Columns » Max Brantley

Who can beat McCain?

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With the race for the Democratic presidential nomination down to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, electability has become a popular topic.

I don't think much of electability as a voting guide. See John Kerry. The best measures of electability are opinion polls. But the polling is done before the Swift Boating begins. Someone who seems very electable during the nominating process can look very different once general election mud starts flying.

I generally don't try to outguess the electorate. I vote for the candidate I prefer, even the frequent sure losers.

Today, polls give Barack Obama an edge over Hillary Clinton in the electability contest with likely Republican nominee John McCain. I don't dispute that. But it's a little paradoxical when you look at Democratic primary voting. One candidate, Obama, has been favored by young people, the highly educated and black people. The other, Clinton, has been favored by white voters, particularly women; Hispanic voters, and people with lower incomes and education. The Clinton blend looks like a more promising demographic profile for electability in a general election.

Ah, but there's also Clinton's “baggage.” Her impediment? She is a Clinton, wife of one of the most successful presidents of recent times. Come again? Well, see, the popular theme today is that the Clinton years were unpleasantly acrimonious. Indeed. His administration was under constant attack by Republicans. Then came George W. Bush, who, with media help, demonized Al Gore and John Kerry as the Clintons had been demonized and who, despite his promise to be a uniter, has been a lawless despot.

Voters always say they want more consensus government and less bickering. Barack Obama has tapped a deep vein of support by promising to be the candidate who can deliver the goods. He's embellished his professed bipartisan credentials by directing blame at Bill Clinton for government divisiveness. Clinton's governance caused Democratic losses in Congress and statehouses, Obama notes.

This is disingenuous. It takes two to fight. The last 15 years were divisive because the Republican Party gave no quarter on any issue of importance — taxes, war, social issues, environmental regulation, you name it. Bill Clinton fought them and sometimes won, occasionally by compromising on traditional Democratic positions. For this, he was not hailed as a consensus builder, but scorned as a triangulator and hated all the more by Republicans for beating them. It got worse after Bush was installed in office by court order. He took his “election” as a mandate to do whatever he wanted, Congress be damned.

Will the Republican hyenas be silenced just because Obama is a nice guy who makes a good speech? Will Republicans — particularly the toxic Southern coalition of racists, sexists and theocrats — really be more likely to vote for or work with a black, pro-choice liberal? For a man, who, though himself a Christian, is the son of a man raised Muslim? For someone with a noble record in support of gay rights and in opposition to the war? For a president not likely to make judicial nominations strictly from the Federalist Society-approved list?

If there were any guarantees that the force of Obama's personality and his eloquence could deliver this Republican sea change, I'd say give him the nomination and the election right this minute. But, though Obama can lay some claim to independent voter appeal (McCain even more), count me skeptical about his partisan crossover allure.

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