The sports cliche most in vogue this last decade or so is the one about trying to do too much. If a baseball game comes down to one key at-bat, say bases loaded, two outs, ninth inning, a pitcher desperate to hold a one-run lead and a batter desperate to erase it, then two results are possible. One is that the pitcher gets the batter out. Reporters crowd around the pitcher afterwards and ask him how he managed the feat. He humbly lowers his head and says: “I just didn’t try to do too much.” In the loser’s dugout, reporters are asking what went wrong. The batter shamefully lowers his head and says: “I just tried to do too much.”
The other possibility is that the batter comes through with the big hit to win the game. Clustering reporters afterward ask how the blow was struck. He humbly lowers his head and says: “I just didn’t try to do too much.” Across the stadium, bombarding reporters challenge the pitcher to assay his own failure. He shamefully lowers his head and says: “I just tried to do too much.”
Speaking of sports, an odd-couple tag team has been pounding Barack Obama over the last two weeks, privately citing contradictory reasons for the onslaught. On one side we have Hillary Rodham Clinton hammering away at his putative elitism; she sugarcoats her poison pills by earnestly asserting to fellow Dems that she must save the party from the inevitable election loss that would ensue upon an Obama nomination. Her unlikely sidekick is John McCain, who tends to echo Hillary’s critique du jour. He in turn tells his colleagues that he expects that Mrs. Clinton would be an easier opponent to rout.
Methinks this is a case of trying to do too much on the part of Senator McCain. It is generally good advice to politicians that they should not be diverted into trying to interfere with the other side in its candidate selection. More often than not, these attempts at mischief and manipulation come back to bite one in the end. Trying to divine the relative strengths of potential opponents is a mystical pursuit that not only undermines good faith, it often sabotages good works. This is a hiatus in the process where McCain can be totally positive while the Democrat contenders are forced to be mean; he should be building up his nice-guy cred now and let the other guys come off as hyenas.
Those with elephantine memories might recall that many Democrats were hoping that Ronald Reagan would win the 1980 Republican Primary, assuming him to be a lightweight compared to George H. W. Bush. That particular prediction ranks up there with the guys who picked Sonny Liston over Cassius Clay and Sham over Secretariat. This is not to say that this technique never works; McGovern was the guy Nixon wanted to run against in 1972, and that worked out quite nicely. Still, better not to interfere in an unpredictable process where you are as likely to shoot yourself in the foot as not.
Incidentally, in this particular case I think that McCain’s chances are better against Obama. Although Obama is a more attractive figure than Clinton by a long stretch, he brings several wild cards to the table. There are so many things not-run-of-the-mill about him that it is impossible to assess the electoral impact of each factor. He has an African father, he has lived in Indonesia, he has attended a Muslim school, he has cultivated radical friends, including some very outrageous and outspoken members of the clergy.
McCain’s people are receptive to the Karl Rove theory that Clinton is more vulnerable because she has high negative ratings and is viewed with distrust by more than half the populace. Still, I would wager that she is more likely to beat McCain than Obama would be, and this for a simple reason, the sort of reason that might not appear in polls but would have real weight in the booth. Namely, this very powerful fact: most Americans, perhaps as many as 60 percent, believe that the country ran well under Bill Clinton.
That being the case, an undecided voter standing at the moment of truth, with hand hovering near the lever, is likely to have a very powerful thought: “This couple was in the White House before and times were pretty good. Why take chances on a new guy?” When it comes down to it, it does not really matter whose name is on the ballot, Bill or Hillary. Although Republicans abhor this reality, it is a fact that Bill Clinton would win a third term easily if he could run today in the wake of George Bush’s three-dollar gas and trillion-dollar bank collapses. John McCain, don’t try to do too much or you might wind up with too little.
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