Thanks to the gap between big state primaries and the resolution to the republican nomination process the 2008 presidential campaign has ground to a standstill. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue to campaign, but this part of the season feels much more like a Rumsfeldian slog than a campaign in that the race remains so close that there’s almost no mathematical way for either candidate to clinch the nomination without using superdelegates. Even in that case, though, things aren’t at all clear. Obama can point to the 6 percent lead in pledged delegates he has and make a case for a popular mandate. Clinton can point to her success in a greater number of states that are actually likely to vote democrat in making her case. Both of these are perfectly reasonable arguments, but neither is convincing enough to invalidate the other. This is a disaster.
Each candidate can also find some national poll to support them, as well; polls that show a relative strength of one over the other in a contest with McCain, or that show a preference of one voting bloc over another. This also isn’t convincing since the presidential election is neither going to be held soon enough for those poll results to matter nor is it going to be a single national election.
Moreover, the longer this goes on the weaker both candidates look. When Clinton gets backed into a corner she reveals herself to be a dirty fighter. Negative campaigning is much more effective than people give it credit for, but it makes everyone feel gross, too. Both candidates have been tripped up trying to strike a balance on NAFTA (they both somewhat arrogantly assume neither Canada or Mexico would have any points they want renegotiated, too) but her longer public life has hurt her more on the consistency front.
Obama, meanwhile, is losing his angelic shine. His speech following the blow-up of his pastor’s ridiculous comments was extremely thoughtful and daringly mature (given the political and media climate when it comes to discussions of race and racism), but his characterization of his relationship with the reverend (“an old uncle who says things I don’t always agree with”) wasn’t his strongest moment last week (unless he considers eccentric old uncle a synonym for dangerous bigot). He’s also admitted that his relationship with Tony Rezko was much closer than he’s previously let on. Neither of these things have much to do with his potential presidency (except to the extent he has made his self-vaunted judgment an issue) but it has started to reveal him to be exactly what he has insisted he’s not: a totally orthodox, conventional politician. In this sense, he has farther to fall than she does.
In sum, neither candidate can demonstrate an ability to heal both the domestic and international rifts that are hurting the country. Unless they acknowledge their respective strengths and weaknesses and end this mess it is McCain’s presidency to lose. They need to get together and either form a ticket or one of them needs to make a very, very sweet promise to the other. I know this is easier said than done, but it can’t possible be as hard as their more intransigent supporters would maintain.
While all this is going on, John McCain is sitting around Arizona, raising goodwill and looking like the above-the-fray candidate. He made a show of scolding campaign workers who have tried smearing either of his rivals. He has also been canny at pointing out that he’s actually done a lot of the things both the democrats claim they can do (i.e., work in a non-partisan way with the rival party, attract independent votes, protect the United States in wartime, etc).
In spite of these advantages he’s still a long way from the presidency. When the economy goes bad the party in the White House is punished (even though the president cannot really do much to control economic cycles). A lot of the republicans I’ve spoken to (from the ranks of my family and classmates) do not trust him, and the nature of their mistrust has a common theme: they’re concerned with what they see as his big government tendencies. One of my friends jokingly said that once the republican nomination was down to McCain and Mike Huckabee she tuned out because at that point all the candidates were basically socialists. This critique is as absurd as the corresponding left wing one that portrays him as a water-carrier for George W. Bush and the GOP, but it speaks to a real threat: this could be the election where the right wing base stays home or goes for a third party.