Here is why: She and Bill Clinton both devoutly believe that Obama’s likely victory is a disaster-in-waiting. Naive Democrats just don’t see it. And a timid, pro-Obama press corps, in their view, won’t tell the story.
But Hillary Clinton won’t tell it, either.
A lot of coverage of the Clinton campaign supposes them to be in kitchen-sink mode — hurling every pot and pan, no matter the damage this might do to Obama as the likely Democratic nominee in the fall.
In fact, the Democratic race has not been especially rough by historical standards. What’s more, our conversations with Democrats who speak to the Clintons make plain that their public comments are only the palest version of what they really believe: that if Obama is the nominee, a likely Democratic victory would turn to a near-certain defeat.
Far from a no-holds-barred affair, the Democratic contest has been an exercise in self-censorship.
Rip off the duct tape and here is what they would say: Obama has serious problems with Jewish voters (goodbye Florida), working-class whites (goodbye Ohio) and Hispanics (goodbye, New Mexico).
Republicans will also ruthlessly exploit openings that Clinton — in the genteel confines of an intraparty contest — never could. Top targets: Obama’s radioactive personal associations, his liberal ideology, his exotic life story, his coolly academic and elitist style.
This view has been an article of faith among Clinton advisers for months, but it got powerful new affirmation last week with Obama’s clumsy ruminations about why “bitter” small-town voters turn to guns and God.
There’s nothing to say that the Clintonites are right about Obama’s presumed vulnerabilities. But one argument seems indisputably true: Obama is on the brink of the Democratic nomination without having had to confront head-on the evidence about his general election challenges.
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That is why some friends describe Clinton as seeing herself on a mission to save Democrats from themselves. Her candidacy may be a long shot, but no one should expect she will end it unless or until every last door has been shut.
Skepticism about Obama’s general election prospects extends beyond Clinton backers. We spoke to unaffiliated Democratic lawmakers, veteran lobbyists, and campaign operatives who believe the rush of enthusiasm for Obama’s charisma and fresh face has inhibited sober appraisals of his potential weaknesses.
The concerns revolve around two themes.
The first is based on the campaign so far. Assuming voting patterns evident in the nominating contest continue into the fall, Obama would be vulnerable if McCain can approximate the traditional GOP performance in key states.
The second is based on fear about the campaign ahead.
Stories about Obama’s Chicago associations with 1960s radicals Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers landed with barely a ripple. So, too, did questions about whether he once backed a total ban on handguns (he says no but in a 1996 state legislative race his campaign filled out a questionnaire saying yes). Obama’s graceful handling of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy may have turned that into a net positive against Clinton.
But all this was in a Democratic contest. What about about when Obama’s running against a Republican?
Let’s take the firt point: Obama’s electoral coalition. His impressive success to date comes predominately from strong support among upscale, college-educated whites and overwhelming support from African-Americans.
Assuming he is the Democratic nominee, it seems virtually certain he would bring turnout of these groups to historic levels.
But there is reason to question whether he would be able to perform at average levels with other main pillars of the traditional Democratic coalition: blue-collar whites, Jews and Hispanics. He has run decently among these groups in some places, but in general he’s run well behind her.
Obama lost the Jewish vote by double-digits in Florida, New York and Maryland — and that was before controversy over anti-Israel remarks of Wright.
An undecided Democratic superdelegate told us many Jewish voters are itching for a reason to break with the party and side with Republicans, who have embraced the Israeli cause with passion. A small shift could swing swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania, which have significant Jewish populations.
Obama won only about one-third of Hispanic votes on Super Tuesday — and did even worse a month later in Texas. A Democratic nominee needs big margins with Hispanics to win states like New Mexico, California, Colorado and Arizona. In the fall, Obama would be running against a Republican with a record on immigration that will resonate with Hispanics.
Then there’s the lower-income white vote. Does it seem odd that a woman with a polarizing reputation would be rolling up enormous margins among some of the country’s most traditional voters? Three out of every four blue-collar whites in small towns and rural areas of Ohio voted for Clinton over Obama on March 4. The reality is, this is already an electorate with deep cultural divisions — and that’s in the Democratic Party.
Cornell Belcher, Obama’s pollster, says most of these voting blocs will unite when the Democratic fighting is done. “You get a snapshot at the height of a battle within the family but after the family squabbles history shows that the family does come back together,” he said.
Fair enough. But McCain would be challenging Obama on a range of issues that would complicate this coming together — issues that Clinton did not use or used minimally because they were not particularly effective in a Democratic campaign.
McCain, by contrast, would have a free hand to exploit a paper trail showing Obama’s evolution — opponents would say reversals — over the past decade from liberal positions on gun control, the death penalty and Middle East politics. He would exploit Obama’s current position in favor of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and beginning diplomatic talks with U.S. adversaries like the dictators of Iran and Venezuela. Will those issues help lower-income white voters “come back together” with Obama?
Those issues are all in-bounds. What about the issues that most journalists and probably McCain himself will consider out-of-bounds but that, if recent history is any guide, will echo nonetheless in the general election?
The last two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John F. Kerry, were both military veterans, and both had been familiar, highly successful figures in national politics for more than two decades by the time they ran.
Both men lost control of their public images to the right-wing freak show — that network of operatives and commentators working mostly outside of the mainstream media — and ultimately lost their elections as many voters came to see them as elitist, out-of-touch, phony, and even unpatriotic.
Obama is a much less familiar figure than Kerry or Gore, with a life story that is far more exotic, who is coming out of a political milieu in Chicago politics that is far more liberal.
The freak show has already signaled its early lines of attack on Oama. Polls show a significant percentage of Americans believe — falsely — that he is a Muslim. Voter interviews reveal widespread unease with minor and seemingly irrelevant questions like why he does not favor American flag pins on his lapel. Nor have we heard the last about Wright and his fulminations.
Here will be the real kitchen sink: every damaging comment or association from Obama’s past, mixed together with innuendo and downright fiction, to portray him as an an exotic character of uncertain values and weak patriotism.
Obama’s advisers say they are not naive about freak show attacks. Their response is that Obama’s appeal to a new brand of politics, and his personal poise and self-confidence, will allow him to transcend attacks and stereotypes in ways that Gore and Kerry could not.
Obama is indeed poised and self-confident. But the current uproar over his impromptu sociology lesson in San Francisco about “bitter” voters in Pennsylvania raise questions about his self-discipline, and his understanding of how easy it is for a politicians in modern politics to lose control of his or her public image.
Clinton has her own baggage, to put it mildly. But it’s been rummaged through for years, so what Democrats see is pretty much what they would get.
The frustration emanating from the Clintonites comes from being unable to say in public what they think in private.
Little wonder why. Bill Clinton’s comments comparing Obama’s support in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s were certainly impolitic. But it’s absurd to contend, as many Democrats indignantly do, that they amounted to a shocking low blow or to “playing the race card.”
The reaction underscored the essential prissiness of the Democratic contest so far. One can be sure the general election will not be such a delicate affair.