A few months ago, I was predicting a major win in November for Barack Obama. He may still win, but I am no longer as certain of it.
John McCain won the Republican nomination almost by default. Widely disliked among Republican party activists as too liberal, too unpredictable, and not socially conservative enough, McCain had two things going for him: his rivals. Mitt Romney showed he couldn’t carry southern states, and Mike Huckabee couldn’t win outside the South. Between the two of them, they split the religious conservative vote, essentially handing McCain the nomination.
But McCain’s campaign had been floundering for months. The tight race between Obama and Clinton made sure that McCain was excluded from the news cycle, and then even after the Democrats finished up, McCain was nearly invisible as everyone talked about Obama’s historic campaign.
Obama’s campaign strategy was simple: tie McCain to Bush, and run against Bush. That seemed a reasonable approach, as McCain has voted more than 90% of the time with the Bush Administration in the Senate. To shore up the anti-Bush element and reassure the party that he could be trusted with foreign policy, Obama made a supremely safe choice for Vice President in Joe Biden. Predictably, Biden’s nomination was greeted with a collective shrug.
The day after the Democratic convention, McCain shocked everyone by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. There are a lot of things you could say about the pick, but the net effect was to shift focus off McCain and Obama and put it on Palin. We now know just about everything there is to be known about her, and she’s proven a more formidable campaigner than most predicted (including me).
You can argue about her qualifications, her family life, her record as mayor and governor, but she does two things: First, she has shored up the conservative wing of the Republican Party, freeing McCain to campaign as a “maverick” who has often pissed off the Republican establishment. Notice that it was Palin who covered all the conservative touchstones in her acceptance speech, whereas McCain ignored the right and presented himself as reaching out to all Americans and pointedly has distanced himself from the Bush administration. Very, very shrewd.
Second, all the media attention has made Obama the invisible man since his well-received acceptance speech. Instead, we’re treated to stories about pregnant teens; beer-drinking, kid-tasering state troopers; and babies with Down’s Syndrome. About the only press Obama has gotten lately is the bogus outrage over his “lipstick on a pig” remark. But the point is that Obama is now in a position where he has to fight for press time and has to be careful about what he says. That’s very bad news for the Democrats.
Meanwhile, Palin seems to have this rock star quality that, so far, has made her impervious to attack from the media or from the Democrats. And because of all the media attention, the race almost seems to be Obama vs. Palin, and if Obama can’t engage McCain, he will lose. Inexplicably, Obama is going to be appearing on Saturday Night Live this week, not with John McCain, but with a Sarah Palin look-alike. Whoever approved that in his campaign ought to be fired. Of course, Obama should never have agreed to that.
Honestly, I never would have predicted that it would be the Obama campaign that, heading into October, seems moribund and drifting. But that’s how it looks today. Maybe once the media gets over its obsession with the Barracude, his campaign will right itself and win.
I’m not holding my breath.