Friday, July 11, 2008

For whom the center holds

When I was in Washington last week, I strolled over to gaze at the White House because it knocks me out every time.

A mom asked her blonde ponytailed daughter what the building was.

"That's where Barack Obama lives," the 5-year-old said matter-of-factly, before requesting ice cream.

I wondered if her confidence had anything to do with the fact that she doesn't get viral e-mails smearing him as a radical black Muslim, or read Daily Kos where posters want to try him for treason for voting for the FISA bill or any editorial page gasping about his unprecedented shift to the center.

In this lull between Obama securing the nomination in early June and accepting it at the Invesco Field in Denver in late August, his campaign is doing some soul-searching to find the right general election pitch. It hasn't been the smoothest transition in terms of messaging and fundraising - and the 24-hour news cycle hasn't been his friend.

Any misstep from the minor (like that tacky presidential seal) to the boneheaded (volunteers removing head-scarved women from sitting behind Obama at a Detroit event) is covered in breathless detail. I frequently open agitated e-mails from readers determined that the latest flap will be the end of him, although I never seem to receive them when John McCain confuses Sunnis with Shiites (again).

Want me to spill the beans on the super-secret pundit code? We don't know what will stick and what won't. We need a little distance to see if a gaffe will congeal into a pattern (the Howard Dean scream underscoring the unhinged persona theme) or if it will be a one-day story.

Not that this is not how campaigns should be covered, mind you. But it is the glossy, issue-free infotainment bent of cable news that drives perception and polls far more than the Economist's thoughtful analysis of the candidates' jobs programs.

There's no time for reflection in the frenzied rhythm of the election cycle, which goes something like this: Candidate's surrogate says something stupid; media and operatives feign outrage; surrogate apologizes; media declare this will kill the candidate's chances; the other candidate's surrogate picks up the baton the next day; the cycle continues.

And Barack Obama is usually at the epicenter of the storm.

That's because this election is all about Obama, as the kindergartner outside the White House can see. Even McCain knows that. His real hope is that "hope" will flame out and he'll be the safe, practical choice bolstered by his lifetime of service.

Now would be a good time for Johnny Mac to march into the vacuum. There are some promising signs, like his long-awaited economic speech Thursday in Michigan, home of 8.5 percent unemployment (go Wolverine State!). He's shaken up his campaign and made it more centralized, adding an office in the strategic location of Farmington Hills in vote-rich Oakland County.

But even during the primary, McCain's campaign was never on fire. Part of that is it's hard to whip up much excitement for any Republican during what's clearly another good Democratic year. But the maverick has failed to excite and inspire people like he did eight years ago, partly because he's ditched a lot of his core reform message.

Instead, McCain has morphed into the GOP standard-bearer (inviting unflattering comparisons to the bumbling Bob Dole '96 campaign). He's spent a lot of time talking up conservative judges and courting religious right leaders (some so radical like the Rev. John Hagee that it calls his judgment into question). He's also flip-flopped on the Bush tax cuts and unbelievably on torture, after spending more than five years in the Hanoi Hilton.

We hear little of campaign finance, other than to rightly criticize Obama's opt-out. His message on alternative energy is a quasi-lurch to the left, but it's ultimately unconvincing given his thin record on the issue and eagerness to jump on the gas-tax holiday and drill for the fun of it bandwagon.

While diehard McCainiacs have eagerly awaited his move to the middle, it's been Obama making a play for independents, while trying to blunt the right's traditional attacks.

His shifts haven't been that pronounced, to be honest, other than his blatant about-face on expanded government surveillance powers. But hell hath no fury like liberal bloggers scorned, so Obama is taking his share of hits right now. Welcome to the club, Barack - you've passed the IQ test and it's a good place to be.

His measured position on troop withdrawals in Iraq didn't translate well into sound bites, but means we'll be less hasty in pulling out than we were jumping in. And not supporting a mental health exception for so-called partial birth abortion - a procedure that should only be performed when the mother's health is in danger - is just common sense.

"The center cannot hold," poet William Butler Yeats once wrote. And while that's prescient in party politics and often legislation, campaigns contradict that maxim.

Modern presidential elections are determined by the center - that 40 percent of us who can't swallow the rigidity and pettiness of either party line.

If McCain continues to cede this ground to Obama, it's game over.

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