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Obama's Panic

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Seldom has there been a larger contrast between the style of a candidate and the strategy of his campaign.

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Barack Obama is cool, firm and permanently unruffled. It is precisely this quality of steadiness that has made him seem a credible prospective president with the thinnest of résumés.

But Obama's campaign is rootless, reactive and panicky. At every stage since securing the nomination, it has seemed fearful of missteps and unsure of its own organizing principle. So it has invariably adopted the Democratic conventional wisdom of the moment.

Obama's first major decision was his running mate. He could have reinforced a message of change and moderation with a Democratic governor who wins in a Republican state, or reached for history by selecting Hillary Clinton. But his choice came soon after Russia invaded Georgia, and the conventional wisdom demanded an old hand who knew his way around Tbilisi. When the Georgia crisis faded, Obama was left with a partisan, undisciplined, congressional liberal at his side. This has served to undermine Obama's message of change -- and has allowed Sarah Palin to pilfer a portion of that appeal.

Obama's second decision concerned the tone and content of his convention. Here the Democratic conventional wisdom was nearly unanimous. Obama should shelve his highfalutin rhetoric and talk like a real Democrat. Go after McCain. Talk about "bread and butter" issues -- code words for class-warfare attacks on consumers of blinis and caviar.

Obama took this advice to the letter -- at the cost of his political identity. In his Denver speech, it seemed that every American home was on the auction block, every car stalled for lack of gasoline, every credit card bill past due, every worker treated like a Russian serf. And John McCain? He was out of touch, with flawed "judgment." His life devoted to serving oil companies and big corporations. And, by the way, he didn't have the courage to follow Osama bin Laden "to the cave where he lives." In obedience to the best Democratic advice, Obama managed to be conventional, bitter and graceless.

Now Obama has made his third major campaign decision -- to finally get really tough on McCain. In response to attacks and dropping polls, the Democratic wisdom is once again nearly uniform: Democrats lose because they are not vicious enough. And once again, the Obama campaign has taken this advice without hesitation. "We will respond with speed and ferocity to John McCain's attacks, and we will take the fight to him," says Obama's campaign manager.

Obama feels provoked -- and he has been. There is no evidence that Obama supported explicit sex education for kindergarteners, as a McCain ad implied. Having already accused McCain of being a cowardly corporate tool who is disconnected from reality, escalation is not an easy task for Obama. But he has managed. In one recent commercial, McCain is clearly mocked for his age -- compared to a disco ball and a 10-pound cellphone. Another ad uses the word "dishonorable" next to a photo of McCain -- an attack from a candidate who has little practical familiarity with the cost of honor.

Who is hurt most by this race to the bottom? McCain, by the evidence of his own convention, wants to be a viewed as a fighter -- which a fight does little to undermine. Obama was introduced to America as a different and better kind of politician -- an image now in tatters.

Even worse for Obama, all these shifts to catch the prevailing winds confirm the most serious concerns about his political character. As a senator, he has almost never opposed the ideological consensus of his party. (The ethics reform he often cites as his profile in courage eventually passed the Senate 96 to 2.) And now as a presidential candidate, Obama has run his campaign with all the constancy of a skittish sailboat on an erratic ocean.

Here is a different strategy. Obama could attempt to "beat back the politics of fear, and doubt, and cynicism." He could try to build a coalition that "stretches through red states and blue states." He could reject "the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up."

The candidate who said those words the night he won the Iowa caucuses did pretty well. But whatever the outcome of this presidential election, that candidate is no longer in the race.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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