How is it that despite adulatory media coverage, long lines of volunteers at his campaign offices, and Americans deeply unhappy about the direction of the country, Barack Obama is rapidly losing support - and control of the agenda - to John McCain?
It's because Obama has reverted to the whiny, wimpy style that nearly allowed Hillary Clinton to wipe him out in September, 2007 - until he found his backbone and actually started to stand up for himself.
When McCain launches volley after volley of attack on Obama's policies (with photos of Paris and Brittany thrown in to get the media's attention), what's Obama's response? To ride in on his My Little Pony and cry because McCain is - how low! - criticizing his policies and questioning his capacity to lead in a mildly creative way.
This self-righteous simpering might make Obama supporters feel like he's "changing the tone" of politics, but it's not doing anything to stop his slide, shape the debate, or answer the legitimate question the McCain campaign keeps asking: is Obama actually ready to lead?
So far, Obama's response is to give McCain's advisers exactly what they want: McCain attacks, Obama complains about the attacks and then capitulates on everything from illegal wiretapping to offshore oil drilling. Obama is once again caught up in the great Democratic myth that voters make up their minds by carefully calibrating which candidate's issue positions are closest to his own (a major topic of my book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party).
Newsflash, Obama: To most voters, campaigns are not an egghead mental Olympics between two walking policy platforms. They're primal battles that test how candidates respond under fire. And for the last several weeks, Obama has been failing that test: crying about McCain's attacks and then surrendering. To most voters, this sends a simple message: if Obama can't stand up to a babbling incompetent like John McCain, how is he ever going to stand up to the oil executives, the health care lobby, or, for that matter, Osama bin Laden?
Of course, it's not as if McCain is passing this trial by fire with flying colors. When he gets criticized, he tends to respond with incoherent ramblings unhinged from either reality or his own past statements. But that's not getting noticed because McCain isn't facing much fire - all he's facing is Obama's whining.
The good news is that we've been here before, and Obama has shown a capacity to emerge from his fetal crouch, stop spewing only rhetorical rainbows and daisies, and start throwing some lethal punches of his own. In the summer of 2007, Obama was riding all his inspiring hopes and dreams to...a 23 point deficit in the national polls. After being encouraged by Arianna Huffington, Isaiah Wilner and others to "start running for President of the United States instead of class president," he did just that and launched some effective, hard-hitting attacks on Hillary's voting record and her ties to corporate lobbyists. It was the critical moment of the 2007 campaign when Obama effectively upended Hillary's inevitability narrative and regained momentum.
Unfortunately, as quickly as Obama learned James Carville and Paul Begala's basic lesson of political summer school - "It's hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth" - he forgot it and reverted to the dreamy bromides that inspire nerdy liberals but do little to prove to people in economic pain and national security anxiety that he's got the toughness to fight for them.
So what's Obama to do? First, he has to untie his hand from around his back and start dedicating a lot more resources to defining McCain (for some reason, the Obama campaign seems to have bought into the McCain campaign's plan to make this election purely about Obama, under the crazy miscalculation that people have unshakeable opinions about McCain, despite the wild swings in his policies, his poll numbers, and the relative paucity of media coverage he gets). Second, Obama needs a running mate with the toughness to go on the offense, not some blander version of Obama's confrontation-wary self. That means someone like Wesley Clark, John Edwards, Jack Reed, Brian Schweitzer, or even Hillary Clinton, not some lily-livered, lobbyist-friendly, uninspiring non-entity like Tim Kaine.
Finally, Obama can't afford to repeat the Democrats' 2004 mistake of trying to run a positive convention, of which the Democrats were very proud, but which produced only a two percent bump in the polls, about 1/5th the minimum bump parties usually get. The Republicans responded to the Democrats' smiley hug-fest with their usual political napalm (remember Zell Miller?). And they got what no pundit thought possible - a 10 point jump in the polls (a triumph bested only by the Democrats' own 1992 convention in which speaker after speaker (including then Democrat Zell Miller) lustily trashed George Bush Sr.'s myriad failures.
Even more in 2008 than 2004, people in America are angry. They want and need a president who can at least occasionally channel their frustration, not someone so besotted by his own Platonic ideal of politics that he lacks the gumption to fight hard for himself or the American people. Obama has proven in the past that he has the ability to get his head out of the clouds and down onto the ground where elections are actually decided - and show he has the capacity to be the strong leader Americans want - but we need him there fast, before Team Bush/McCain's savvy and his own diffidence cause another surrender - and another Democratic defeat.
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