Thursday, June 19, 2008

Democrats Still Have Work to Do to Win in November

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

I have a word of advice for my fellow Democrats, and here’s a hint: It involves chickens, counting and eggs.

I recently attended the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis, and it seemed like every speaker’s presentation, as well as all my conversations with fellow attendees, started with the premise that Barack Obama is a lock to win the presidency in November.

In the last week, this site has featured a great article by Arianna Huffington comparing John McCain's 2008 campaign to Bob Dole's candidacy in 1996 (no, I'm not kissing up because she's the boss; read the article, it's very persuasive) and a fascinating piece by Steve Rosenbaum arguing that McCain is so sure to lose, by August he will drop out of the race in favor of another candidate.

Don't get me wrong: I think that the Democrats have an amazing opening to win back the White House. After all, as I frequently point out, George W. Bush's approval rating is at a historic low (28 percent in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll), and 81 percent of the country thinks we are on the wrong track, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll. And Obama is certainly a better candidate than John Kerry, already showing that he has a better rapport with people and a willingness to fire back at Republican smears as they happen, rather than letting the right-wing attack machine define him the way the "swift-boaters" nailed Kerry.

It's just that there are also a lot of challenges to overhaul, and I don't want Democrats to take things for granted and have regrets in November. Or, put another way, I don't want the party to be the next 2007 New York Mets (who blew a seven-game lead with 17 games to play), or the next Leon Lett (fumbling while prematurely celebrating a potential touchdown after a fumble recovery), or, gulp, the next Kerry.

What scares me is that on the left there seems to be the pervasive idea that it is common knowledge among Americans across the country that McCain has become a joke, a Bush clone with a campaign loaded with lobbyists who has become so addled that he comes off as desperate and out of touch when he speaks. It makes me uneasy, because it is dangerously similar to the mood on the left in 2004, when so many of us figured that the country couldn't possibly return to office someone as incompetent, deceitful and destructive as Bush. The problem was, while the left knew about Bush's lack of fitness for office in 2004, the rest of the country hadn't reached that conclusion yet. They did, and by November 2006, the voters had tossed the Republicans out of power in Congress. But it was too late for the presidency, and we have had to endure four more years of scandals, incompetence, a sagging economy, and an ongoing debacle in Iraq.

I hope, in time, the rest of the country will come around to the point of view of McCain held by those of us on the left. I think it's pretty accurate, and with more light on McCain, it will become obvious to more voters. But, like Bush in 2004, I don't think everyone is there yet.

There is still this idea in the culture (reinforced by the mainstream media) that the current McCain is not far off from the the 2000 version of the candidate, the independent reformer who did break from his party on environmental and campaign reform issues, rather than the guy he is, who voted with Bush 95 percent of the time in 2007 and 89 percent of the time since Bush took office (according to a Congressional Quarterly voting study), as well as voting 98 percent of the time with his fellow Republicans (43 of 44) in 2007. Too many Americans still think of McCain as a maverick, rather than as the senator who voted against health insurance for children, against a ban on torture, and against a farm bill that contained a repeal of the so-called Enron Loophole that has been partially responsible for the current high gas prices.

There is also the problem of the right-wing smear machine, which has been effective in scaring independent voters in presidential elections in the past few years. Fox News has already started a fear campaign, between the "baby mama" reference to Michelle Obama and the claim the Obamas engaged in a terrorist terrorist fist bump. The right is already trying to scare Americans into being fearful that Obama is in league with scary figures like Iran, Hamas and Jimmy Carter.

Much like Dana Carvey's Garth in Wayne's World, many Americans fear change. They may say they want it, but the reality of something innovative and different can drive them to something familiar and comfortable, especially if they are afraid. And especially if they are senior citizens. And that is what the GOP is going to try and capitalize on. They've started already. McCain and his surrogates are sending the signal that it's a dangerous world now, and he'll keep you safe, while the new, young guy will not.

And let's not be naive and ignore the fact that when it comes to change, asking some older folks (and younger folks, for that matter) to vote for an African-American guy named Barack Obama is a factor. Twenty percent of voters in Ohio admitted that race affected their votes in the state's primary. That's how many admitted it. But how many more either are embarrassed to say they are uncomfortable with a black president, or are not even aware that their predispositions about race affected their decision-making process? If you don't believe me, take a walk around a retirement community in Florida and listen to what some of the old folks have to say.

I think America has made great progress on race, and I believe that enough Americans are ready to elect an African-American to the presidency. But it is a real issue that Obama and the Democrats will have to overcome in November.

Finally, the Democrats will have to overcome a recent history of failure in presidential elections if Obama is to win. Since 1968, only three Democrats have been elected president. Jimmy Carter won in 1976, and he had the extraordinary circumstances on his side of running just two years after the Watergate scandal destroyed trust in the federal government, especially in Republicans. And Bill Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, but he never received a majority of the votes. In each election, Ross Perot ran and siphoned votes away from the GOP candidate. That's it. Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry all went down to Republican opponents during that time, and, based on the circumstances, you would have to say that Dukakis, Gore and Kerry all blew great chances to win. Is the debacle of George W. Bush enough to push 2008 into the column of the Democrats? I think so. I hope so. But only time will tell.

Remember, even though Obama is doing better in early polling against McCain than Kerry did at this time against Bush, according to Real Clear Politics, Obama is up by only an average of 4.2 percent in national polls by Rasmussen, Gallup, Reuters/Zogby, ABC News/Washington Post and Cook/RT Strategies. These numbers don't scream that a win is inevitable. Rather, they look like the mark of a close race. Even more troubling, some of the polls covered by Real Clear Politics have McCain ahead in Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico and Nevada (with McCain ahead on average in Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire and Nevada). Again, not numbers that lead to a conclusion that McCain is done.

I understand that Obama has been surging in the polls lately. I am optimistic that as time goes on, and as the voters get to know Obama and see what McCain really stands for, Obama's campaign will get even stronger. And I believe that if things go well, the Democrats have a great chance of winning in November. But that is a far cry from the sense of inevitability that I have sensed on the left.

Which is why I beseech Democrats not to take an Obama win for granted. We can't assume everyone in the country is aware of McCain's weaknesses and fidelity to the Bush agenda, or know that the Internet rumors about the Obamas are false, or understand the real positions Obama and McCain have laid out. It is our job to get out there and make sure as many people as possible are as informed as possible, and how they don't have to be afraid of voting for Obama. If word gets out, I think the conditions favor the Democrats. But that's a big "if."

We, as Democrats, cannot count our chickens before they hatch. If we do, we might have to endure four more years of a Republican president laying eggs.