Sunday, September 14, 2008

Can Obama Lose?

Not long ago, for the first time in decades, it seemed that anything (consistent with capitalism and with an imperialism in decline) was possible. There was even a candidate, John Edwards, who was poised to lead the charge. Even before Super Tuesday, however, it became clear that it wouldn’t work out that way – that one or another Clintonite, Hillary or Barack Obama, would restore Clintonism. To the relief of we lesser evilists, it soon became apparent that it would be Obama, not Hillary, who would be the one. The Clintons nevertheless fought back against the inevitable. It was a damaging fight, but apparently not a fatal one. By the time the Democrats assembled for their Denver infomercial, it was clear that Obama would recover from the wound. Then came Sarah Barracuda. It caught the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity (and Pelosiites), off guard. Thus there is now a fear in Democratic circles even more disabling than the fear that subsided after the Clintons and Obama made peace. Unlike that earlier fear, this one is not baseless. Despite the “fundamentals” (opinion surveys favoring Democratic over Republican positions, the Democratic lead in voter registrations, the unpopularity of George Bush and his minions), the nation and the world could well be on the threshold of yet another catastrophic chapter in the Bush-Cheney era.

The conventional wisdom is that Sarah Palin was a game changer. I doubt it; in fact, I’d not be too surprised if, after a few more weeks under withering scrutiny, she decides “to spend more time” with her soon to be expanded family. The idea that she might soon be just “a heart beat away”continues to fascinate; it is such an absurd prospect that it is hard not to fixate on it. But, so long as her husband and teenage daughters stay in line and out of the limelight, Palin’s celebrityhood will pass. As I argued after her acceptance speech at the Saint Paul convention, she has already peaked. Sooner than we think, attention will refocus on what a doddering neo-con John McCain is. Perhaps there will even be a backlash as it becomes clear to all but the most obtuse and willfully blind that his is the dirtiest, most unprincipled campaign in memory. But Obama could still falter because, despite Palin’s “qualifications,” “faith,” and Bush-like arrogance, and despite McCain’s vile, “from the gut” cluelessness, the Republicans just might be able, yet again, to launch a “culture war” that the Democrats could lose. Nowadays, the Republicans can’t win a culture war on the “merits”; there just aren’t enough end-time theocrats, plutocratic tax cutters, born again gun owners, bear, moose and wolf haters, and outright fans of ignorance and mediocrity out there. But if you can’t win honestly, you can always cheat. That, not Palin’s inexplicable popularity, is the thing to fear.

In recent years, Republicans have become adept at voter suppression. In 2004, there probably were enough shenanigans in Ohio to tip the vote; Kerry might have won had all the votes cast been counted correctly. But, in modern America, an election has to be fairly close to be stolen “fair and square.” Florida in 2000 was a more egregious case, and not only because Bush family fixers and their friends on the Supreme Court stole the election outright. Ralph Nader did get enough votes in Florida to permit the theft to occur, but, liberal whining aside, he wasn’t “the problem.” The problem was that many people who ought to have been able to vote, most of them African-American, were purged from the voter rolls. Then, of course, there was the additional problem that Republicans in the state government made sure that casting ballots in traditionally Democratic districts was inordinately difficult. Their counterparts four years later in Ohio did that too. It happens everywhere to some extent.

Republican voter suppression campaigns are the reason why, no matter who their candidate is, it is not enough for Democrats to be preferred by a bare majority of eligible voters; they need the support of large majorities, not just fifty percent plus one. The problem is especially acute in Obama’s case because, face it, there are people out there who just won’t vote for a black guy. In the culture war the Palin-McCain campaign is waging, is there any doubt which side those folks are on?

For Obama to win, he has to bring in new voters -- African Americans especially but also young voters and all the others who found Obama appealing while the primaries were still going on, before he embarked on his rightward surge – in numbers sufficient to swamp voters on the wrong side. Obama has to do better in this department than Kerry or Gore did, not just because they didn’t do well enough, but because his race adds fuel to the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts.

The Republican “base” is not big enough to push the Palin-McCain ticket over the top. But McCain and his handlers can “level the playing field” by going after the right to vote of those not likely to vote their way. It’s a tricky business and nobody really knows how the numbers pan out. A piece by Andrew Hacker in The New York Review of Books, aptly called “Obama: The Price of Being Black,” lays out the nature of the problem. The picture Hacker presents gives cause for alarm. Are the Democrats up to averting yet another defeat? It’s hard to believe, given the facts on the ground, that they won’t find a way to seize the moment. But if history has proven anything it’s that, if there’s a way to lose, the Democrats will find it.

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