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The Electability Thing

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, February 1, 2008

Now that the presidential field has been winnowed to four -- barring a miraculous return by one of the contestants recently voted off the island -- the new national pastime is gaming the electability factor. This could keep us busy for a while, since you could make the argument that all four of the leading candidates remaining are potentially unelectable.

They all have great political strengths, too -- some more than others. And it's a safe bet that one of them will win in November, thus proving that he or she possessed sufficient electability all along. But this column is about the considerable political weaknesses that burden the Democratic and Republican front-runners like so much dead weight. No matter how you figure the matchups, any one of them could lose.

Did someone mention John McCain? Maybe I'm missing something, but I haven't completely bought into the consensus view that the Arizona senator would be the tougher opponent for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

I assume that if McCain gets the Republican nomination, true-believer conservatives will agree to a cease-fire and fall in line. They might do so more quickly and more passionately if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, but it's crazy to imagine that Rush Limbaugh and his ilk would give Obama an easier time than Hillary. And McCain's apostasy does, at least superficially, seem likely to attract more support from independents than Mitt Romney's newfound orthodoxy.

But after George W. Bush's military misadventures -- with more than 150,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, and the United States and Iran engaged in what amounts to a new Cold War -- are independents going to vote for a man who promises that "there will be other wars," as McCain has said? With the U.S. economy at a near standstill and soon-to-retire baby boomers watching their home equity and their 401(k) savings accounts evaporate, are people going to elect a man who admits he doesn't understand economics all that well? And while Chuck Norris deserved to be slammed for the way he talked about McCain's age, it is an issue.

Romney's the right age, and he certainly looks presidential -- too presidential, actually, as if he had a stylist on call 24-7. At least he understands how the U.S. economic system works, even if he's happy with policies that have rigged it to reward the rich. Given his proven determination to tell Republicans anything they want to hear if it will win him the nomination, I'm sure he would do the same in a general election campaign. He might even suddenly recall that he once was a fairly moderate governor of the most liberal state in the nation.

His downside is as obvious as his immaculate coif: As David Letterman has noted, "He looks like the guy on TV selling life insurance, doesn't he? . . . He looks like that guy on a Father's Day ad for Norelco. . . . He looks like the guy on the 'Just for Men' bottle." Sounds that way, too.

On the Democratic side, for the sake of argument let's ignore the obvious fact that the election of either Obama or Clinton would be a historic first. Both are essentially in agreement on the major issues. But neither has a lock on electability.

Clinton's big problem is The Whole Clinton Thing -- the specter of Bill's return to center stage, the all-too-familiar politics of triangulation, the psychodrama of the marriage, the fact that they've already had eight years in the White House. The prospect of a Restoration so energizes Republicans that the party would try its best to forgive McCain's transgressions or Romney's artificiality in the interest of unity against a clear and present threat. It would be total war.

Obama has the magic, no doubt about it. Of all the major candidates, I believe he has the most crossover appeal; I know dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republicans who are so mesmerized by his oratory that they say they would actually vote for him over McCain or Romney. But the "experience" question is real, and if he's not careful, it has the potential to sink him. One bad stumble during the fall campaign could be enough to convince voters that he's not ready.

Obama may have the best chance to win big in November and receive a broad mandate. But if he were to make mistakes, he may also be more likely than the others to lose big.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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