Saturday, February 16, 2008

"The Barack Blowout"

Joe Klein (TIME):
In the space of a single week, Barack Obama has won eight primaries and caucuses. Hillary Clinton has won none. The Clinton campaign has explanations, some nearly plausible. The primaries were held in states with large, "proud" African-American communities. The caucuses discriminate against Clinton's working-class base and favor Obama's affluent and activist supporters. Just wait till we get to big primary states like Texas and Ohio, Clinton staffers insist.
To which one can only reply: Yes, but you've not just been losing; you're getting historically, comprehensively clobbered. Obama's most convincing victory came in Virginia, a state itching to switch from red to blue in 2008. He swept most demographic groups there, including such alleged Clinton strongholds as white men and Latinos. The size of the Virginia victory can be attributed, in part, to the momentum Obama had gathered over the preceding weekend in caucus states like Nebraska and Maine. And his blowout victories in those places can be attributed to the fact that he is running a smarter, more rigorous campaign than Clinton is.

I spoke with prominent Democrats in the caucus states, and the story was the same all over: Obama had organizers on the ground, advertising on the air and in the mailboxes--and made crucial personal appearances at the right times. Clinton was late to the game or absent entirely. "It seems as if they simply hadn't thought out what was going to happen after Super Tuesday," said a Nebraska Democrat who supported Clinton. "Obama paid attention. He courted [Senator] Ben Nelson and got his endorsement. He spoke in Omaha; Michelle went to Lincoln. I'm not saying Clinton could have won here, but she sure could have made it closer, won a few more delegates. Now you just have the sense that this campaign is over. She looks like a loser."

If nothing else, a presidential campaign tests a candidate's ability to think strategically and tactically and to manage a very complex organization. We have three plausible candidates remaining--Obama, Clinton and John McCain--and Obama has proved himself the best executive by far. Both the Clinton and the McCain campaigns have gone broke at crucial moments. So much for fiscal responsibility. McCain has been effective only when he runs as a guerrilla; in both 2000 and '08, he was hapless at building a coherent campaign apparatus. Clinton's sins are different: arrogance and the inability to see past loyalty to hire the best people for the job and to fire those who prove inadequate. "If nothing else, we've learned that Obama probably has the ability to put together a smooth-running Administration," said a Clinton super-delegate. "That's pretty important."

Obama still has a tricky path to the nomination. "We know he can walk on water," Democratic stalwart Donna Brazile told me, presciently, a year ago. "Now he's got to produce the loaves and fishes." Some old-fashioned meat and potatoes will do--and Obama has retooled his message to emphasize his economic plans. "The working folks in my state are not taken with high-blown rhetoric," says Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senator from Ohio, who is uncommitted in this race. "They're looking for a candidate who can present a big idea that relates to them. If one of these candidates rolls some of the big issues--like jobs, alternative energy, national security--into a central theme of their campaign, something like an energy-independence Marshall Plan, and shows how that would revive Ohio's economy, they can win this state."

Hillary Clinton would seem better positioned to do that, but there has been no theme or narrative to her candidacy ... other than, We're back. Recently she has made a few lame attempts to be more inspirational, but her language is as amorphous as Obama's--her only hope is to tie inspiration directly to substance, to the sort of grand idea that Senator Brown has proposed. The notion that she'll win Ohio and Texas simply because the demographics are friendly is less convincing after Obama's Virginia win. The demographics are also not nearly so friendly as the Clinton staff thinks, especially in Ohio--a state that seems to be the mirror image of Missouri, which Obama won. Ohio's population is 84% white (the exact same as in Missouri), 11.8% black (11.3% in Missouri) and 2.3% Hispanic (2.8% in Missouri). The percentages of college graduates and the household-income distribution are nearly identical as well.

And Wisconsin isn't much different--half as many African Americans, a slightly more affluent general population. Still, the Clinton campaign is already preparing its excuses for a Wisconsin defeat: It's an open primary. Independents and Republicans can cross over. Ohhh-kay. But the general election is open too.



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