Political Hay

Big League Trouble

Is Obama ready for the Right's chin music?

By 7.16.08

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When Barack Obama's campaign decided to purge their official website of the candidate's former criticism of the "surge" in Iraq, the story was instantly linked on the Drudge Report and became yesterday's No. 1 topic du jour on talk radio.

It was the kind of embarrassment that cut three ways against Obama -- reminding hawks on the Right of the Democrat's anti-war stance, pouring salt in the wounds of Democrats who'd supported Obama precisely because of his anti-war stance, and hurting him with independents by enhancing the Illinois senator's growing reputation as an untrustworthy flip-flopper.

The most important point of yesterday's gaffe, however, is that Obama's Long March to the Democratic nomination was not much of a warm-up for the media environment he'll face as the general election campaign comes into clear focus this fall.

It's as if a promising recruit in Class A baseball were to find himself suddenly catapulted into the major leagues, eagerly leaning into the plate in his first at-bat, only to have the pitcher aim a 95-mph fastball at his ear.

Welcome to the big leagues, rookie.

UNLIKE HIS UPSET of Hillary Clinton, the fall season will pit Obama against the concerted efforts of the conservative communications apparatus his campaign has dubbed the "Republican attack machine."

Obama knows all about that machine -- he might never have gotten this far had it not been for the assistance of the Right in making Hillary a soft target for the challenger.

Recent years saw an outpouring of anti-Clinton books by conservative authors including John Podhoretz, Amanda Carpenter, and The American Spectator's own R. Emmett Tyrrell.

Throughout her 2007 reign as the "inevitable" Democratic front-runner, Clinton faced a relentless cacophony of criticism from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other talk-radio hosts, as well as a steady stream of negative attention from conservative columnists and magazines.

Many observers felt that Matt Drudge especially had it in for Hillary, headlining every negative item about her campaign at his site that functions as the de facto online one-stop shop for national news.

"Progressives" who now celebrate Obama's nomination as the triumph of Hope seem not to have pondered this key question: To what extent was his victory produced by decidedly unprogressive forces who -- looking forward to the general election -- figured that the callow upstart would be easier to defeat than the crafty Clinton crew who'd beaten the GOP in every previous match-up?

EVIDENCE OF THE INFLUENCE that conservative communicators wielded over the Democratic nominating process is apparent in the trajectory of the campaign.

Hillary remained the clear leader until the Oct. 30 debate in which she stumbled badly when asked about a proposal by New York's then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Is immigration an issue where liberals are conflicted? When debate moderator Tim Russert asked Hillary's Democratic rivals for a show of hands if anyone disagreed with Spitzer's proposal, it was not Obama but Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd who spoke up, prompting Clinton's disastrous facing-both-ways attempt to "clarify" her position.

Limbaugh and other conservative media spent the next several days hammering Hillary for her gaffe, and within weeks, Obama moved ahead in the polls for the first time.

The anti-Hillary drumbeats on the Right -- for months, Hannity opened his daily radio show by welcoming his 12 million listeners aboard the "Stop Hillary Express" -- continued until early March, when pundits declared that Obama had a mathematical lock on the nomination. At which point, Obama's previously unstoppable momentum seemed to disappear as if by magic.

That top hat full of rabbits, however, was wielded by the same radio prestidigitator who'd spent years as Hillary's No. 1 nemesis.

Just as soon as it seemed Obama was a cinch to win in Denver, Limbaugh waved his wand and -- presto! -- conjured into existence "Operation Chaos," whose stated purpose was to turn the Democratic contest into a stalemate. It quite nearly succeeded.

Of the more than 1,760 pledged delegates Obama will carry to Denver, only 262 were won after March 11. Obama had run up a string of 11 consecutive victories in February and March, but in the final 10 Democratic primaries -- after Limbaugh launched "Operation Chaos" -- Hillary's record was 6-3-1, including victories in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Though many pundits sneered at the "Rush factor," once Limbaugh jumped on the Clinton bandwagon, Hillary fought Obama to a standstill. Even now, his final pledged delegate count is more than 400 shy of the number needed to win in Denver. Only because of a decisive shift of super-delegates to his standard is Obama called the "presumptive" Democratic nominee.

There will be no super-delegates on Nov. 4, however, and no caucuses for Team Obama's organizers to manipulate. Nor can the apostles of Hope expect further assistance from Limbaugh, Hannity & Co.

OBAMA'S REPUBLICAN OPPONENT has been the object of harsh criticism from the Right over the years, but the conservative voices that once formed an angry chorus against John McCain -- and still grind their teeth over his immigration stance -- are now singing in unison from the anti-Obama hymnal.

As soon as the primaries ended last month, Team Obama began sending out e-mail appeals for contributions to help defend their candidate against the same "Republican attack machine" that had spent all of 2007 attacking Hillary.

The tactical brilliance of his primary campaign has now become a main theme in the media's narrative of Obama as an inevitable winner in November. The role of the Right in picking the Democrats' Rookie of the Year is ignored.

Stepping into the batter's box this fall, however, the new kid won't see many of those hanging curveballs he knocked out of the park against Hillary in spring training. That big right-hander on the mound will be bringing some major league heat.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.