Friday, August 24, 2007

The Crossover Candidate

An article by Michael Scherer in cites several polls that indicate that, of the top three Democratic contenders, the one with the most crossover appeal to Republicans and independents is Barack Obama. Scherer also cites data that suggest that Democrats believe that Hillary Clinton is their most electable candidate. Evidently, they’re wrong.

Of course, the general election is still far off, even if most of the primaries are not nearly as far off as they ought to be; and, with months to go even until the primaries, most likely voters have yet to focus on the candidates. But Scherer’s findings make sense. More people hate Hillary than hate any of the others. This has been true for as long as she’s been in the public spotlight. It is a somewhat puzzling phenomenon. No one just a shade to the left of “the vast right-wing conspiracy” has any cause to hate her for her politics; if they did, they’d have to hate their own politics too. Is it because she’s an uppity woman? That’s certainly part of it. But they’ve always hated her better half as much or more than they’ve hated her. There’s evidently something about that whole rotten dynasty wannabe. I think I know what it is: the Clintons are not just phonies; they’re slick phonies. There’s something about that that drives the hard right nuts. Diehard Republicans don’t mind bumpkins or dummies (so long as they don’t f…k up too badly). They don’t mind evil demons, like Cheney or Rove, provided they seem sincere. They don’t mind fools (e.g. Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Gonzales and so on). They can even go for sanctimonious twits like Joe Lieberman. But slicksters set them off. It’s stupid, but you gotta take what you can get. If HRC is unelectable, even if the reasons why are silly or unfathomable or both, we can only be grateful. Otherwise, she might get elected. According to Scherer’s data, John Edwards has about the same crossover appeal as Hillary Clinton – none. In this case, the explanation probably does have more to do with politics than personality, since no one seems to hate him. But I suspect that the main thing is that Republicans and independents don’t think much about him one way or the other. Obama gets all the publicity. He’s also more anodyne. Being anodyne and also, in most peoples' minds, black, he’s downright Oprah-ish. Thus, he’s the obvious choice.

Now I am tempted to say that crossover appeal is likely to matter less in this election than any other in recent memory because the Republican field -- and therefore the Republican candidate, whomever he turns out to be – is so pitiful that even the people who voted for Bush twice will have trouble voting for him. But I may be giving those people too much credit. If they could find it within themselves to turn the Bush family into a dynasty to rival the Adams Family, and if they can idolize a lazy, ignorant and patently reactionary actor (I’m referring to Reagan, not Fred Thompson), they’re capable of anything. But it’s still a leap from being capable of anything, to being capable of voting for a Rudy Giuliani or a Mitt Romney.

Anyway, supposing Scherer is right and that the trend holds, what does it tell us about Obama? Maybe just that if you’re well-launched and unthreatening, and if you don’t do or say much to tick people off or make them wary, you can slide into the White House (provided, of course, that our increasingly feckless capitalists find it convenient to back you or at least not block you). Or could it mean that Obama is a Clintonite without all the Clinton baggage. I suspect the latter.

Not long ago, it required the practiced eye of a fine jeweler to find a “center” between the Democratic “left” and the Republican “right.” But under Cheney and Bush, the inmates have taken over the asylum that the Republican Party has become. Is it all that surprising, then, that old-style Republicans, the Papa Doc Bush kind, would be tempted to crossover? But where to go? Clinton is damaged goods; Edwards is now the un-Republican. Obama might be too, though he’s more likely a Clintonite. The longer he remains a Rorschach test, the more crossover appeal he’ll be able to muster without, as they say, “alienating the (Democratic) base.” Whether this is a problem, depends on what Obama “really” is. Time will tell. I hope that it tells in time.

The only thing that is clear, for now, is that Democrats have unfailingly bad instincts when it comes to detecting electability. They would do better deferring to the judgment of Republicans and independents than relying, Bush-like, on their remarkably fallible “guts.” But then they should be careful of what they wish for – because they just might get it.

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