The way forward

Now that Obama has secured the democratic nomination, the focus shifts to the national campaign.

by John Sharkey

At last, the Democratic nomination process appears to be winding down. On Tuesday, Sen. Barack Obama won a convincing primary victory in North Carolina and nearly took home the crown in Indiana as well. The final margin in Indiana was a scant 2 percent, and Sen. Hillary Clinton only gained a single delegate for her victory. With only a month left, it’s clearer than ever that Clinton’s opportunity to win the Democratic nomination is long gone.

In a way, nothing really changed on Tuesday. Obama added a few delegates to his lead, but for the most part conditions in the race today are the same as they were on Monday: Obama is a virtual lock. He has weathered the worst of the inane Jeremiah Wright story and come out the other side with a commanding lead. From Clinton’s perspective, there just aren’t enough primaries left to make up the difference. To make matters worse, a few superdelegates have started switching their endorsements from Clinton to Obama. The razor-thin margin in Indiana (a state in which Clinton was supposed to win handily) was just the latest in a long line of nails in the Clinton campaign’s coffin. The challenge for Obama over the next few weeks will be to effectively transition his campaign from an intra-party machine to a national-election one. That work begins now.

Some in the press have speculated about a possible rift within the Democratic Party after the heated primary battle. The worry is that supporters of the losing candidate (Clinton) will feel disappointed or resentful over the nomination results and simply decide not to participate in the general election. That sounds scary for Democrats, but the reality is that the vast majority of Clinton supporters aren’t going to be running for the hills. There are still six months to go before the general election: that’s more than enough time for wounds to heal. After the initial disappointment fades, Clinton supporters will likely not have too much trouble backing Obama. Part of the reason is that Obama and Clinton are, as we all know by now, quite similar on the vast majority of issues. But even more important to the chances of a unified Democratic Party is Sen. John McCain.

Up to this point, McCain has not had to deal with too many rough campaign moments. Remember, he laid low (out of financial necessity) for months during the Republican nomination process while Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani beat each other into a pulp. By the time McCain was ready to step into the Republican void, he only had to realistically face a crippled Romney campaign and the sideshow that was Mike Huckabee. Compared to the Democratic process, McCain took the nomination with ease.

Now, it will be time for the Democratic Party to turn their attention outward. By necessity, no liberal interest group could be overly aggressive in mounting an anti-McCain campaign until the Democrats settled on their nominee: the styles of the Clinton and Obama campaigns were different enough that the tone of the attacks on McCain would vary. With Candidate Obama at the helm, the Democrats will now surely begin to hammer away on the concept of change, just as Obama has done throughout the primary season.

Heading into the summer months, the Democrats are in a uniquely strong national position. If they can’t figure out a way to win this election, it’s time for the Democratic Party to go the way of the Whigs. We are dealing with a period of skyrocketing inequality, rapidly growing gas prices, a general economic slowdown, and a disastrous war of choice in Iraq. That combination of factors would spell trouble for the incumbent party in any election. McCain’s positions simply make it even easier for the Democrats to capitalize on the general unease.

The Republicans could have, in theory, looked for a candidate who represented a clean break of the policies of the Bush administration. Instead, the Republicans ended up with just the opposite: over the past few years, no major presidential candidate has been more vocal in their support for the President than McCain. The ideological overlap between President George W. Bush and McCain is most obvious when it comes to the war in Iraq, but in other areas the similarities are just as striking. McCain is a vocal supporter of Bush’s tax policies, and they seem to have the same attitude towards health care reform (which is to simply do nothing). McCain famously feuded with Bush after their nasty primary battle in 2000, but since then McCain has worked hard to assume the mantle of Bush’s successor. He sought the endorsement of controversial religious figures like John Hagee, and he happily stood by as Bush anointed him on the White House lawn as the new standard-bearer for the Republican Party.

With the President’s historically bad poll numbers, embracing him seems like a disaster for electoral defeat. Obama seems to recognize the importance of lumping McCain in with Bush; during his speech in North Carolina, Obama declared that “we can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term.” That sort of strategy has the added bonus of keeping the campaign’s focus on substantive policy disagreements.

Framing a campaign as a contest between two personalities invariably leads to the sort of inane political chatter that we’re so used to. Remember what happened in 2004 when John Kerry tried to play up his image as a war hero against Bush-as-draft-dodger: the Swift Boat attacks, a campaign to disparage Kerry’s Purple Hearts, and so forth. Those sorts of tactics come out in any presidential campaign, but if Obama keeps the focus on the policy overlap between Bush and McCain the effects of the personal attacks will be minimized. Pointing out that John McCain would run the country in a similar way to Bush forces voters to actually stop and think about how they would like the government to operate.

It’s conventional wisdom to say that Bush became President because he was the candidate more voters would like to have a beer with; we’ve not got a full seven years of evidence on how that strategy works out. The American electorate can be quite astute when we give them the chance: witness the way people rejected the absurd idea of a gas tax holiday. As inspiring a candidate as Obama may be, his chance at the White House will depend on his ability to focus on policy. That’s a conversation beneficial to everyone, regardless of your ideology.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected].