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How They Match Up

Barack Obama is making the argument to superdelegates and adoring groups of voters that he is more electable of the two Democratic candidates and that he will match up better against John McCain. For now, the polls agree, but less dramatically so than one might expect. But is this right?

Hillary Clinton’s “high negatives” are legendary and, if the Obama campaign has proven anything, it is that there is a hunger among Democrats and Republicans alike to jettison the Clintons from the national stage. However, there are several disadvantages which Obama has.

First, we vote, of course, by the electoral college. So the real issue is which states, if any, does he put in play which she does not. Yes, he has run well in red states, but no one seriously believes that he will beat John McCain in Nebraska. At least for now, Clinton polls better among Hispanics and would therefore have a better shot at states which actually are in play, such as Florida and New Mexico. In the habitually important state of Ohio with the famed Reagan Democrats, some of whom are socially quite conservative, there is a good argument Clinton, not Obama, is the stronger candidate. (We’ll find out on March 4 who runs stronger with Democrats, but in the fall Independents and Republicans will be at issue also.)

Second, there is something to be said for Clinton’s argument that she will not be blown off the stage by McCain. Watching Obama’s campaign speech in Alexandria yesterday on CSPAN, I was struck how little there is still there. The vast majority of the speech was utter fluff, lovely and soaring fluff, yes, but still fluff. The rest was rather bland aspirational liberal fare (“give our kids a world class education”). In an election that season that will last six months or more will this wear thin? (Quite possibly. And now that Saturday Night Live writers are going back to work we can expect some delightful spoofs of his video and political messaging.) On foreign policy the problem is more acute. In a debate will he sound credible, with McCain ready to pounce, that our real problem internationally has been our failure to visit with the world’s tyrants?

Third, his ranking by the National Journal as the most liberal Senator reveals a basic truth: for all of the “bringing together” and “reaching out” rhetoric he remains an unblemished and uncompromising liberal–on foreign policy, on judges, on taxes, on everything. I can think of no issue in which he has bucked the Democratic liberal establishment (other than a meek suggestion that merit pay for teachers might not be such a bad idea). If McCain can break through the din of music videos (or wait until they seem strangely stale) he might just make the argument to the great middle swath of the electorate that there is a reason other than soaring rhetoric why Teddy Kennedy endorsed him: he is an attractive spokesman for the platform of the Left that the country has repeatedly rejected.

So, although Clinton has fallen on hard times and is resorting to all manner of silly argument to retain her hopes for the nomination, we should give the lady her due: she may, in a general election, be the stronger of the two candidates.


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