Thursday, April 24, 2008

The fight of his life

In the runup to Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Primary, some inventive souls posted to YouTube a wildly inventive cut-and-paste video, “Baracky,” that cast Barack Obama as the lead character in “Rocky.” Just like Rocky Balboa did in the 1976 Oscar-winning film, Obama lost the fight, the senator from Illinois outpointed by the judges in the voting booths of the Keystone State.

Now, against all odds, despite the favorable delegate lead he enjoys, forces are arrayed against him — some even within his own party — to deny him the Democratic presidential nomination he’s nearly earned, and to do it on the basis of manufactured technicalities. Battling both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Obama’s fighting a two-front war.

His next fight’s in two weeks. Here’s what’s necessary to win that bout and at least some of the others:

It’s time for Obama to face the issue that revealed itself in Pennsylvania: White men are having second thoughts about Obama. He has to understand that, for many white male voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, it matters that they connect with a candidate, that they feel relaxed in his presence, that they feel some form of the kinship that in many ways has less to do with race and more to do with emotion and camaraderie. It matters to them that he knows how to throw more than gutter balls in a bowling alley.

The issues of the day — the economy, health care, the Iraq misadventure, social security, the state of the environment — have to be front and center again, and not couched in generalities and ripostes, but with specifics, proposals and ideas John Q. Kozlowski can get his mind and heart around. The ideas are out there; even a casual look at the Obama Web site proves that. Now Obama has to boil down that position paper to language that resonates, with specifics that illuminate.

The hypothetical but real "Kozlowskis" of the primary season — those rust-belt, white male, blue-collar voters said to be disinclined to vote for Obama purely because of race (according to the Ed Rendell cosmology) — still may not vote for him. But the effort to reach out to them will go a long way to undercut any lingering resentments to the "bitter" comments. And doing so sends a signal to superdelegates still sitting on the fence: that Obama will do what's required to look for common ground — a unifying philosophy the supers will appreciate (even if the senator can't bowl to save his life).

This approach, relentlessly applied from now until June, will start to rewrite the narrative of the campaign: While Hillary Clinton remains stuck in neutral with continued repetition of the Jeremiah Wright and electability issues, Barack Obama has regained the high ground by revisiting an early chapter in his campaign playbook: “Connecting With People Where They Live.”

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Obama needs to come back to an approach that he and Clinton both mounted earlier in the campaign: a conflation of the economy and the war in Iraq. Uniting those two issues in the minds of voters, and doing it with matter-of-fact everyday examples, will send a serious shot across the bow of the McCain campaign — challenging the Arizona senator on the two issues to which he’s most vulnerable to attack: a ruinous and unpopular war, and a troubled national economy that he admits he knows next to nothing about.

In that brewing bruising battle with McCain, Obama needs to be prepared to call into question the double standard of perceptions that weighs his past missteps with Wright equally with the more recent association between McCain and the Rev. John Hagee, who called the Catholic Church “the great whore” — a personal association that McCain has neither rejected nor denounced, and one for which he should be held accountable.

And it’s time for Obama to come out swinging against the fifth column inside his own party. It’s time for Obama to confront, directly but eloquently, the central fallacy of Hillary Clinton’s hoary “electability” argument: she’s no more or less electable than he is, and for many of the same reasons she would bring against him.

Assuming that what Clinton has said earlier in the campaign is true — that gender is as big, as immovable, as problematic an impediment to American progress as race is — and with the evidence of the nation’s history of bias against women, it’s clear that Hillary Clinton is, like Obama, equally wounded by popular attitudes that have absolutely nothing to do with qualifications and everything to do with the way they were born.

So much for Clinton “electability.”

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In his battle with Clinton, Obama needs to drive home, again and again, the real electability issue: the irrefutable fact of his sizable lead in the accepted metrics of the primary season: delegate count, and nothing else. Obama has to make it clear that “electability” is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders who count (besides the superdelegates) are the millions on people who have voted for him already and the hundreds of thousands who’ll vote for him between now and June 3.

This more aggressive attack will be condemned by some Obama supporters, the faint of heart who were hoping that Obama would continue staying above the fray, dismissing his attackers with weak-tea responses that, genteel though they have been, overlook the gravity of the accusations.

Can’t be helped. The true believers will be there for him. The angels at the base of his fundraising pyramid will be there. It’s time to take off the oratorical gloves.

And it's time for Obama to regain that ability to respond to new, evolving realities on the ground. To a large extent, Team Obama has done exactly that, shown an uncanny knack for making a quick pivot when necessary, answering charges from rivals before the cement hardened. Remember the "3 a.m." ad from the Clintons? Remember the Obama campaign's almost-immediate response? There's never been a swifter response to a campaign smear in the history of modern American politics. In the real-time context of 21st-century communications, Team Obama proved it was a master of the game.

Obama needs to get back to that. Now.

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” said Finley Peter Dunne, the celebrated Chicago humorist. True that. Politics is war by other means, but just barely other means. There are growing concerns that, after all the promise and electricity of the campaign’s early months, Barack Obama may have brought a Bowie knife to a gunfight.

Enough of this emo-Zen strategy. Aikido is fine, but nothing rings an opponent's bell like an oratorical two-by-four to the head. Nice guys don’t always finish last but they often get their teeth kicked in. It is time for Barack Obama to summon again the passion and populist fire that's brought him this far, and add to it a proportional response to the new assaults against him, an answer equal to what’s at stake — nothing less than the arc of this nation’s future.

No more “bitter” tears. No holds barred.

Why? Get real: Not even Rocky Balboa had to fight two opponents at the same time.
Image credit: Clinton: Boxers: From Edmund Price's "The Science of Self Defense: A Treatise on Sparring and Wrestling," 1867

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