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How Wright Rant Helped Obama

05/12/2008 03:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

OK, I was wrong. On April 23, I said here that the Democrat who won the jump ball in Indiana on May 6 would probably win the nomination. I thought that if Barack Obama lost in Indiana, nervous Democratic superdelegates might conclude that he was going to be another Adlai Stevenson or George McGovern and begin to move toward Hillary Clinton.

In the event, Sen. Clinton narrowly won in Indiana. Yet the day after the primary, I was back here saying, contrary to my forecast, "For all intents and purposes, Barack Obama has won the Democratic presidential nomination."

One of my readers has asked me to reflect on why my prediction turned out to be wrong. Predictions being somewhat easier to make about the past than the future, I'll take a stab at it, continuing to use the metaphors that seem appropriate to the basketball-mad states of Indiana and North Carolina.

I said that Sen. Obama should not try to run out the clock, but instead take the ball to the basket, and I warned that he would have to look out for flying chairs in the state that made Bobby Knight famous.

Obama did take the ball the basket -- literally, by playing basketball in both states. That connected him with voters much more effectively than had his Pennsylvania bowling fiasco. But, far more significantly, Obama also took the ball to the basket figuratively, and that's why he won the game even while narrowly losing the jump ball in Indiana.

Here are the four key plays that won the game for Obama:

1. The Wright Wrant

There were plenty of flying chairs, and after some initial missteps, Obama learned how to dodge them and throw them back. While the Clinton campaign was certainly hurling chairs in Obama's direction, the one that actually hit him and could have knocked him out of the game came from his own bench.

Two days after I made my prognostication, Rev. Jeremiah Wright stepped back onto the court. His Friday night interview with Bill Moyers, in which the pastor came across as very rational, was not harmful to Obama. Wright's tirade at the National Press Club the following Monday, however, almost brought down the Obama campaign. But it proved to be the turning point that would lead the Illinois senator to be able to seize the nomination eights days later.

Rev. Wright showed himself to fit the unfortunate words Sen. Obama had used to describe people in the Midwest who have been "beaten down so long" and feel "so betrayed by government"--a bitter man clinging to religion and antipathy, who refuses to believe that Obama can change things for the better.

Wright's attempt to sabotage his former parishioner gave Obama the occasion to show that he is willing to dive on the floor for a loose ball that has been knocked from his hands. He took the opportunity to make a complete break with Wright and to denounce him, thus reassuring at least part of the electorate.

2. I'll Give You a Few Bucks If You'll Vote for Me

Another major part of the changed trajectory of the game was that Hillary Clinton, while castigating Obama for looking down on regular folks, demonstrated her own low opinion of "the common man" by taking up John McCain's call for a summer "holiday" from the federal gasoline tax.

Sen. Clinton grabbed this bounce pass from McCain, dribbled it behind her back in a fancy move, and thought she would take it in for an easy lay up that would bring cheers from gullible voters. Instead, Obama chose to contest her shot and was able to swat it away before it reached the basket, turning the proposal to his advantage by showing that he has a higher opinion of voters' minds than Clinton and McCain do.

3. The Russert Test

On the Sunday before the May 6 primaries, Sen. Obama took the floor in the arena most dangerous for political visiting teams, Tim Russert's Meet the Press. There Obama showed that he had regained his game. He played tenacious defense and was able to make some difficult shots.

Passing the Russert test may not have meant much to the voters in North Carolina and Indiana, but it was critical in reassuring superdelegates.

4. Not-So-Great Expectations

Finally, the return of Jeremiah Wright initially caused Obama to slip and Clinton to rise in the polls in both states that would vote the week after the pastor's tirade. That changed the expectations game. A few days after the Wright outburst, all the talk was about Hillary winning Indiana by a comfortable margin and having a chance to make it close in North Carolina -- maybe even to win there.

These altered expectations did to Clinton what altered expectations had done to Obama in the days between Iowa and New Hampshire: what might have been seen as a strong performance became instead the dreaded WTE -- "worse than expected."

Had it not been for the dip in Obama's support in the polls, his big North Carolina win would likely have been written off as "only what was expected" and his narrow Indiana loss might have been seen as a real loss, instead of practically a victory over the favored Clinton.

Game Summary

Jeremiah Wright's flagrant foul knocked Barack Obama to the floor and almost put him out of the game, but Wright's foul was of the kind the NBA labels "flagrant 2," like the one Marvin Williams of the Atlanta Hawks committed on the Celtics' Rajon Rondo in Boston two days before the May 6 primaries. It required Wright's ejection from the game -- which was just what Obama needed. And when Obama was able to get up, he had two free throws and possession of the ball. He made the most of the opportunity.

As a result of these plays, even though Hillary Clinton won the jump ball in Indiana, she lost the game on the same day. The ball she came down with was deflated and useless for trying to continue play.

The slam-dunk interview that a confident, poised, ready-for-prime-time Barack Obama had with Brian Williams two days after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries showed how much he was able to benefit from the chairs that Wright and Clinton threw at him. A re-energized candidate emerged from the decisive game of the semifinals looking very much prepared for the finals in November.

(Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. His latest book, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America, has just been published by Crown.)