Barack Obama made quite a splash with his comment last week likening himself
to Ronald Reagan. Who'd have guessed such a thought had crossed his mind?
"Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way Richard Nixon did
not and a way that Bill Clinton did not," Obama said. Then he suggested he
leads an optimistic, dynamic political movement just as Reagan did.
Obama was right about Reagan as a leader who changed America but
wrong about the way in which he's like the former president. He flatters
himself to think he heads a movement. In truth, he's an extraordinarily
self-disciplined insurgent candidate who's like Reagan in personality.
Okay, he lacks Reagan's sense of humor. But here's how the Las Vegas Sun described
Obama during an interview last week: "Looking poised and relatively fresh
given the grueling schedule of a presidential campaign, [he] spoke in his
customary manner--cool, measured, deliberate." Obama was unruffled by
anything the paper threw at him. Reagan was always unruffled.
Insurgent candidates are often combative and inclined to exaggerate wildly.
They're hot rather than cool. Think John Edwards or Howard Dean or Jesse
Jackson. But that wasn't Reagan's style and it's not Obama's. Whenever Obama
has been criticized in televised debates, he's reacted calmly. I half-expect
him to tell Hillary Clinton, "There you go again."
The key to being calm and composed is self-discipline. Reagan had plenty of
it and so does Obama. Their likability comes into play here, too. You can't
fake likability but you can will it. But it takes the self-discipline of a
Reagan or Obama.
The Reagan-Obama analogy is but one of the notable features of the 2008
presidential race. Here are some others:
* The prissiness of the press. When the press uses the word
"attack"--as it does regularly--you might think a mugging or some
other act of violence had taken place. Nope. All it means is that one
presidential candidate has criticized another, usually by favorably contrasting
his or her record with that of an opponent. If this is done in a speech, the
candidate is "going negative." A TV ad that criticizes or contrasts
is an "attack ad."
The media effort to sanitize presidential campaigns has an adverse effect on
candidates and on meaningful discussion of issues. Candidates pay a price for
airing perfectly honest ads that inform voters about an opponent's record. So
there are fewer of them. Televised debates turn into uninformative lovefests
with only fleeting moments of serious disagreement.
As you may have guessed, the press has a vested interest in campaigns in
which candidates only tout themselves and never zing their rivals. That leaves
a bigger role for journalists to pick apart the record and rhetoric of each
candidate. And win prizes.
* The overrated impact of TV debates. Many journalists figured Mitt Romney
would win the New Hampshire
primary after he dominated a debate two nights before. I did. But it turned out
to have no effect. Nor did John Edwards's strong performance in the final Iowa debate help him in
the caucuses. The only beneficiary of the unprecedented number of televised
debates has been Mike Huckabee, whose humor in what has seemed like an endless
series of debates made him a viable candidate for the Republican nomination.
* The sameness of the Democratic candidates. Obama may be
different from Clinton
and Edwards in style and personality, but the three are ideological peas in a
pod. They basically agree on health care (more government involvement), taxes
(higher), immigration (amnesty in one form or another), and Iraq (get out
as fast as possible, regardless of the state of play in the war).
This has left very little of significance to discuss. So each has picked a
vague topic to emphasize. Obama will bring us together, Clinton
is a change agent, and Edwards will drive the unholy lobbyists out of the
temples of government in Washington.
Now race has slipped in the back door of the campaign to become an issue.
* The absence of momentum. The idea of momentum is that you generate support
in subsequent primaries when you win one. Not this year. Fox News anchor Brit
Hume now refers to "no-mentum." Obama won Iowa,
then lost New Hampshire.
John McCain won New Hampshire, then lost Michigan. And so on.
* The insecurity of Mitt Romney. The man is a smart, tough-minded corporate
turnaround artist who would bring skill in fixing things and decision-making to
the White House. That's who he is. But he's been afraid to center his campaign
on that. Instead, he was chiefly a social conservative in Iowa,
a change agent in New Hampshire, and an
economic revivalist in Michigan.
Now he's the anti-Washington candidate. This is not the way to win the
* The contrariness of John McCain. It's been widely noted that McCain goes
out of his way to offend conservatives, despite the political cost to his
presidential aspirations. What hasn't been noted is the struggle inside the
McCain campaign over whether he should try the opposite tack.
Some McCain advisers--the smarter ones--believe he should stress the
conservative goals he'd like to achieve as president, tone down his
contrariness, and appeal directly to conservative voters. McCain, however, is
more comfortable with concentrating on national security, his experience as a
POW and war hero, and patriotism.
Change does not come easy to McCain. But when it does, when he lightens up
and stops poking conservatives in the eye, it will be noticed. And the result
will be that conservatives warming to McCain won't be driven away by a
statement by the candidate that alienates them once again.
Or maybe not. The defining feature of the 2008 primaries is that they have
defeated every pundit who tried to see more than 24 hours into the future.