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Jim Antle makes a good point in response to my last post:

But there clearly is this sort of vulnerability for a Democratic nominee, there has been in more elections than not since 1972, and it is particularly a problem for Barack Obama now with certain working-class white voters in his own party. You can say that it can’t be fixed. You can say that attempts to fix it are likely to be self-defeating and embarrassing, as John Kerry reporting for duty surely was. You can say you disagree with this critique of Obama [bold mine-DL]. But the problem clearly exists and doesn’t require Democratic validation. Democratic acknowledgement may not help, but it doesn’t seem arguable that this is a problem. It only seems arguable whether it can be solved.

It is this point about disagreeing with the critique that seems most important.  One of the reasons why the “unpatriotic” or “un-American” charges have worked against previous nominees at all is that the Democrats either did not take them seriously or actually embraced the terms of the debate being set by their opponents.  They disagreed with the critique, but often acted as ifthey agreed that the problem of perception was a substantial problem.  Thus Al Gore, a pro-war “centrist” himself, felt compelled to choose another pro-war “centrist” to “balance” the ticket, and Kerry did the same.  They internalised the critique of their enemies and gave the impression that they were guilty of the thing they were being accused of being, which ended up confirming the accusation in the minds of the public.  This has put Democrats in the position of having to engage in a bidding war to demonstrate their patriotism in the most heavy-handed ways, which has usually mistakenly involved trumpeting their willingness to bomb one country or another or being unusually reckless in promoting democracy and human rights abroad.  Obama’s supporters sometimes seem eager to remind the world that he would be willing to violate Pakistani sovereignty with impunity, unlike the wimp John McCain, and next they will probably laud his willingness to escalate the drug war as proof of his “toughness.” 

The point is that Democrats cannot defeat today’s GOP in a bidding war over who is more militaristic and irresponsible in foreign policy, just as the GOP can never outbid the Democrats when it comes to making lavish, irresponsible promises about domestic spending.  To fight the election on this ground is a losing proposition for Democrats, and this is why efforts to out-veteran the veteran opponent, which is part of the rationale for selecting Webb, will simply draw attention to the “weaknesses” that have been attributed to Obama.  It is an attempt to beat the opposition at its own game with a candidate who is uniquely ill-suited to playing that kind of game.  Hence he has tried to frame the election in entirely different terms, because once the election is defined along tradiitional lines he probably knows that he will lose. 

Suppose he chooses Webb.  What then?  Each time someone explains why he chose Webb, the answer will come back that he had to choose someone who had served in the military (because he hadn’t) and whom Middle Americans could accept (because they couldn’t accept him), and so each time Webb is mentioned voters will be reminded of the critique of Obama.  He has negatively defined himself in ways that are particularly advantageous to his opponent.  Instead of destroying or cancelling out the critique, it would strengthen it, and simultaneously play the game of the “old politics” that Obama professes that he wants to escape.  Is there an electoral reality that confirms that Obama has political weaknesses with certain constituencies?  Of course.  The trick, then, is not to dwell on those weaknesses and not obsess over winning over voters who cannot be won over.  The larger point would be that if Obama is so unelectable that he cannot put together a winning coalition without accomplishing the impossible and winning over these die-hard anti-Obama Democrats of Appalachia and so forth, it won’t matter whether he chooses Webb or Tony Hawk.  Meanwhile, choosing Webb sends the signal that he is going to chase a will o’ the wisp and lacks confidence in his ability to win without that sort of overt symbolic pandering.  When Gore chose Lieberman, he was playing into the hands of his opponents who kept insisting that he had to distance himself from a popular administration because of its sleazy reputation, and it was indicative of a broader problem with the campaign of yielding to outside criticism and pressure that contributed to a loss of confidence in the candidate. 

Rather than changing the terms of the debate and ushering in the sort of transformation his candidacy is supposed to represent, an Obama selection of Webb would be another instance of the “defensive crouch” from the Democrat who was supposed to be willing to defend Democratic policies forthrightly as the better policies on national security.  Voters respond well to confidence and conviction.  Actions that suggest hesitation, uncertainty or base-covering tend not to help, especially when they are being made by the relatively inexperienced contender.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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