Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The general election begins

Last night the epic Democratic nomination fight came to an end--or at least a culmination--with the final Democratic primaries in South Dakota (won by Clinton) and Montana (won by Obama). Technically there are still two Democratic candidates, but enough superdelegates took the occasion to commit to Obama that he seems to have clinched the nomination. This was Barack Obama's night, first and foremost.

=> If we stand back and put this outcome in long-term perspective, it's really quite astonishing. A year ago, the prospect that Barack Obama could take the nomination away from Hillary Clinton seemed remote (to put it mildly). At the very least, Obama's triumph in this contest ranks as "one of the biggest upsets in presidential politics"--perhaps, as Chris Cillizza wondered in his Washington Post blog a few days ago, it should even count as the biggest upset in the history of presidential primary contests?

At the same time, there is also something unprecendented about Clinton's position. Since her defeat and Obama's breakthrough in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton has been running as the underdog--something else that would have seemed implausible back in 2007. But despite several near-death experiences for her campaign, Clinton managed to avoid getting knocked out of the race, won most of the primaries over the past two months, and overall fought Obama almost precisely to a draw--but not quite.

=> Since Clinton didn't officially capitulate last night, many observers felt that the moment lacked a satisfyingly sharp sense of closure. But even if it will take a little more time for such matters to get finalized, it's clear that this electoral drama has reached the point of transition from the nomination contests to the general election.

I have various thoughts about that (like everyone else). But rather than get into them at any length right now, I just want to share some immediate impressions about the speeches that each of the Big Three candidates delivered Tuesday night. They were all significant, in their different ways.

=> John McCain's speech in New Orleans (technically in Kenner, LA) has provoked mixed reactions across the board, and with good reason. Even his supporters concede that it was delivered in a wooden, clumsy, and generally underwhelming way. (Here is the VIDEO.) I confess I was a little surprised at the extent to which this was true. McCain will never be able to compete with Obama when it comes to eloquence, but he's often better than this. He looked and sounded oddly distracted, uncomfortable, and unconvincing (as well as conspicuously old, to be honest).

On the other hand, the written version of the speech comes across as stronger and more substantial--so it's worth reading the transcript.

Among other things, McCain made it clear in this speech that he intends to run a campaign in which he will try to distance himself sharply from the Bush II administration and, in his own version of what used to be called "triangulation" when Clinton did it, to emphasize his principled independence from Republican as well as Democratic partisanship. It will be interesting to see how successfully he can manage that. His speech also laid out the main themes of the campaign that McCain and his team intend to wage against Obama, and that justifies giving the speech close attention.

I should add that even though the written version of McCain's speech is better than it sounded in McCain's actual performance last night, it's still uneven. Some passages offer tough and pointed challenges to Obama and his positions, for which Obama will have to come up with solid responses. I will be so bold--and unfashionable--as to say that the portion of the speech dealing with Iraq makes a serious argument (marred by one misleading & unfair cheap shot against Obama) that deserves a serious response. Other passages in the speech are a good deal weaker and fuzzier, the challenging points alternate with empty and unconvincing slogans (in my opinion, at least), and not all of the different themes harmonize very plausibly.

But at all events, this looks like the opening playbook for the McCain general election campaign.

=> Hillary Clinton is never going to be a spell-binding orator, but her speech last night was actually one of her stronger performances. (Here's the VIDEO and here's the transcript.) It was clearly intended as a summing-up of her campaign, and in this respect there was an ambivalence about it that many commentators seem to have missed.

On the one hand, confounding many expectations, much of Clinton's address had the tone of a victory speech--for which she used the fact that she had, after all, just won the South Dakota primary as a launching pad. She emphasized what her campaign had achieved, expressed solidarity with her supporters, and pointedly declined to concede just yet--"This has been a long campaign, and I will be making no decisions tonight."

At the same time, the speech definitely had a valedictory quality, too. Unless I am quite mistaken, Clinton was breaking the news to her supporters that this was the campaign's last hurrah. Granted, she was officially non-committal about her next step: "In the coming days, I'll be consulting with supporters and party leaders to determine how to move forward with the best interests of our party and our country guiding my way." But this sounds to me like a formula for some kind of negotiated settlement.

Frankly, I can't help suspecting that, at least in part, this inconclusive note was deliberately intended to annoy "the pundits and the nay-sayers" impatiently waiting for Clinton to throw in the towel. And, sure enough, that feature of her speech provoked consternation, complaints, outrage gnashing of teeth, and so on. I must confess that I am a bit amused by this reaction.

No, there wasn't a formal and explicit resolution to the nomination contest last night. But my guess is that it will emerge fairly soon, after a brief period of behind-the-scenes consultations and adjustments, and at this stage of the game a little more time isn't a big deal. Of course, I don't pretend to be an expert or insider when it comes to such matters, so the final-final endgame may turn out to be messier than I expect. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

=> Barack Obama's victory speech was terrific at a number of levels (though some of the key themes seemed a little more inspiring than concrete). In addition to paying a gracious tribute to Hillary Clinton, Obama made a point-by-point response to McCain's main charges that, again, probably gives us some foretaste of what we will be hearing over the next few months.

For the moment, I will leave it at that ... except to recommend that those of you who haven't heard Obama's speech (transcript here) should listen to it now ... along with the speeches by Clinton & McCain.

=> Still 5 months until the November election ...

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub