Well, now we know. Some thoughts on the two presidential races going forward:
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Hillary Clinton: A classic case of media-cocooning (and bad polls) overcoming rational judgment. Clinton is the best Democratic candidate overall and has run a (mostly) smart campaign. Why wouldn't she have been competitive in New Hampshire? Only infatuation with Barack Obama can account for the media's big miss.
Which brings us to the following question: Is this fight Kennedy/Nixon or Mondale/Hart? Either way, Clinton is the more substantive, experienced candidate. But Obama's is a serious challenge, and personality sometimes wins out. The race changed after Iowa, and it will change again once Edwards drops out in the next fortnight.
Barack Obama: As an orator, he's Blair-like in his magnetism and gravity. His temperament really does seem first-rate. (Although he's hasn't had to take a punch yet.) And remember that he was down in New Hampshire by as many as 17 points less than two weeks ago.
Two notes of caution about Obama:
1. At least so far, there's nothing there. Obama talks very little about either ideological or policy specifics. That will have to change at some point, or his rhetoric will probably wear itself out.
2. Everyone in politics has decided it's Obama's message of "change" that's energizing voters. But I suspect voters are buying Obama, not his message. The Bush Doctrine represented an enormous, historic change in America's engagement with the world. Rounding up and deporting every illegal immigrant in America would also be "change"; so would granting all of them amnesty and citizenship. As a political matter, "change" per se is meaningless.
Obama's touting of this foggy notion simply allows voters to project their own indiscriminate political feelings onto him. At core, the phenomenon is the man, not the message. No other candidate can imitate that. They'd do better to engage the debate on their own terms than reacting to nebulous "calls for change."
Mitt Romney: Dead after Iowa. Now the carcass has been cremated.
Why don't people like Romney? His campaign has become the most remorselessly dishonest operation in politics today. He's for abortion; he's against abortion. He's going to dominate Iowa; he's thrilled with second place. He thinks the early states are determinative and national numbers are meaningless; he's running a national campaign and not concerned with early small states. On the morning of the primary, he said that he was going to win New Hampshire. He lost by five points. Voters can't trust a single thing he says.
John McCain: Now a favorite. But only a mild one. The Kerry analogy fits well: McCain was left for dead for reasons that had nothing to do with vote-getting. The long pre-campaign often obscures this consideration in favor of buzz, organization and fund-raising. But the deep truth is that he's probably the best candidate in the GOP field.
The rest of the GOP field: Mike Huckabee slightly underperformed, but didn't hurt his chances. He should win South Carolina and will probably face off with McCain in the end for the nomination. Rudy Giuliani managed not to finish behind Ron Paul for the second time, a tiny victory. He still has time to make his case. Fred Thompson, who began with so much promise, got fewer votes than Dennis Kucinich. Sit with that for a minute.
Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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