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An Explanation for the Obama Flail

Perhaps the reason Barack Obama seems so rattled by the McCain surge is that he’s never actually faced a competent and agile competitor to his Right, and has never really been called upon to broaden his appeal to voters who live in a different ideological frame. He should have learned something about this in the primaries, when Hillary Clinton ran to his populist Right and almost caught him. But he seems to have taken it that his narrow victory was an affirmation of his message rather than a warning sign of his need to appeal more widely to Americans who don’t live within his electoral comfort zone.

Or perhaps the problem is not solely his own. Perhaps the problem has to do as well with his campaign consultant, David Axelrod. Make no mistake: Axelrod and his colleague David Plouffe came up with a brilliant strategy to prevail in the Democratic primaries. Their conception of how to use the caucus states to slingshot Obama into a lead it would be structurally impossible for Hillary Clinton to overtake was one of the great political plays of our time.

But knowing how to win as an insurgent in a primary battle when the rules were bizarrely misunderstood by Obama’s rival is one thing; knowing how to win with an electorate that will probably be, at a minimum, 125 million strong is another. And here Axelrod and Plouffe may simply not have the (dare I say it) experience necessary to help Obama conduct this fight.

Axelrod comes out of leftist Democratic politics,. He was a liberal Chicago journalist who became a campaign consultant, and he has specialized in helping his candidates  prevail in primary races when winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the entire election. He did well in majority black cities with black candidates to begin with, has been a key player in the victories of Richard Daley in Chicago, and performed yeoman service for Eliot Spitzer in New York and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. And, of course, there was Obama’s massive Senate victory in 2004.

What all these races have in common was that, in the general election, there was no Republican nominee with even a whisper of a chance to win for Axelrod’s guy to bump up against. The general-election contest was a slow-motion coronation.

So this is new for Axelrod, as it is for Obama. They are not running in a mostly liberal, mostly Democratic state. They are running in a 50-50 country, in which far more people describe themselves as “conservative” than say they are “liberal.” For them, it is probably difficult to imagine that Sarah Palin has appeal, but she does. Even McCain’s appeal is mostly elusive to them, because they basically know no one who thinks the Iraq War is anything but an act of gross criminality, they don’t quite know how to handle an electorate that may not be happy about Iraq altogether but certainly isn’t comfortable pulling out –and would probably prefer it if we took lemons and made lemonade rather than standing around shouting, “Lemon! Lemon! Lemon!”

Turns out this election isn’t going to be a coronation, and getting whiny and defensive and overly angry at standard-issue political tactics isn’t the way to go about changing strategy so that you can figure out how to win this thing.

UPDATE: My word! My old pal and colleague Mark Cunningham has made many of the same points right here.


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