Politics & Policy

Fall of the House of Clinton

And other political realities on the road to the White House.

Some thoughts on where things stand after last night:

1. The House of Clinton is falling before our eyes. Hillary Clinton’s crushing loss yesterday in Wisconsin, in the wake of the wipeout she experienced in the “Potomac Primaries” and the loss of ten consecutive states, means it is extremely improbable that she will win the nomination. Everything is breaking Obama’s way. All the trends are going in his direction and he is getting stronger with every passing week. Hillary Clinton has shown no signs that she can slow, let alone stop, his momentum. She not only has to defeat him in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania; she now needs to beat him by double-digit margins.

Clinton supporters must be crestfallen. The outcome of this race now seems written in the stars.

2. Some of us wrote the Clinton epitaph too early — but it looks like we were early rather than wrong. The fundamental point about the Democratic race remains that in 2007, Obama evened the playing field with Hillary Clinton in the two areas she was supposed to have an overwhelming advantage: money and organization. Once that occurred, it was a matter of who the better candidate was — and he wins that contest hands down. He is an extraordinary political talent; she is an average one. He comes across as likeable and charming; she and her husband come across as ambitious and ruthless. It was clear even in the latter part of 2007 that his support was spontaneous and enthusiastic while hers was obligatory and duty-bound. Once Obama won Iowa, the aura of inevitability surrounding Clinton was destroyed — and he has been able to pry away her support with some ease.

3. Last night John McCain laid out the lines of attack against Obama. Here is how McCain put it:

I will … make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history and a return to the false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than the people.

This is the right way for Senator McCain to frame things. Barack Obama has so far been able to present himself as a kind of trans-political figure, an eloquent but essentially empty vehicle in which people could place their hopes and wishes. I have argued elsewhere [here and here] that Obama’s main weakness is not content-free speeches but his orthodox, and in some cases extreme, liberalism. Obama has never been forced to deal with this because Hillary Clinton, Obama’s equal as a liberal, could not attack his political ideology. And so until now Obama has been given a relatively free pass, even by his opponents. That is about to end.

John McCain, if he is wise (and he is), is going to make it clear to all of America that if it chooses Barack Obama as its next president, it will be selecting, for the first time in modern times, a thorough-going liberal. Americans may make that choice — but if they do, it will be groundbreaking.

4. Barack Obama helped the McCain effort last night with his long and windy speech. Clearly Obama was attempting to respond to those who have said (and fairly so) that his speeches have been eloquent but largely devoid of policy. Obama’s speech yesterday provided content — and what we find is that his policies are not particularly creative or heterodox or even all that hopeful; they are, rather, conventionally liberal (see Robert Samuelson’s excellent column here) — and his description of America is actually fairly downbeat. So begins the descent back to earth for Barack Obama. His lofty and high-minded appeal, which has gotten him to where he is, will quickly give way to a spirited and substantive debate of the issues.

5. Senator Obama will try mightily to escape the liberal label. He will take one or two issues that outside sources (like National Journal magazine) judge to be liberal and say, in essence, that the old categories and the old charges don’t apply. Such name-calling, he will be insist, blurs rather than clarifies the issues. Obama will ridicule McCain as inartful, divisive, a figure from a distant era. And Obama will be aided in this effort by some in the press, whose teeth will grind whenever the charge of liberalism is raised.

McCain should ignore all this; focusing on Obama’s political ideology remains his best chance for victory. And it is a totally appropriate, and even important, thing for him to do. Politics is finally and fundamentally about ideas and philosophy. Political categories and ideologies mean something. They describe not only a person’s stance on particular issues, but their worldview, their operating assumptions, the propositions they embrace and those they reject.

It matters a great deal how one views the role of the state vs. the free market and whether one wants to encourage greater self-government. It matters whether one believes in originalism or a Constitution that is elastic and ever-changing, whether one believes unborn children have any rights and are deserving of our protection, whether one believes we are overtaxed or undertaxed and whether we should be a more or less litigious society, and whether one sees corporations, entrepreneurs, and wealthy Americans as generators of jobs, prosperity, and progress or as greedy and deserving of vilification. It matters whether one believes unlawful enemy combatants ought to be granted the same rights as American citizens, whether one believes we should restrict or upgrade our efforts to eavesdrop on terrorist communications, whether one believes we should win in Iraq or flee from that central battlefield, and whether one believes we are engaged in a transcendent struggle against militant Islam.

6. A year ago, the Iraq war looked to be a huge vulnerability for whoever emerged as the GOP nominee. Today it is not only not a significant weakness, it could turn out to be something of an advantage if it becomes a proxy for a broader national-security debate.

The war itself is and will remain unpopular — but John McCain, more than anyone, can rightly claim distance from the failures of the Iraq policy. He was right, and right early, about Iraq. More importantly, the Iraq-related arguments that Democrats have relied on for the past several years are systematically being turned to rubble because of the extraordinary achievements by (among others) the United States military.

John McCain can do well in this debate by pointing out that Barack Obama was wrong in opposing the surge, wrong in saying the surge is not translating into progress, including political progress, and wrong in saying that dire consequences will not follow if we are defeated in Iraq. Most importantly, Obama’s views on Iraq massively undercut his effort to project himself as an independent thinker, anti-ideological, a reasonable, reflective man who is open to hearing and accepting new facts.

On Iraq, Obama increasingly looks to be in a state of denial — rigid, ideological, and in search of an excuse to justify a full-scale American retreat. It’s a bad idea for a leader of a major political party to be hermetically sealed off from authentically good news, especially when it comes to a deeply consequential war. But that is increasingly where Senator Obama finds himself these days. There will be a price to pay for the position Obama has staked out.

– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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