Now that John McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is increasingly focused on who can beat him.
Team Obama is psyched about several hypothetical "head-to-head" surveys - which are often unreliable - that show him faring much better against the hawkish Arizona Senator. The trend is evident in a battery of recent polls, and Obama aides have been blasting reporters with a CNN segment on the results. So Clinton dispatched her top aides to discuss the darker side of electability this week. Pollster Mark Penn made Hillary's case in a conference call and 1,100-word memo, but since current data does not support her electability, he issued predictions instead. His five key points were:
The GOP Attack Machine Will Redefine the Democratic Candidate; Hillary Has Withstood That Process.
Sen. McCain Will Run on National Security; Hillary Wins That Argument.
Sen. Obama's Negatives Will Rise; Hillary's Are Already Factored In.
The Resiliency of Sen. Obama's Coalition Will Be Tested; Hillary's Coalition Is Stronger.
Current Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms. (emphasis added)
Plenty of pollsters are known for bluster over data, so maybe Penn should get candor points for not even mentioning numbers in his five points. In a charitable comparison of the campaigns' arguments, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza concludes that "the central difference in the electability appeals by the two campaigns is temporal." You know, like one appeal is based on today's data, and the other is based on a crystal ball. Cillizza continues:
The Obama campaign argues that the way to best understand who is the more electable is to look at current polling and past results to see who leads the likely Republican nominee and who is better able to lure crucial independents to the Democratic cause. The present is what matters, says Obama. For Clinton, it's the future that's the issue. Sure, they argue, Obama may be ahead right now, but Republicans have only begun to define him, a process that would strip away much of his independent support and leave him on the losing end of a race against McCain.
But wait -- for the vast majority of this campaign, Clinton aides touted her huge lead in past and current polls as proof of her "inevitability." Most independent pollsters and journalists swallowed that line, reporting items like this: "The conclusion drawn by the polling experts appears to be: Forget about Iowa being close, Clinton's inevitable, she's going to be the Democratic nominee." (That's from December.)
So at a minimum, reporters and pollsters must acknowledge that the Clinton Campaign has abandoned the case it pushed for over a year. Instead, it is now asking everyone to trust their predictions over current polls, past polls or their past arguments. We can't just ignore a massive shift in the central political argument for their candidate.
But that doesn't mean they are completely wrong, either.
There are two key issues in the "new" Clinton case: First, their explanation of the huge favorability gap is basically correct, and our political class should digest that reality. Second, their national security argument is wrong, and it offers an arresting reminder of the political and substantive problems with Clinton's foreign policy.
Penn told reporters that Obama's favorability ratings are temporarily inflated:
...time and time again the GOP attack machine redefine[s] the Democratic candidate. Hillary has withstood this process. She's lived through it. The attack machine has been built and honed over decades - it is formidable.. she has withstood this type of attack...
From a pure PR perspective, this is undeniably true. Clinton's negative ratings stem from a decade of sustained, presidential campaign level attacks on both her and her family. Obama has yet to receive such attacks -- he did not even face a viable opponent in his Senate race -- and his toughest Right Wing assault so far was an unfunded effort to lie about his Christian faith. If he is the nominee, sure, he could run a unifying campaign drawing a larger majority than Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter ever built. But his negatives would still rise like every other Democratic nominee in the modern era. If reporters and voters don't get that now, however, and Obama wins the nomination, then get ready for a spate of summer hand-wringing about the "surprising" spike in his negatives.
Then there is the security argument, where the Clinton Campaign reveals it is ready to repeat the mistakes of Kerry 04. On this front, Penn's memo is breathtaking:
Based on what they know of her and her experience, voters believe Hillary is fully ready to be commander in chief. She will be strong and right...The Republicans will not be able to play the national security card against Hillary Clinton, like they are now doing against Senator Obama, and that makes her a fundamentally stronger candidate against John McCain. (emphasis added)
Got that? The campaign that "knows the Republican attack machine better than anyone" actually thinks their candidate is magically immune to the GOP's first line of attack.
Of course, either candidate will face a withering assault on security, "patriotism" and the Democratic passion for "protecting of rights of people who want to kill us" -- as a Fox pundit put the question to President Bush this weekend. The key difference is that Clinton is wedded to the "yes-but arguments" that failed Kerry. (The Nation's Ari Berman has more on this today in "Clinton Running Like It's 2002.") Take her Iraq defense in the last debate:
I believe that it is abundantly clear that the case that was outlined on behalf of going to the resolution -- not going to war, but going to the resolution -- was a credible case. I was told personally by the White House that they would use the resolution to put the inspectors in. I worked with Senator Levin to make sure we gave them all the intelligence so that we would know what's there. Some people now think that this was a very clear, open-and-shut case. We bombed them for days in 1998 because Saddam Hussein threw out inspectors. We had evidence that they had a lot of bad stuff for a very long time, which we discovered after the first Gulf War. Knowing that he was a megalomaniac, knowing he would not want to compete for attention with Osama bin Laden, there were legitimate concerns about what he might do. So I think I made a reasoned judgment. Unfortunately the person who actually got to execute the policy did not. (emphasis added; transcribed by The New York Times.)
So even today, she sees a "credible case" for the war, but she is also against the war. She made a reasoned judgment, but Bush did not. And when facing Iraq criticism, she mentions Osama bin Laden.
Yet for this entire campaign, while many focused on Obama's style and charisma, he advocated the policy and political imperative of challenging the fundamental premises of neoconservative foreign policy. He says it in every stump speech. (It's a huge applause line.) He hammered on the point in his speech on Super Tuesday -- an important choice since the televised address was one of his largest media opportunities to reach new voters:
And if I am your nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, because I didn't -- (cheers) -- or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, because I haven't -- (cheers, applause) -- or that I support the Bush-Cheney doctrine of not talking to leaders we don't like, because I profoundly disagree with that approach. (Cheers, applause.) And he will not be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether or not it's okay for America to use torture, because it's never okay. That is the choice in this election. (Transcribed by The Federal News Service.)
That is not only the most powerful argument for winning -- providing a strong, clear contrast instead of the Democratic doubletalk of 2004 -- it also prioritizes policy leadership on the campaign trail, not blurry pandering. Even apart from Iraq, when is the last time you heard a top Democrat lean in to confront Republicans on torture and Iran, rather discussing the issues on defense?
Most of the time, electability is a parlor game for insiders, who shift from (irrelevant) past polling to the titillating speculation of (even less reliable) projection polling. But this week's debate could be more meaningful, since voters can weigh Clinton's blunt claim that her war record would fare better in November. The Clintons have long eyed McCain warily -- the former president even said he "might be the most electable" Republican in a December interview on ABC. (The clip is still the second most popular item out of 166 videos on McCain's YouTube channel.) And Clinton was probably right.
Now Democrats are girding for a battle against a formidable but flawed political figure. McCain's shortcomings are well known, as an unrelenting advocate of the failed Rumsfeld plan in Iraq and the failed Bush approach to global terror. Given a clear alternative, Americans just might elect someone else.
This post originally appeared in The Nation.
Tom Bevan runs down more of the numbers at RCP.
Finally, I discussed Clinton's campaign strategy and Obama's standing with several reporters in this CNBC roundtable:
Clinton Campaign Strained?