Conservatives Missing the Mark on Obama's Vulnerability

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So far, Fox's Sean Hannity and many of Barack Obama's conservative critics have gone after the presumptive Democratic nominee for his "judgment" in surrounding himself throughout his career with such "radicals" as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former Weatherman Bill Ayres, and even Obama's own wife, Michelle.

They're on a fool's errand. And, if the company he keeps continues to be the GOP's principal criticism through to November, it will ensure Obama's election.

Every candidate has vulnerable blind spots, especially one new to the national scene, so there are ways to run against Obama. But the current approach has a particularly fatal flaw: it's untrue.

Say what you want about Obama, he's no radical. Yes, he has an unusual name, but once upon a time, all of our names -- whether Irish, Italian, or Hungarian -- were considered uncommon. Despite his unfamiliar persona, his is a charming and conventional American success story -- he grew up in a broken home, was raised by a relative, became chief editor of the Harvard Law Review (hardly the house organ for a bastion of bomb-throwers), and then spent most of his political career in the bowels of that well-known cauldron of Marxism: the Illinois state legislature.

Along the way, Obama clearly made the acquaintances of all kinds of folk -- including Ayres and Wright, the latter of whom became one of his many spiritual mentors and has already damaged Obama's candidacy all that he's going to. But the pattern throughout his career indicates that Obama apparently cultivated these gentlemen -- and undoubtedly many others -- more for what they could do for him and his political career than for what he could do for them. And he has already disassociated himself from both Wright and Ayres, albeit clumsily.

Does that make him very ambitious? Yup. But if that were a disqualification, we could eliminate virtually every presidential hopeful in history, including John McCain.

Follow the flip-flop

So how could the GOP make an effective case against Obama? The same way almost every successful campaign has built a case against a relative neophyte in the past. The more experienced opponents of Barry Goldwater (in 1964), George McGovern (in 1972), and Walter Mondale (in 1984) each ran the same kind of ad, accusing their opponents of flip-flopping on issues. Those specific assaults, of course, embodied a much larger critique.

Flip-flop attacks aren't really about the issues at hand. Instead, they're a way of reminding voters, "You don't really know this person well enough, do you?" Plus, they're a great way to make a candidate who appears to be "above politics" look as political as everyone else. In that sense, they are really character attacks on the opponent, and the reason they reappear so often in presidential politics is that they are often highly effective.

For obvious reasons, Obama may be vulnerable to just such a thrust. He's newer to the national scene than any candidate since Wendell Wilkie in 1940, and some voters are going to be uneasy because they've known him for so short a time. More than any candidate since Jimmy Carter, moreover, Obama is presenting himself as an anti-politician, promising to transcend the Zeitgeist of the era.

Since winning the nomination, Obama has shifted his positions -- on gun control and campaign finance, among others -- granted, in the tradition of nominees moving toward the middle in hopes of attracting independent general-election voters. But the mark of a good politician is that he can realign his post-nomination stance in a way that goes largely unnoticed. In contrast, Obama so far seems to be publicizing his flexibility, which is the kind of mistake inexperienced candidates often make.

If McCain is smart, this will be the focus of his critique of Obama. It has the advantage of making his own weakness -- he's old, and many voters feel they know him perhaps too well -- an advantage. After all, better to go for the steadfast and stubborn old face than the new guy who looks as if he can be pushed around.

Obama is young, and he speaks the truth when he says he's not very political in a conventional sense. Ironically, however, the more he attempts to moderate those attributes and his positions, the worse off he will be, especially since he will alienate his core supporters who provide the energy for his candidacy. In the end, he risks coming off as a phony -- and, like Holden Caulfield, Americans don't like phonies. Especially in the White House.

To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to

In conclusion...

Boston Phoenix

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