Tuesday, January 29, 2008
After South Carolina
I optimistically promised some thoughts on the state of the Democratic campaign yesterday, before the flu bug I'm fighting off sent me to bed early. In the meantime, it occurred to me that we've entered the phase of the campaign where the horserace coverage kind of takes a backseat and the organization kicks in. So to a large degree (and barring any major gaffes on either side), I think that what will happen on February 5th is already decided, whether or not the pundits or the polls manage to accurately predict the outcome.
That said, what strikes me as significant about the very tumultuous month of campaigning we've just seen is that it has prevented both Obama and Clinton from fully imposing their narratives on the campaign. After a moment where Obama looked poised to ride a post-Iowa wave of euphoria straight to the nomination, it has become clear that hope, while a major part of any successful formula, won't be enough. Neither will bi-partisanship, which despite being warmly received by Obama's Republican admirers (no surprise there given the GOP's 2008 chances) is regarded with either suspicion or derision by most self-identified Democrats. So while Obama continues to surprise and impress with his ability to attract new voters and thereby change the political landscape to his advantage, and while he does so largely with these themes, he'll have to find some way to graft some other element onto his core message if he's going to attract the rest of the Democratic base.
For Clinton, the story is similar. In the aftermath of Iowa, the air of inevitability that she hoped to ride to the nomination took on a close resemblance to the political equivalent of the Titanic. But despite the iceberg that Iowa tossed into its path, the Clinton campaign has managed to not only survive its disastrous maiden voyage and right itself, it has somehow managed to recloak itself with an air of... inevitability. It's a neat trick, but one that is betrayed by the fury with which she, her husband and various and sundry proxies have been campaigning.
Meanwhile, if neither candidate was able to fully impose their narrative on the campaign, neither, too, were they able to distance themselves from their perceived weakness. What's most significant here, though, is that neither has actually suffered for it. What do I mean by that?
Again, let's start with Obama. Despite his ability to take the Clinton campaign's post-Iowa barrage of bare-knuckled, hard-nosed, tag-team politicking and remain standing, he's left many observers (Josh Marshall here, for example), unimpressed with his ability to fight back against Clinton's attacks. In other words, the questions about his toughness linger, even if the impact of his opponents' attacks has been put in doubt. (With all the comparisons that have been made between Obama and Reagan, it won't be long, I'm sure, before we start hearing talk about the Teflon Candidate.)
The same thing, though, holds true for Clinton. Her Achilles' heel was supposed to be the polarizing effect of her take-no-prisoners brand of politics. But while Bill Clinton's role in the campaign has drawn quite a bit of criticism, it has also (up until South Carolina) seemed to work. It's also far from universally accepted that Clinton has in some way crossed the lines of a hard-nosed political campaign, and some have even been reassured by her combatancy.
What this all means to me is that the campaign has served its function very well. No one got a free pass, the major candidates' strengths and weakness were brought out, and both Clinton and Obama had to fight from a position of frontrunner and comeback kid. What it also means, though, is that from here on out, it favors the status quo. And unless there's some seismic shift in the political landscape, the status quo favors Clinton.
It could be I'm speaking on the eve of just such a seismic shift, given all the endorsement moves being made this week. If so, we could see a major surprise come February 5th. But truth be told, I have a hard time seeing Obama do better than nibble away at the edges and draw the race out.