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McCain’s Hillary Problem

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None of this is lost on the people around McCain, though they regard the perceptions as unfair. And while none of them will put it anywhere near this bluntly, they believe that it hardly matters. The fall election, in their view, will to a large extent be a referendum on Obama: Will voters trust him enough to be president? Will they believe he is up to the job? Can the McCain campaign raise enough doubts about him to, in effect, elect their guy by default?

And here we arrive at a second set of views held in common by McCain and Clinton: their views about Obama. How closely in sync are the two of them when it comes to the hopemonger? The other day I suggested a sort of thought experiment to someone close to McCain for years: If Hillary wrote down on paper all the things she thought about Obama and handed the paper to McCain and asked him to check the ones he agreed with, what percentage would be marked? “Oh, 90 percent, at least,” this person said.

The opinions of both of them, not surprisingly, would be skeptical, harsh, dismissive: that Obama is a lightweight, that he’s a line-cutter, that he’s arrogant, elitist, all talk no action. And that perspective is evident in the campaign that McCain and the Republicans more broadly are running against Obama. In tone and substance, once again, the similarities to the broadsides that Clinton and her people launched against him are striking. More than one GOP e-mail in recent weeks has taunted him with the phrase “Just words.”

As was the case with Clinton, McCain’s dismissiveness of Obama often seems to cross the line into resentment—and seems to have two primary sources. The first revolves around Obama’s rock-star status, around the size of his crowds, which McCain’s aides are forever prone to mock. “Yeah, he’s got his ‘mine is bigger than yours’ thing, but when does that get to be too much?” one said to me recently. They point to his plans to deliver his nomination-acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in the Broncos’ stadium rather than the arena in Denver—along with the possibility that he might orate at the Brandenburg Gate this summer—as signs of raging hubris.

The second source of resentment owes to Obama’s treatment by the press, which the McCain people, as did the Clinton people, regard as slavishly biased. “Hillary got worse treatment from the press than anyone since Nixon,” says one McCain strategist. “Now it’s happening to us.”

To be sure, there are merits to both these arguments. Obama’s craving for the big stage, the ginormous crowds, may in the end prove tactically unwise, if voters become convinced that it reflects a deep-seated egomania. And it would be hard to argue with the notion that the press was tilted toward Obama and against Clinton in the Democratic primaries, though it’s far from clear that the same dynamic will hold in his contest with McCain.

The relevant point, however, is that the resentments festering in McCain-land on both scores hold the danger of blinding the candidate and his people to larger truths: that Obama’s throngs are representative of real excitement among the electorate; that his glowing press derives from the power of the narrative that he and his campaign have constructed, which is a reality that can’t be wished—or cursed—away but that has to be countered, whether artfully or brutally.

For Hillary, of course, artfulness was beyond her and her campaign’s skill set. And to the extent she attempted brutality, it only backfired on her. Yet for all the wailing and gnashing of Obamaniac teeth over HRC’s harshness, her conduct was, in fact, fairly restrained. As Clinton’s strategists often pointed out privately, there were countless places Hillary could not go in her attempts to redefine Obama. With a few exceptions, she steered away from Reverend Wright. She indulged in no smear campaigns about Obama being a Muslim, or a communist, or whatever. But McCain is under no such constraints—and disqualifying Obama is by definition easier in a general election than it was in a Democratic primary. Consider that, despite the palpable lameness of his opponent’s effort so far, he has only a paltry three-to-five-point lead in the current national polls.

The question for Obama is whether he can persuade the public that he is who he says he is, not the alien that the Republicans will try to portray him as. It won’t be a simple task. But making it just a little bit easier will be the fact that he’s running against a man who seems intent on cross-dressing as the former First Lady.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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