But asking the Big Dog to muzzle himself is futility itself—particularly when his outbursts appear to be having the desired effect. On Hillary’s team, WJC unplugged once inspired queasiness bordering on panic. Its attitude now? You go, girl.
For Obama, the question of how to respond to Clinton has been vexed. To hit back would be to take on a figure much beloved by rank-and-file Democratic voters; it would risk making him look rattled and defensive. And although last week the campaign decided it had no choice but to take the gloves off, it has refused to pummel the Clintons in their collective solar plexus. There has been no mention of impeachment or Monica. No mention of the way the Clintons’ blunders cost their party control of Congress in 1994. These sorts of broadsides would be risky, to be sure, not least to Obama’s brand. As one of his close friends puts it, “It’s hard for Barack to be both down in the mud with the Clintons and be, you know, Barack.”
From the start, Obama and Axelrod agreed on one thing: that Obama could not, would not, should not run as a conventional politician. This agreement was born, in part, of the truth that Clinton had so many inbuilt advantages in waging such a campaign that meeting her on that well-trod turf would be a suicide mission. But it was also rooted in the reality of the person Obama is. “I remember telling him that he was too normal to run for president,” Axelrod recalled one night in the bar at a Holiday Inn in Iowa. “I’ve worked for a lot of these guys, and I can tell you, he’s just different. He really wants to be president, but he doesn’t need to be president.”
The unconventionality of Obama’s campaign is the source of its power—and of many of the frustrations and worries it incites. Like any presidential candidate, he has position papers up the wazoo, but his rhetoric is almost entirely devoid of programmatic specificity. This gaping hole can make his bid seem narcissistic, even messianic: La campagne, c’est moi! But behind it lies a rigorous conception of the presidency and a diagnosis of what ails the political system. Obama believes that a fundamental change in how Washington works—an end to the intense partisanship that’s reigned for the past two decades, in particular—is a precondition for major policy advances. He believes that, as he often says, “we can disagree without being disagreeable.” He’s convinced that unity is attainable through the right kind of leadership: his.
Clinton doesn’t say so quite this bluntly, but she manifestly considers Obama’s outlook woefully naïve. Her view of the culture of Washington is darker, and of transforming it, more skeptical. And while she prefers to speak of achieving change through hard work—to paint herself as the candidate of perspiration as opposed to inspiration—at bottom she conceives of politics as an endless series of skirmishes. “I don’t take anything away from the vision-setting, the raising of hopes and aspirations,” she said. But “sometimes it takes pushing through the opposition, not converting them.”
For many Democrats, both these worldviews have something to commend them as well as obvious imperfections. And so they find themselves asking something more basic: Which candidate is more electable? And here Obama’s adherents have a strong case to make that their man has the edge. Obama has demonstrated amply a facility at drawing support from independents and Republicans, which will be essential to winning in the fall. A recent Gallup poll found that 59 percent of voters view him favorably and just 32 percent unfavorably; the split for Clinton is 50-46.
Obama’s electability case is further bolstered by the endorsements he’s received from a number of key Democrats from purple or red states: Governors Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Tim Kaine of Virginia; Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota. “Absolutely, I believe that he can carry Missouri,” says McCaskill, who observes that Obama’s recent quasi-admiring words about Reagan, the subject of much consternation on the left, are a huge advantage in her state. “Ronald Reagan stole a lot of Democrats in Missouri, and we need to get them back—and Barack can.” As for Obama’s pigmentation, Nelson tells me that, even in Nebraska, it would not be a prohibitive issue. “I don’t think [his race] is a positive or negative factor here—it’s probably neutral.”
Obama’s swing-state endorsers are at pains not to criticize Clinton openly. But one of them confides, “It’s fairly obvious that the Republicans are having a hard time finding a candidate for conservatives to coalesce around. So November is gonna be all about turnout. And I do think Hillary Clinton would energize the Republican base, at least in my state, as no one else would.”