Campaign Crawlers

Overrated Obama

The increasing gap between Hope and reality.

By 8.20.08

The mainstream media spent months ignoring the National Enquirer's scoop about John Edwards' mistress. Now they're ignoring a potentially bigger Democratic scandal: The political incompetence of Team Obama.

Sen. Barack Obama's brain trust of David Axelrod and David Plouffe emerged from the Democratic primary campaign with a reputation for strategic genius. That reputation is deeply entwined with the conventional wisdom among the political press that Obama is a sure thing to win in November.

Since Obama clinched the nomination in June, however, evidence has steadily accumulated that Axelrod and Plouffe -- who masterminded the Illinois Democrat's upset of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- are out of their league when matched against a Republican in a national election.

Two months ago, on the same day a Newsweek poll showed Obama ahead by 15 points, the Democrat debuted his own personalized presidential seal. That emblem, with its Latin translation of his "Yes, We Can!" motto ("vero possumus"), quickly became an object of derision, symbolizing the overconfidence of a campaign that now finds itself locked in a neck-and-neck contest with 75 days remaining until Election Day.

Not since Frank Mankiewicz and Gary Hart steered George McGovern to the nomination in 1972 has a Democratic presidential campaign committed such laughable blunders. With few exceptions, however, the media ignore the possibility that the Axelrod-Plouffe magic simply won't work against Republican Sen. John McCain.

And perhaps it was never magic at all.

THE ANALOGY TO the McGovern campaign is apt, because Hillary Clinton's status as the prohibitive favorite -- her nomination apparently inevitable a year ago -- so much resembled Sen. Edmund Muskie's position coming into the 1972 campaign. Hubert Humphrey's 1968 running mate, the "Man from Maine" went from sure thing to lost hope in a matter of weeks.

"As late as February 15th, Ed Muskie was general be within an eyelash or two of having the Democratic nomination so skillfully locked up that the primaries wouldn't even be necessary," Hunter S. Thompson observed in March 1972, after the wheels had come off the Muskie bandwagon.

"He had the public endorsements of almost every Big Name in the party, including some who said they were only backing him because he was so far ahead that nobody else had a chance."

All that Muskie lacked was a solid grassroots organization and a coherent roadmap to victory -- the same weaknesses that doomed Hillary against Obama. As revealed in internal communications obtained by the Atlantic's Joshua Green, the Clinton operation found itself broke and with no backup plan after its Jan. 3 loss in the Iowa caucuses.

After Hillary won the New Hampshire primary, her campaign chairman Harold Ickes was forced to confess that, financially, "the cupboard was bare," and "despite spending $100 million, [Team Clinton] had somehow failed to establish ground operations in all but a handful of upcoming states," Green wrote.

"Ground operations" -- teams of professional organizers and volunteer activists -- were and are the unparalleled strength of Team Obama, and proved especially decisive in caucus states, where Hillary's campaign had failed to organize effectively.

Obama's superior organizational strength became apparent on Super Tuesday. Clinton won eight of 14 primaries, including such delegate-rich states as New York, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts. In caucus states like North Dakota and Idaho, however, Obama was 6-and-0 on Feb. 5.

YET LIKE McGOVERN in '72 -- who capitalized on Muskie's early meltdown but had to fight all the way until June against a resurgent Humphrey -- Obama's path to the Democratic nomination revealed weaknesses.

After a poor performance in an April 15 debate with Clinton in Philadelphia, Obama declined all further debates. His subsequent defeat in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, along with lopsided losses in Kentucky and West Virginia, showed Obama's weak support among white working-class voters.

When the Clinton campaign tried to point this out, however, they were met with accusations of racism. Hillary supporter Paul Begala was skewered when, in May, he declared that Democrats "cannot win with eggheads and African-Americans."

Despite these omens and warnings, many in the media have seemed shocked to discover the weaknesses Obama displayed in the primaries being replicated in the general election campaign.

Gallup shows John McCain with a 22-point advantage among white male voters, and the only educational subgroup of whites in which Obama leads is those with postgraduate degrees. Gallup even shows the Republican candidate supported by 14 percent of white Democrats.

Obama's poor showing in Saturday's forum at Saddleback Church, rather than reminding media observers of his dismal April 22 performance in Philadelphia, instead prompted accusations that McCain had somehow cheated.

While David Gergen reluctantly admitted that, at Saddleback, "McCain showed that he can be a much more formidable and effective campaigner in a joint appearance than hardly anyone imagined," he ignored the possibility that Obama has been overrated.

IF OBAMA IS OVERRATED, that's another residue of the primary campaign, when the promise of Hope and Change persuaded 17 million Democrats (and 463 super-delegates) that a candidate with only three years in the Senate was the man who could break the Republican hold on the White House.

Once Hillary bowed out in June, Team Obama worked to keep those expectations high. Plouffe gave a Power Point briefing for reporters in which he talked of a "50 state strategy" and named 18 "battleground" states. That list included such Republican bastions as North Carolina and Georgia (McCain now leads in both), but at the time, Eleanor Clift raved that Plouffe had mapped an Obama victory with "surgical precision."

The hubris at Hope HQ inspired a nine-day overseas trip during which Obama declared himself a "citizen of the world" to a Berlin audience, but canceled a trip to visit wounded U.S. troops, and saw a nine-point Gallup lead evaporate in four days.

When the McCain campaign -- now managed by Karl Rove protege Steve Schmidt -- unleashed its first series of attack ads, Team Obama responded with accusations of racism much like those leveled against Clinton during the primaries. But while Clinton's advisers hesitated to "go negative," the Republican stayed on the attack, repeating the mocking message that Obama is a lightweight "celebrity."

Now, two months after an L.A. Times poll showed Obama leading by 12 points, the same poll shows him in a statistical dead heat with McCain. But none of the press wizards who gushed about the "surgical precision" of Team Obama's strategy seem to have started wondering if Axelrod and Plouffe actually know what they're doing.

Instead, with just 75 days until the election, the media is immersed in speculation about whom the Democrat will choose as his running mate. Perhaps Team Obama should consult Frank Mankiewicz, who knows a thing or two about that.

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