While Senator Obama is on foreign tour this week, it is a good time to consider what factors will be decisive in the fall Presidential race.
The election will not be won on foreign policy -- but it could be lost on it. That's why Senator Obama is visiting key countries in the Middle East and in Europe. He is shoring up his credentials as an American politician who can handle himself well with other foreign leaders. The trip is less about the nuances of policy, and much more about appearances -- Obama must appear credible at home as commander-in-chief (an all important threshold for any presidential candidate). He must also demonstrate an ease and familiarity with the vital issues facing the US abroad. I have little doubt that he will accomplish this task.
The foreign press is already annointing him as the next president. In Germany, headline writers use phrases like "The Black Kennedy" and "The Next JFK." The Iraqi government has even been telling the press that they favor Obama's plan for responsible withdrawal of American troops from their country.
All he has to do is not make any silly mistakes. The trip will mainly impact American voters as photos and soundbites. Obama will be seen as a serious and centrist Democrat on foreign policy -- and one who is welcomed by our allies around the world. No amount of carping and nitpicking from the McCain campaign will undercut this message.
It is safe to predict that foreign policy will be wash for the two candidates. Both Obama and McCain will be viewed as ready to be commander-in-chief and as a plausible American leader in foreign affairs. This, in fact, will be a victory for the Democrats, since the "national security deficit" in voting usually greatly favors the Republican nominee. Obama and his highly competent political and foreign policy team are doing everything right to narrow that margin to a draw.
The campaign will be won or lost on the home front -- on domestic issues, above all on the state of the economy and the need for healthcare reform. On these issues, Obama and the Democrats have a sizable lead in the polls and a "natural" advantage in a time of economic distress. As Paul Krugman and other commentators have declared, the election seems to be Obama's to lose.
How might that happen?
The answer seems clear: if the Democratic party is not united behind Obama in the fall, it is still possible that he will lose enough working class white votes and perhaps female votes to be defeated narrowly by McCain in such swing states as Michigan, Florida and Ohio. It might happen because his economic message is still weak, and because of personal characteristics beyond his control: his race and ethnicity or his sometimes arrogant manner. It would be a tragedy if it's because of his failure to unite the party.
The antidote to this outcome is simple: he has to bring Bill and Hillary Clinton in from the cold and make them essential parts of the fall campaign and his campaign strategy.
It would seem obvious from Al Gore's race in 2000, that ignoring the assets that the Clintons bring to presidential campaigning is a recipe for disaster -- for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It would be both sad and ludicrous to repeat that experience.
Bill Clinton is the only Democrat since FDR to win two presidential elections. He is the greatest natural politician and campaigner of his generation. He knows the political landscape of the US better than anyone in the party -- and he is willing and ready to help. Obama waited almost until the last minute to put in his first call to Clinton -- and Clinton responded favorably with warm words, letting the hurts of the primary be bygones. But Obama has not fallowed up on that contact. Clinton is already sending signals in the press that he has not heard from Obama nor from the campaign.
Hillary Clinton has demonstrated that she is one the best political campaigners in the Party, and certainly the strongest female presidential contender in the modern history of the Democratic Party. Inspite of some errors of campaign management, she fought a tough and adroit campaign, and only narrowly lost to Obama. She demonstrated an ability to motivate not just females, but most importantly, the white working class base of the Democratic Party.
After their initial sit-down hosted by Senator Feinstein, Obama and Clinton have not been talking. Obama has not been reaching out to her as he should. Of course, there are issues between the campaigns such as retiring her debt or who speaks when at the convention in Denver -- but those are minor matters best left to aides. Obama should be talking to Hillary every week about the campaign, and making clear to her that he wants her and her husband fully engaged come the fall. He should also be clear in his own mind that this is the right thing to do. These two individuals have a wealth of political knowledge that he should tap, just as he is utilizing former Clinton aides for his foreign policy team.
Obama should not only ask their advice. He and his campaign should give Hillary and Bill each a plane and put them into the field in the fall, letting them speak in battleground states on economics and healthcare, over and over again with the simple message that McCain is McBush and a vote for him is a vote for more of the same in the economy and the death knell for healthcare reform. healthcare.
A sign of a truly transformative political leader is how he works with his rivals and how he deploys his assets in the field. Obama has rivals who want to support him, and they are assets that are necessary for victory. Leaving Bill and Hillary Clinton on the sidelines in the fall would be a monumental mistake in political judgement.
The message for Obama and the Democratic Party is straightforward: Yes, We Can -- but not without the Clintons.