Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Early Democratic Presidential CW

It's become a commonplace observation to note that the 2008 presidential race, particularly on the Democratic side, is already achieving an unusually frantic pace. And perhaps the best evidence of that hypothesis is the fact that each of the Big Three Democratic candidates, Clinton, Obama and Edwards, has already been described, by the Conventional Wisdom of the Washington chattering classes and key elements of the blogosphere, as undergoing a potentially fatal "swoon."

HRC was the first to be thusly described, especially when Barack Obama entered the race and predictably started building support among the African-American voters who had previously tilted heavily to Clinton, erasing much of her early, big lead in the polls. The fact that this trend coincided with a MSM and blogospheric obsession with her refusal to apologize about her vote for the Iraq War resolution, compounded by her lukewarm appeal to independent voters, led some smart people to predict her early demise.

Just a few weeks ago, of course, John Edwards had to put up, however briefly, with reports that he was actually about to drop out of the race, and/or would be capsized by public concerns about his wife's health, and/or couldn't raise any money.

And now Barack Obama is suffering from a bit of a drop in support in the polls, explained by many as the result of his refusal to get specific on policy ideas, and/or to give Democratic audiences the red meat they expect. As a new and relatively balanced New Republic article by Noam Scheiber reflects, the emerging CW is that Obama's buzz factor is fading (just as many Obama-skeptics in the punditocracy had long predicted), leaving him in a downward trajectory unless he changes course.

Taking all these "trends" together, the lesson is that you shouldn't pay much attention to the early CW on any of these three candidates. The best bet is that the Big Three are all viable and tightly bunched, which is mainly bad news for the Little Three (Richardson, Dodd and Biden) who need some oxygen to get taken seriously by the media, the activists, and the money folk.

What's more interesting to me is the extent to which the Big Three have taken varying courses in laying out a rationale for their candidacy.

When you boil it all down, our last two presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, were rich in policy proposals and Shrumian "fighting" rhetoric, but largely bereft of any overarching message (Gore, to be more precise, had several messages, but couldn't settle on one for any length of time).

Nobody needs Bob Shrum any more to convey an intention to "fight" Republicans. Obama is all message (the same message of beyond-polarization and reform that John Kerry rejected and Wesley Clark botched in 2004), and part of his early appeal is that he scratches a long-standing itch among message-starved Democratic and independent voters. It also enables him to simultaneously run to the left and right of his main rivals.

HRC, so far, stands in the Gore-Kerry all-policy, no-message tradition, assuming that "I'm in it to win!" is a short-term, tactical slogan designed to deal with doubts about her electability.

Edwards is the one candidate so far to put together both a clear message (an updated version of his "Two Americas" theme from 2004) and a lot of policy detail. But I strongly suspect that Obama and Clinton will soon catch up on that front, and then we'll begin to see some real and congruent competition. The other thing that's likely to happen is that George W. Bush will find a way to make moot the current tactical arguments among the Democratic presidential candidates over Iraq, which will make their opinions on other topics more visible and politically relevant.

Each of the Big Three has a distinctive set of strategic issues to navigate.

HRC is clearly the least vulnerable to mood swings, media narratives, or gaffes; she's already suffered the most important setback, the loss of her overwhelming African-American support. She'll be fine if none of her rivals, Big or Little, catch fire.

Obama needs to overcome the current negative buzz about his campaign; continue, through heavy and broad-based fundraising and competitive poll numbers, to solidify his status as a national candidate who doesn't have to win early; and unfold a policy agenda that satisfies the critics without pigeon-holing him ideologically.

And Edwards, aside from getting past the rumors about the impact of his wife's health on his candidacy, needs to continue his interesting tandem strategy of becoming the preferred choice of the activist Left, while maintaining his appeal as a regional Southern candidate, which could be very important after New Hampshire. So far, he seems to be pulling it off, as evidenced by his recently unveiled and impressive endorsement list in South Carolina (no, endorsements aren't all that important in themselves, but in this case they do show he hasn't in any way become toxic in his home region. He should say a prayer every night in thanks for Mark Warner's noncandidacy). Unlike HRC and Obama, Edwards really does need to win or at worst finish a strong second in Iowa, but if he does, he could be in very good shape.

This post does obviously reflect the CW in focusing on the Big Three, as opposed to Richardson, Dodd and Biden. But in this case, the CW may well be accurate, given the front-loaded caucus and primary schedule, the strength of the Big Three in the early states, the Little Three's money disadvantage, and the absence of any issue on which the Little Three--with the possible exception of Biden's relative hawkishness, which doesn't look like a winner among Democratic voters in 2008--could distinguish themselves.

The most likely dark horse is Bill Richardson. The good news for Richardson is that all the rumors over the decades about his alleged "zipper problem" are probably just bunk; we'd have almost certainly learned otherwise by now if it were otherwise. The bad news for Richardson is that he almost has to win in Nevada to have a prayer, and even then, he's not well-positioned to win in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.

So: get used to the idea that the Democratic nominee will likely be named (to list them alphabetically) Barack, Hillary or John, and that you can ignore a lot of the daily buzz about the Big Three until people start voting, which will be soon enough.
-- Posted at 3:48 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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