Really, It’s All About Obama III: Why Are They Tied?

The press and political world are wondering why John McCain has apparently evened up with Barack Obama, despite a week of embarrassing flubs.  How could Obama have lost ground?

But if you start from the assumption that this election is all about Obama, it’s really not surprising at all.  He said it himself:

“If you are satisfied with the way things are going now, then you should vote for John McCain,” Obama says before rattling off a list of current concerns, including rising gas prices, home foreclosures and job losses as the country fights two wars. Then, Obama promises “fundamental change.”

With the exception of Ted Kennedy, John McCain is the best-known politician in America who hasn’t been president or vice-president.  Whether he is “McSame” is a matter for debate, but one thing’s for sure.  He is who he is and you know who he is.  If he has a bad week, if he misspeaks, if he changes his mind on offshore oil drilling or tax cuts, it doesn’t alter our view of him.

The picture of Obama isn’t so clear yet.  The things he says resonate more because they add proportionally more to the sum of knowledge about him.  When Obama alters his positions, there is more of an impact on his overall reputation, because his initial set of positions represented most of what we knew about him.  He is in a real bind on Iraq, because he owes his nomination to his ability to chide Hillary Clinton for her pro-war vote in 2002.

The conventional wisdom is that he can “run to the center” without penalty, but I challenge that opinion.  You could not imagine an article like this one appearing with regard to any of the Democratic candidates since 1976, all of whom tried to position themselves as centrists after securing the nomination.  Some repositionings didn’t seem legitimate, perhaps.  But none have been portrayed as betrayal:

In the breathless weeks before the Oregon presidential primary in May, Martha Shade did what thousands of other people here did: she registered as a Democrat so she could vote for Senator Barack Obama.

Now, however, after critics have accused Mr. Obama of shifting positions on issues like the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, gun control and the death penalty — all in what some view as a shameless play to a general election audience — Ms. Shade said she planned to switch back to the Green Party.

“I’m disgusted with him,” said Ms. Shade, an artist. “I can’t even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope’ stuff, it’s blah, blah, blah. For all the independents he’s going to gain, he’s going to lose a lot of progressives.”

Later in the article, Shade allows as how she is far out of the mainstream, and the theme of the article is that Obama doesn’t really need to worry about the far left.  But it’s another clue to Obama’s situation that some in the far left thought Obama was one of them.  It’s the amplitude of surprise that impresses me.  Compare that with McCain’s situation.  The far right knows he’s not one of them.  When McCain strikes a centrist pose, they might resent it, but they expect it and have accounted for it already.  They’re surprised when he agrees with them.

It’s all about Obama.  If his statements and positions gel into a coherent whole, a graspable persona, and a philosophy, he probably wins.  But if voters are still trying to square Statement A with Statement B, voters will probably settle for McCain.

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