It’s starting to feel like the general election. Rising to claim victory in the Wisconsin Republican primary before the networks could declare Barack Obama the winner on the Democratic side, John McCain started right in on his general election opponent.
He promised to "make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history and a return to false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than the people."
Scorch. Some 40 minutes later, Hillary Clinton got up before the cameras and set out her platform as if she were the winner, ignoring Obama as she had on primary night the week before. Having not been extended this courtesy, Obama did not extend her the courtesy of waiting for her to finish before he began his victory speech.
The networks quickly switched for Clinton to Obama, who went on for 45 minutes, cutting and pasting platform planks into the unspecific ode to hope that has enchanted so many voters.
That camera switch may turn out to be the beginning of the end of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She’s still hoping for victories in Ohio and Texas on March 4, but Obama’s margin in Wisconsin makes that seem less likely, and in any case, she will still be behind in delegates. She could win the nomination only with the votes of super-delegates or by counting the results in Florida and Michigan, where the national party commanded candidates not to compete.
Either move will strike many Obama enthusiasts — and others — as profoundly unfair. The way Clinton has run her campaign — like the way she ran health care reform in 1993-94 — undercuts her claim to be ready for the presidency from day one. In both cases, she had no fallback strategy, no Plan B, in case her best-case scenario failed to come to pass. She started campaigning in Wisconsin only last Saturday and had to cancel her events because of a snowstorm. Didn’t anyone check weather.com?
If you look at the numbers, if the general election were held today, Barack Obama would beat John McCain by a solid margin. (McCain would beat Clinton — another reason the super-delegates are unlikely to foist her on the party.) But the performances of the candidates on primary night — and the performances of their wives on Monday and Tuesday — suggests that may not always be the case.
Obama’s cut-and-paste job does respond to the complaint that he is without substance. But it’s hard to mix poetry and prose and come up with an appealing product. Particularly when, as columnist Robert Samuelson points out, there’s not much that’s interesting about the substance.
Then there are the wives. In Milwaukee on Monday, Michelle Obama, who has spoken frequently in the campaign, said: "Hope is making a comeback, and let me tell you, for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change."
For the first time in her life? Coming from the realm in which Michelle Obama has lived her adult life — Princeton, Harvard Law, a top law firm, a $342,000-a year job doing community relations for the University of Chicago hospital system — this may not sound out of the ordinary. As Samuel Huntington has pointed out, people in this stratum tend to have transnational attitudes — all nations are morally equal, except maybe for ours, which is worse.
This is not, to say the least, the view of most Americans, including very many who regularly vote Democratic. And it undercuts Barack Obama’s most appealing rhetoric, which emphasizes what Americans have in common.
Cindy McCain, who ordinarily doesn’t speak in public, picked up on this immediately. On Tuesday, she made a point of saying, several times, that she has always been proud of America. On election night, John McCain said he was "proud, proud of the privilege" of being an American.
I remember the electric feeling in the hall, at the first Republican National Convention I attended, in 1984, when Lee Greenwood belted out his country hit, "I’m proud to be an American." I don’t believe that I’ve heard it at any Democratic National Convention, and I’m pretty sure that some nontrivial number of the delegates would find it off-putting, even obnoxious.
Barack Obama has explained that his wife was just saying that she was proud for the first time of her country’s politics. But that’s not what she said, and said with considerable emphasis. Tuesday night seemed to be the beginning of the general election campaign. But what was said on Monday may prove to be just as important.