Friday, March 7, 2008

Second Thoughts or Buyer's Remorse?

Senator Barack Obama came very close to closing the deal on the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, as his momentum, after the Wisconsin primary and following primaries/caucuses, seemed to be peaking at just the right moment.

But with results in from Texas and Ohio, it appears that at least some Democratic voters are having second-thoughts. Senator Hillary Clinton, as many have pointed out, has a difficult math problem to solve in the delegate count, even with these recent victories. Nontheless, the contest is not over, and six weeks of hard, if not brutal, campaigning are ahead before the critical Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Senator Obama¹s sudden rise to overtake Senator Clinton as the Democratic frontrunner was perhaps unprecedented, but it was not an accident. He figured out early that he could not match his more well-known and experienced rivals with his resume, nor with his relatively tiny record in public office. His strategy, in contrast to their chest-pounding and inevitable stridency against the Republican administration, was to sound a theme of hope and change, with as little detail as possible, and to employ his communication skills to break out from the pack. Knowing that the Democratic base urgently wanted to pull the U.S. out of the Iraq war, he took the most stark position for immediate withdrawal. When he and Mrs. Clinton became the finalists for the nomination after the early primaries, each of them offered a potential historic first, he the first black nominee, she the first woman nominee. But Mr. Obama emphasized an appeal to the broader voter interest in optimism and reform without rancorous partisanship.

At the same time, he proved to be a prodigious fundraiser and a shrewd campaign organizer. While the media increasingly reported his "cult" following, behind the scenes he raised enough money to match and exceed Mrs. Clinton¹s resources, and he organized grass roots efforts in virtually every state, large and small. His mostly young volunteers turned out to be resourceful and disciplined. Fair or not, Mrs. Clinton¹s organization was often reported to be overstaffed, underperforming, and not living by modest means. Her frontrunner status became so ingrained in the media that it seemed that Mrs. Clinton was taking her press notices seriously, even as the Obama campaign was quietly organizing a campaign that would upset her plans.

Her political reverie came to an abrupt halt with Mr. Obama¹s upset victory in Iowa. She came back with a win in New Hampshire, but in subsequent primaries and caucuses she always seemed on the defensive. In this process, her campaign was revealed to be unprepared for Mr. Obama¹s challenge, and her reputation (and her husband¹s) for political acuity was shattered.

Nontheless, Mrs. Clinton was able to stay reasonably close in committed delegate strength to Mr. Obama¹s totals until the Wisconsin primary seemed to propel him into an unassailable lead.

But Mr. Obama, in spite of all the media attention to his candidacy, had not really been truly vetted as the putative Democratic nominee for president. Mrs. Clinton and her husband complained about this, but it did not seem to matter until they went very negative in recent weeks, and Mr. Obama's image suffered some blows as revelations of his real estate dealings in Chicago, the views of some advisors, and his own apparent dissembling on trade with Canada became well-known. His honeymoon with an "adoring" press has also seen bracing change, with more and more reporters asking him tough questions.

There is a big difference between second thoughts and buyer¹s remorse. The former occurs before a purchase or deal is made. The latter occurs afterwards, when it is too late to return the merchandise.

In spite of all the numbers crunchers who continue to say Mrs. Clinton cannot now beat Mr. Obama, it is quite possible for that to happen if he does not regain his composure in the remaining primaries. Mrs. Clinton now seems willing to go all the way to the convention if he does not. The existence of superdelegates provides the means for her to win in Denver.

The Republicans, in spite of that party's most conservative wing, have nominated their strongest candidate for 2008. Senator McCain has his own problems and shortcomings, but he will have the next eight months both to persuade recalictrant conservatives to vote for him, and to steer his national campaign to the political center where victory awaits.

The Democrats, by all signs the clear favorites to win in 2008 until now, have created a dilemma for themselves. If Mr. Obama wins in Denver, some Clinton partisans, particularly older women, may stay home (and a few might even vote for Mr. McCain). If Mrs. Clinton wins, some Obama partisans, particularly young voters and some of the most liberal Democrats, may also stay home. The ill-feeling that may result from a bitter Democratic contest, compounded by a protracted appeal by both candidates to the party's more liberal base, could result in leaving the critical political center all to Mr. McCain.

Then we would witness ia buyer¹s remorse in the Democratic Party as we have not seen before.

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