As we careen toward Tsunami Tuesday, a strangely insensitive metaphor given recent history, it appears increasingly possible that John McCain and Barack Obama will be the two biggest winners. McCain, of course, provides the surer bet, both because his statewide leads are generally larger and because the winner-take-all nature of most Republican primaries rewards the first place candidate far out of proportion to his vote share. Obama, however, has been closing fast from California to Connecticut to Georgia. The proportional nature of delegate distribution on the Democratic side guarantees that the contest will go on past Wednesday morning, but even narrow losses could gravely injure Hillary Clinton's image as a viable candidate, particularly if they occur in the states that border her home turf of New York. And an Obama win in heavily Hispanic California would obviously be huge.
An Obama-McCain match-up would provide for an enormous symbolic contrast during the general election campaign. Perhaps never before in American history would the two finalists for the presidency represent such a clash between disparate eras. We think of John F. Kennedy's victory in 1960 as a new generation's stampede into the corridors of power, but the truth is that Kennedy was barely four years younger than his opponent in the 1960 election, Richard Nixon. If elected, John McCain would be the oldest man ever to take the presidential oath of office for the first time; Obama would be the fifth youngest.
The clash of cultures (pre-rock and roll vs. the disco era) would be fascinating, but on a political level, there are two story lines, one involving each candidate, that haven't nearly received enough attention from the news media. The cable news networks are just now beginning to report on the enormous contempt with which Senator McCain is regarded in many conservative circles. Rush Limbaugh, in particular, has spent a substantial portion of January reminding his army of sycophant Dittoheads that McCain has betrayed their cause on numerous occasions. On campaign finance reform, he has stifled free (conservative) speech. On immigration, he has joined the forces of amnesty led by Ted Kennedy (and with this crowd, a photo op with Satan might be less damaging). He even opposed President Bush's tax cuts for the rich—Limbaugh doesn't use these words, of course—not once, but twice!
The superficial and generally hagiographic analysis McCain receives from the media ignores the larger electoral dilemma facing the Arizona senator. For the past three decades, Republican presidential candidates have prevailed by energizing the conservative base and expanding their support from there. Karl Rove's master strategy for GOP victory has depended, first and foremost, on guaranteeing that evangelical white Christians and other hardcore "values" voters come to each election highly motivated. Their enthusiasm has been the necessary foundation upon which successful campaigns have been built.
This leaves John McCain, assuming he is the nominee, two choices. He could simply appeal to independents and moderate Democrats while hoping that enough movement conservatives would grit their teeth and support him as the lesser of two evils. Particularly if Hillary Clinton is his general election opponent, this plan might just work.
But McCain would have to understand that he would be plunging into uncharted territory. The GOP is not, their pleadings to the contrary, a big-tent party. When the base is lukewarm, Republican presidential candidates tend to lose. Think Gerald Ford in 1976 or George H.W. Bush after breaking his no-new-taxes pledge in 1992. Because Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney have been splitting the right-wing vote, the extent of McCain's problems with the Republican base has not always stood out in the raw polling data. But even now, there are few Super Tuesday states in which he, the prohibitive favorite, is expected to pull in anything close to fifty percent of the vote.
Alternatively, McCain could take a page out of Lee Atwater's 1988 playbook. Managing the campaign of the first George Bush, Atwater understood that his man, who had once accused Ronald Reagan of practicing "voodoo economics", did not enjoy the full faith and confidence of conservative voters. In response, he ran the ultimate red meat campaign, with Bush demonizing his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as an unpatriotic, wimpy coddler of criminals, particularly (as the vicious Willie Horton commercials implied) black ones.
Such a campaign would certainly reinvigorate the fire breathers on the GOP right. But it is less clear that McCain could pull it off with his electability still intact. The 1988 George Bush was an empty vessel into which any sort of political poison could be poured. If he had any public image at all, it was as Reagan's feckless lapdog, so even toxic levels of demagoguery could not damage him. John McCain, on the other hand, enjoys a reputation as a straight talker and man who can bring ideological enemies together in the service of the greater good. An Atwater-style campaign might undo twenty years of political goodwill and alienate critical centrists.
For his part, Barack Obama faces issues that have received virtually no attention so far from the national media. Should he win his party's nomination, he will be the most liberal Democrat to face the voters in November in at least two decades, and perhaps since George McGovern in 1972. The public, even a month into the primary season, has yet to be introduced to Barack Obama the office holder. That man is an unapologetic northern liberal whose voting record is nearly indistinguishable from that of Ted Kennedy, the left-wing icon who recently blessed Obama with his endorsement.
My point is not that a liberal Democrat cannot capture the White House in 2008. Rather, as in the case of McCain, we are again moving into uncharted waters. John Kennedy was the last northern Democrat to win a presidential election; Lyndon Johnson was the last liberal. Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is practiced in the art of triangulation, and would be hard to paint into the far left corner. Obama, however, not only has a demonstrably left-of-center record in the U.S. Senate, but also leaves behind a liberal paper trail from the Illinois State Legislature that will be fodder for dozens of attack ads in the fall.
We still do not know how things will shake out 48 hours from now. Clinton may come through on the coasts and begin to pull away from Obama. Mitt Romney might finally vanquish Mike Huckabee and slow John McCain's seemingly unstoppable momentum. Maybe we'll all be wrong and Ron Paul will be the biggest surprise of the evening (OK, that won't happen).
Still, if we wind up with a McCain-Obama contest in November, a new script will be written, one way or the other. Either we will have a Republican nominee triumph in defiance of his party's base, or we will have a liberal northern Democrat enter the Oval Office for the first time since Ted Kennedy's older brother did it nearly a half century ago. Regardless, the electoral road maps of the past twenty years will suddenly become inoperative.
I wonder when these story lines will receive the full attention they deserve.