One observation stands out to me from this debate. Hillary can be relentless and like a sledgehammer delivering tendentious but probably effective attacks. But whatever you think of those attacks, Obama isn't very good at defending himself. And that's hard for me to ignore when thinking of him as a general election candidate.And you can bet the Republicans are stocking an arsenal of material with which to Swiftboat Obama.
In most of these cases -- such as the Reagan issue -- I think Obama's remarks have been unobjectionable but ambiguous and certainly susceptible to both misunderstanding and intentional misrepresentation. And if you're going to talk like that -- nuance, as we used to say -- be able to defend it when people play with your words. And I don't see it.
Over at the American Conservative Scott McConnell discusses this weakness.
One must also consider that the Republicans—perhaps especially those now overflowing with praise for Obama—might actually want to win the presidential election. In Obama, they would have an opponent who has never faced a well-funded foe in a tough one-on-one race, never encountered a barrage of negative TV advertising. He might be able to take a political punch well, he may not have a glass jaw. But there is no evidence for it. Obama’s one statewide campaign was a romp over Alan Keyes, prompting one wag to remark that Obama’s general-election prospects would indeed be excellent if the Republicans nominated Alan Keyes.McCain's comment; “Obama wouldn’t know the difference between an RPG and a bong,” may be the first exploitation of Obama's ill advised comments on his youthful drug use. Obama has not responded well to the attacks by the Clintons and that is minor league compared with what he would see in the general election.
Obama has never faced a white opponent who hit hard or low or who struck at the very quality that makes him most appealing to the Left blogosphere, his exoticism. He won’t face that test in the primaries: the nearest the Hillary camp might come is former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey’s probably disingenuous claim that he “liked” Obama’s name and background and presumed ability to connect with the world’s one billion Muslims. Liberal bloggers slammed Kerrey for propagating a vicious “smear,” reminding one and all that multicultural good manners and political correctness are still the single factor that unites Democrats.
Republicans would not necessarily share such qualms. What might their campaign look like? You needn’t be a political consultant to imagine a pretty effective one. The natural point of approach, of course, would be the name. Can we acknowledge that no contemporary Trollope or Allen Drury seeking to dramatize the emergence of a talented half-African presidential contender would consider burdening his hero with a name that evokes both of America’s best-known enemies in the War on Terror? It would be far too over the top for social realism.
As the Democratic presidential nominee, Obama could quickly become known as Barack Hussein Obama. Republican commercials and talk radio would guarantee it. Negative TV spots could be relatively banal, pointing to some liberal highlights from Obama’s state legislature record—one very strong pro-abortion vote and another against people who used unregistered guns to protect their homes against intruders would do the trick. And then, a voiceover, intoning something like “Barack Hussein Obama—Right for America?”
Perhaps the Republicans have so internalized political correctness that it would be unthinkable for them to chip away at Obama’s character. But political parties, by their nature, want to win. John McCain has already opined, “Obama wouldn’t know the difference between an RPG and a bong,” foreshadowing a campaign that emphasizes personality more than issues, terrain hardly favorable to Obama.
Obama’s backers seem strangely overprotective of their man, as if they can’t conceive how any fair-minded person would not adore him. The few times questions like those raised above have been posted in the comments section of the highbrow progressive blogs, the reaction has been visceral, immediate, strident: it is racist even to mention this stuff, a point pounded home in vitriolic terms. The intense repudiation of Bob Kerrey’s rather innocuous observation about Obama’s name and background was astonishing, suggesting not confidence but fear that a very tender area was being exposed. It would seem that they too worry that their poetic and exciting candidate may actually be far weaker than the polls show.