Opinion » Ted Rall

The Muddle is in the Message

Obama on the ropes


NEW YORK—Democrats are fired up about Barack Obama. Belying Will Rogers' adage that as a Democrat he didn't belong to any organized political party, this year finds the Democratic National Convention uncharacteristically well-funded and startlingly organized. Following an incumbent likely to go down as this country's worst leader in history, Democrats couldn't ask for a more favorable political climate.

"Watergate is the last time things were so overwhelmingly tilted against the Republicans," Duke University political scientist David Rohde tells the Bloomberg wire service.

McCain ought to be a pushover. At a time when Americans are tired of Iraq as well as the "good war" against Afghanistan, the GOP standard bearer's narrative is military: career Navy, POW, wants to send more young men and women to Iraq.

Yet the latest Gallup poll (conducted Aug. 22-24) has Obama neck and neck with McCain, with 45 percent each, with a 2 percent margin of error. CNN (Aug. 21-23) yields identical results, a 47-47 tie with a 3.5 percent margin of error. What's up?

This year's presidential race, as I've been saying for months, is Barack Obama's to lose. And though he hasn't committed any major gaffes—no joy rides in any tanks or senior moments when asked how many houses he owns—he hasn't taken the swings he needs to wallop this thing out of the park.

Obama leaves nothing to chance, coolly hugging every twist and turn of the campaign trail with pre-2000 Rovian efficiency. His campaign's professionalism is a welcome departure from the witless incompetence that has characterized the last eight years of federal governance. But it comes at a price—the same joylessness of inevitability that killed Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

Joe Biden is yet another sacrifice to the gods of pragmatism, a chance to boldly seize the moment squandered. Memo to future campaign managers: Don't con millions of saps into telling you their cellphone numbers so they can get a personalized spam telling them about your VP pick an hour after it's announced on TV. Even better, don't make a big deal about your VP unless your VP is a big deal.

In 1996 Bob Dole enjoyed a 9-point bump in the polls after announcing Jack Kemp as his running mate. Bush and Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 picked up between 3 and 5 percentage points after naming their veeps. The Biden bump was zero. Amazing but true—Joe Lieberman was a bigger asset than Biden. In Biden's defense, big announcements don't get much news traction when they break on a Saturday in late August.

Maybe Biden can deliver Delaware.

Obama and his advisers, probably still a little amazed that they got this far with what would normally have been a test candidacy designed to lay the groundwork for a later race, have apparently forgotten how their guy first broke out. Back in December, before the Iowa caucus, Obama was the guy who reminded Americans of a time when politicians knew how to talk and inspire them. He was young at a time when old guys like Dick Cheney were screwing up the world. He was optimistic when voters' confidence was all but non-existent.

Remember hope? Audacity? Change? Platitudes all, and wonderful marketing for a country that was anything but post-partisan, much less post-political.

Audacity has been in short supply since Obama collected his 2,118th delegate on June 3. Pandering to racist whites who think black guys are a bunch of child-abandoning layabouts, he delivered a speech slagging them as deadbeat dads. He flip-flopped on domestic spying, voting to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that illegally let the NSA listen to your phone calls. He even changed his mind about offshore oil drilling, which will crap up beaches while prices at the pump remain exactly the same.

There's nothing wrong with Biden. He's a safe pick—experienced and smart, he offers foreign policy cred to make up for Obama's short resume. Biden will be a good attack dog, assuming the campaign decides to use him as such. But he's an uninspired and uninspiring choice.

Personally, I'm glad Obama didn't pick Clinton. She would have overshadowed him. John Edwards, my pick for president in the primaries and for veep after he dropped out, has been hobbled by the revelation that he had an affair. But either Clinton or Edwards would have been a better choice than Biden. They're different, they're controversial, they're ... a change. Unlike Biden, people would have talked about them.

Obama's politics are neither complex nor internally inconsistent. They are opportunist. Whatever works with voters is good. "His philosophy is ambition," Cooper Union historian Fred Siegel told The New York Times. "I see him as having a rhetoric rather than a philosophy."

Obama's campaign relies on imagery, not ideology. He has fans, not supporters. He won the Democratic nomination by acting like a rock star, not a politician. Turning to traditional politics (as he did by picking Biden) will expose his weaknesses on a playing field on which he has little experience—and could cost him the presidency.

Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.