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The Johnson Curse

Was the biggest mistake of his presidential campaign (after not taking Hillary Clinton as his VP, of course) Barack Obama’s decision to tap James Johnson as head of his VP selection committee? At the time, people scratched their heads as it became a minor to moderate issue based on Johnson’s association with Countrywide (which was then in the news). Observers wondered why Obama would choose someone so at odds with his “change” message. But Johnson was dumped and everyone moved on.

It took the financial meltdown to highlight just how awful a choice Johnson was, especially for someone who has premised his campaign on being the antidote to Washington insiderism. It would be one thing if he were merely a bundler but this was the fellow upon whom Obama was going to rely to advise him on his most important decision to date. Mickey Kaus notes:

Obama so deserves to, finally, take this hit for choosing Fannie Mae macher Jim Johnson to vet his VP prospects. . . . Did Obama tap Johnson because after two years in the Senate Obama had become part of the “Washington culture of lobbying and influence peddling” as McCain charges–or because as a newcomer he was naive about that Washington culture and quickly got co-opted? Either way, it was an obvious, conventional, atrocious choice.

But the Johnson pick was really par for the course. Obama, contrary to his campaign shtick, has always accommodated himself to the power brokers within the Democratic Party. That was what he did in Chicago certainly. In Washington he did the same — falling into the liberal interest group phalanx, bellying up to the Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae bar and loyally toeing the line within the Democratic caucus.

It is not that he is any more corrupt than the next politician, but that his modus operandi and core personality seem to abhor independent action and certainly confrontation. He simply has not had the nerve or the will to cross swords with his own base of support. Could there be any better example than immigration reform where he capitulated to the whims of Big Labor?

That political timidity would not normally be a problem — most candidates, after all, adhere to their party line. But in a presidential election year in which the entire country has just been educated about the dangers of “going along-ism” it is problematic.

There is no excusing or explaining away James Johnson — and he is fast becoming McCain’s best argument (and ad campaign star) for why he, not Obama, would be the best choice to come knock heads in Washington. It won’t be enough to undo Obama’s campaign, but it has made it somewhat more difficult.



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