serving politician--her likely motive in muddying the waters on Iraq and in goading him into various mudslinging exercises--there would have been little reason to favor him.
But the challenge is no longer to become the Democrats’ preferred change candidate; Obama is now the change candidate by virtue of being the Democrat. The challenges he now faces are: (1) Passing the “one of us” test--whether the concern is that he’s a Sharpton-esque race-man, or a Muslim plant, or an anti-American radical, or whatever. (2) Proving he’ll keep the country safe. McCain has to prevent Obama from clearing a minimal threshold; otherwise Obama wins.
Against this backdrop, the typical-pol charge isn’t just ineffective; it’s counter-productive. Recall what McCain is alleging--that Obama will shift any position or abandon any principle if there’s an advantage to be gained from it. Well, if someone is prepared to take any position to succeed politically, then he’s probably not going to pursue some crazy out-of-the-mainstream policy, even if it’s one he privately supports. He’ll do what politicians always do, which is consult polls and follow public opinion. If Obama’s biggest problem is that he’s not typical enough, then the McCain campaign is helping him solve it.
Consider this passage from another recent Washington Post piece, this one about the skepticism Obama inspires among working class whites in the town of Findlay, Ohio. These are people who want the troops to come home from Iraq and who take a dim view of the Bush economic record. And yet they can’t get over rumors that Obama is “a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.” "People in Findlay are kind of funny about change," the town’s mayor told the paper. "They always want things the way they were, and any kind of development is always viewed as making things worse, a bad thing." Obama probably won’t win a majority of downscale whites--certainly not the ones who take these rumors seriously. But either way, McCain’s new line of attack can only help him. What’s McCain doing if not reassuring the people of Findlay that Obama won’t actually bring much change?
You almost feel sorry for the GOP at times like this (or you would if not for the last eight years): The Democratic nominee presents them with a frame that’s both more obvious and more devastating than anything they’ve imposed on an opponent in 20 years. (Barack Obama: Muslim. Black. Traitorous. Possibly Gay. Vote John McCain!) But it’s a frame that the conventions of good taste make difficult to invoke. So, what do they do instead? They bet the house on the one campaign narrative that blunts every piece of innuendo that’s capable of destroying him. Brilliant. Did I mention how few people still call themselves Republicans?
to see a heated response to this article by TNR senior editor Jonathan
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.