Thursday, June 05, 2008

Primary 2008 Post-Mortem

"If God is merciful, we'll get to choose between John McCain and Barack Obama in November." -- Me, 27Jan08

Well, I got the match-up I wanted, but how the heck did we get here?

It's easy to forget the Republican race, since it ended so long ago. But it's especially hard to remember that only a year ago, John McCain was politically DOA. His campaign practically disintegrated last summer. He scraped through the fall on a shoestring budget. Here's the thing, though: John McCain didn't need to tell anyone who he was. They already knew that. He just had to hang around long enough to capitalize on an opportunity. That opportunity came with Mike Huckabee's surprise win in Iowa. I remarked at the time that this would cause the antibodies to come out with a vengeance ... The Republican electorate felt the blitz coming, and like a quarterback, ran through their check-down. Romney? No. Giuliani? No. Both looked OK earlier, but now? Well, looky here, guess who's still around? And lo, John McCain surged in the polls. Really, he was the only sane choice out of that lot.

Now we get to the interesting bit ... The Democratic Primary, which seemed to go on for-freaking-ever. And I do have to say that the campaign really highlighted Hillary Clinton's unfitness for the Presidency in a way that I didn't clearly understand before. Why do I say that? Because she failed spectacularly at a relatively simple exercise in contingency planning.

Looking back to the campaign's beginnings, she started with a massive lead in the polls, and a seemingly insurmountable lead in name recognition. She and her staff took one look at the calendar, much like I did, and made the mental calculation that it'd be in the bag after Super Tuesday. All she had to do was win the first primaries, carry the momentum into February, and there you are ...

To all appearances, the following question was never floated at a Clinton strategy meeting: "What if we're wrong? What if the race goes on into March and April?"

Barack Obama's campaign, on the other hand, had a full-court press planned from the beginning. Superior organization and fundraising gave him advantages in the early races that didn't show until it was go-time. This allowed him to build momentum going into February. A split decision on Super Tuesday didn't seal the deal for him, of course, but it gave him a springboard to launch into the March primaries, for which his team was already well-prepared.

Clinton's team, on the other hand, didn't even know how Texas' split election-caucus system worked. That hurt them in Texas. Clinton won the vote part, but lost so dramatically on the caucus side that Obama ended up winning a majority of Texas' delegates.

Clinton's campaign recovered better than I thought they would. They managed to scramble, and cobble up organizations in states they never expected to matter ... but too late, really, to do any good. The damage was done. Obama gained a lead in March that he never relinquished.

There were a lot of other factors at play, of course. But the lack of planning was the killer. Failing to plan is the same as planning to fail.

And now, it's time to start looking forward towards November. As I said earlier, this is the match-up I really wanted to see. Now, I'll tell you why I say that.

Each party rejected something nasty and caustic from its past. The Republicans had an opportunity to choose a candidate who was a lite theocrat (Huckabee) or a full-time security nut (Giuliani), and rejected both. They chose a candidate who understands morality, and understands national security, but blends both with a real respect for America's finest traditions. The Democrats had a chance to nominate a real class-warfare candidate (Edwards) or a divisive culture-warrior (Clinton), but again refused to do so. They've picked a candidate who represents what's still right about America: if you come here and play by the rules, there's no job your sons can't aspire to. That's as powerful an advertisement for the dream that is America as damn near anything else I can think of.

I think each man brings real strengths to the table, that could serve them well as President. Now, it's up to both men to sell themselves to the American electorate, and it's our responsibility to listen to them very carefully in the next few months. And maybe, just maybe, we can have an honest national discussion on where we really need to go from here.

Let's have a good, clean fight, gentlemen. Let the best man win!

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