As one looks at the polls, the issues and the candidates, the election of 2008 resembles what poker players call a “lay-down hand.”
Two-thirds of the nation believes the Iraq war a blunder. Sixty-nine percent disapproves of President Bush. Eighty-one percent thinks America is on the wrong course.
Inflation is at 4 percent and rising. Unemployment is 5 percent and rising. Gasoline, heating oil and food prices are soaring. The dollar has lost half its values against the euro. Homes are being foreclosed upon at Depression rates. The stock market is in a swoon. And 3.5 million manufacturing jobs have vanished under Bush.
Hillary and Obama have both raised far more than John McCain.
Democratic turnout in the primaries and caucuses is two and three times what it was for the GOP. The youth, energy and enthusiasm are on the Democratic side. Voter registration is rising dramatically, and the new registrants are almost all Democrats or independents.
Thirty Republican House members are retiring. In the Senate, the big question is whether Democrats will achieve a 60-40 margin to enable them to kill Republican filibusters.
By all odds, Republican retention of the White House should be as imperiled as it was in 1932, when the hapless Herbert Hoover faced FDR.
Yet John McCain, who presides over a disconsolate party many of whose leading lights not only do not love him, they do not like him, is even money to be the next president of the United States.
What explains this?
Answer: Barack Obama, the probable nominee of the Democratic Party — his cool and pleasant demeanor aside, and his oratorical skills notwithstanding — is being steadily pushed by his own mistakes, and rivals Hillary Clinton and McCain, outside the social, cultural and ideological mainstream of American politics.
Hillary’s victory in Pennsylvania confirmed what Texas, Ohio and Florida hinted at. Barack has not closed the sale with Middle America. Moreover, he may never close the sale.
What is Barack’s problem?
Though he has stitched together the McGovern wing of the party — the anti-war crowd, the cause people, the professoriat — with the Jesse Jackson wing — 90 percent of the African-American vote — he is being systematically pushed out of the heartland of the party, the white working and middle class. And reinforcing the impression in Middle America that Barack is “not one of us” is the core of both the Clinton and Republican strategies. And they are working.
In Ohio and Pennsylvania, resistance to the probable nominee hardened and calcified among Catholics, ethnics, union and blue-collar voters, even as Barack outspent Hillary two and three to one.
Racism is the reason, wail the pundits. But this is not a reason, it is an excuse. Barack, after all, ran up record totals in virtually all-white Iowa and is favored to win in virtually all-white Oregon.
Moreover, all politics are tribal. There was resistance in rural Pennsylvania to voting for an African-American, but there was also wild enthusiasm for voting for an African-American in Philly, where Hillary — spouse of “our first black president” — was getting about the same share of the black vote as Barry Goldwater.
On balance, as Joe Biden undiplomatically blurted out, the fact that Obama is a black man is an extraordinary asset in 2008. It is the reason a junior senator, three years out of the Illinois legislature, is running first for the nomination, and has become the favorite of a national media intoxicated with the idea of a black president.
Barack’s problem is social, cultural and ideological.
Increasingly, he is seen not as a man of the middle, but as radical chic, a man of the liberal and leftist elite who confides to closed-door meetings in San Francisco that folks in Pennsylvania cling to guns, Bibles and bigotries as crutches, because they cannot cope in the Global Economy and government has failed them.
He is seen as a man comfortable with friends still proud of the radical role they played planting bombs in the 1960s, a man who feels relaxed about sending his daughters on Sunday to hear the racist rants of an anti-American berserker.
And if your wife, beneficiary of a Princeton-Harvard Law education denied to 99.9 percent of the people, says she cannot recall ever being proud of America before now, folks are naturally going to be suspicious about why you dumped the American flag pin.
On the big issues of 2008 — amnesty, the hemorrhaging of American jobs, Iraq — McCain is on the same side as George Bush, whose approval rating is 28 percent. McCain can be defeated on those issues.
But if, with a little help from Hillary, McCain can paint Barack indelibly as a man of the trendy and radical left, he can win. America will have nowhere else to go.
Journalists disagree on whether immigration, Iraq or the economy will be the major issue in 2008. The real issue may be — and this is what is causing heart palpitations among Democrats — is Barack Obama one of us, or is he one of them?