Sunday, March 23, 2008

Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and Plan B

Here's a scary thought for the Democrats: we already know everything good there is to know about Barack Obama. We know his inspiring life story. We have all experienced the power of his oratory and his ability to move a crowd. Nobody could be unaware by now of the fact that Obama opposed the Iraq War from its very outset.

From here forward, everything else we will learn about the Illinois senator will chip away at this carefully cultivated image as a man above politics. The first, and stunningly devastating, revelation occurred with the airing of the incendiary words of Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The candidate responded with a characteristically brilliant speech, but the Wright affair nevertheless cost Obama the support of thousands of independents, votes he will never get back. The Democrats may not realize it yet, but this is already Michael Dukakis in a tank, and could turn into Gary Hart in Bimini.

As we speak, the only remaining economic question seems to be whether the forthcoming recession will be mild or wrenching. The current Republican president suffers from the longest sustained levels of unpopularity on record. A pointless war continues to snuff out lives, with feckless politicians gloating of success because it is snuffing out fewer than it did a year ago. The worst vice president in American history, his vicious arrogance in full flower, replies to a reporter's question about massive public dissatisfaction with his administration's foreign policy by saying, "So?"

Out of a field of second-stringers, the Republican Party managed to nominate the single candidate most closely associated with the failures of the past seven years. John McCain remains one of the Iraq War's biggest cheerleaders, boasting of his wisdom in calling for a troop surge at a time when most Americans want out of Mesopotamia entirely. Lacking grounding in domestic affairs, McCain's platform, such as it is, amounts to warmed over Bushism, from tax cuts for the rich to privatizing Social Security.

Nevertheless, despite McCain's manifest disadvantages, he currently not only leads Obama in the presidential polls, but also holds a commanding advantage in Ohio and Florida, as well as a slight edge in Pennsylvania. Let's be clear: any Democrat who loses these three states will lose the election in November. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is essentially tied with McCain in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and is within striking distance in Florida.

Sure, these polls have come out after a week in which Jeremiah Wright has been the big national story. At some point, the subject will change. Springtime surveys rarely make for effective predictors of general election results.

But it's not as though this has been a banner week for the presumptive Republican nominee. The John McCain World Tour, expected to emphasize the candidate's foreign policy resumé, has instead been marked by a couple of rather serious gaffes. In addition to misstating the relationship between Sunni al Qaeda and Shi'a Iran, McCain also managed to suggest bizarrely that Purim is the Jewish version of Halloween.

And yet he still leads.

The Democrats, including those who support Barack Obama, must understand the trouble that they are in. They fell in love on the first date and accepted a marriage proposal on the second. And now they are trying to schedule the wedding as soon as possible. Go read Daily Kos and you will see dozens of diaries and front page articles talking about how Obama already has the nomination wrapped up and how Hillary Clinton should just go away and find herself some other country to govern.

This is politically suicidal. If the Democrats are really going to put Senator Obama on top of the ticket in perhaps the most important election of our lifetime, the least they could do is to extend the vetting process as far as the calendar will allow. I mean, what if Hillary had quit the race a month ago? Is it possible that the revelations about Reverend Wright would have been the GOP's October surprise? Is there anything else we don't know?

Howard Dean, who has done so much good for the party over the past three years, needs to take charge of this process. Specifically, he needs a Plan B in case Obama does not recover from the current freefall. It is clear that, under the current circumstances, the Super Delegates cannot overturn the primary and caucus results without opening the party to charges of unfairness, charges that will invariably have racial overtones (especially when the media blowhards get through with the story).

The only way out of this dilemma, then, is for Dean to demand (and pay for) a re-vote in both Florida and Michigan, to be held in June. By then, we should know just how damaged Obama is and whether or not Clinton can mount a comeback in the remaining primary states. If Obama can win either do-over primary, then he's probably the Dems' strongest nominee. But if Hillary goes on a big run between now and the first week of June, and then wins decisively in Florida and Michigan, the party will have the breathing room do what it has to do without any appearance of the nomination having been stolen.

Obviously, Barack Obama can win the presidency in November, even after the disastrous events of the past couple of weeks. This will almost certainly be a good Democratic year and John McCain continues to diminish himself whenever he veers from his script. But gone are the days when the Obama campaign could plausibly promise a 1932-style realignment, with previously deep-red states entering the Democratic column. Instead, the senator will need to eke out the same narrow victory that barely eluded Al Gore and John Kerry.

In the meantime, Governor Dean, rather than childishly adhering to his arbitrary rules that stupefyingly favor solidly Republican South Carolina over swing-state Florida, must find a way to bring all 50 states to the table. Barack Obama may, indeed, be the Democrats' best hope for beating John McCain. But it's Dean's job to make him prove it beyond all reasonable doubt. The stakes are bigger than any one man's (or woman's) ego.

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