Obama's problem & McCain's opening

With the North Carolina and Indiana results on May 6, and notwithstanding the West Virginia outcome a week later, it now seems inevitable that Barack Obama will be the 2008 Democrat nominee for president. He deserves a good deal of credit for taking on the vaunted Clinton machine and winning, and he did so by appealing to the grass roots of the party, raising obscene amounts of money in $100 increments. Pretty impressive stuff for someone who just four years ago was an unknown legislator in the Illinois state senate. But I've been asking myself a pretty important question in advance of November: why would anyone vote for Barack Obama to be President of the United States?

Yes, I know: the whole "change" thing is pretty sexy now. It is, after all, the final year of a two-term incumbent who has courted controversy, never cultivated public opinion and who has always been hated on the left for having "stolen" the 2000 election. Beyond that, Obama will undoubtedly appeal to certain constituents. White intellectuals, of course, will support him in droves to absolve themselves once and for all of the guilt of slavery and to show the rest of the world just how "progressive" America really is. Obama will get the "youth vote" because he is the living embodiment of all the multi-cultural left-wing drivel that their college professors have been drilling into them. And, of course, blacks -- who have proven that everything to them is about race -- will vote for him in overwhelming numbers as they have been in the Democrat primaries against Hillary Clinton.

But what about the rest of us? Conservative intellectuals who don't support a retreat from Iraq and who believe that we are at war with an enemy who can't be reasoned with? Entrepreneurs and small-business owners who believe that our money shouldn't go to pay for big government programs? Hard-working folks across industry who don't want to pay higher taxes and who believe that less (government) is more?

Obviously, this is a rhetorical question: even before the first campaign rally, at least 45% of the electorate would never vote for Barack Obama, regardless of who he was running against -- such is the nation's partisan divide. But, what does Obama offer that would appeal to a true majority of Americans -- people who don't belong to a fringe interest group or constituency? The kind of people who overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia?

The short answer is: nothing that I can think of. On every issue of importance, from the war to taxes to health care reform, Obama is either an unknown quantity or solidly in the arms of interest groups: feminists, unionists, environmentalists -- leftists in general. He offers nothing of the post-partisan, post-racial politics that he has been promising in his campaign. In fact, Obama is a divisive candidate who says one thing but does another. I find nothing in him that would (or should) appeal to conservatives or independents, let alone the "Reagan Democrats" that are a core constituency for victory in November.

On the face of it, John McCain would seem to be a natural alternative for the core "middle" in this election. He's a free-market proponent who has been resolute on the war on terror and has a deep base of foreign policy experience to draw upon. He's been solid on many core values that Americans hold important, and even though he's wobbled on immigration and global warming, you have to like his record over the long run. He's been tested in ways that Barack Obama can never understand, let alone emulate in any meaningful way. And he's been independent enough over the the past 20 years of public service that "maverick" and "rebel" have often been his middle name. He's no George Bush -- which in this election, is about the most positive campaign attribute anyone can have.

But this is no ordinary year, as Republicans are finding out. So far, the party has lost three traditionally "safe" congressional seats in special elections -- one in Illinois, one in Louisiana, and just this week in Mississippi. All three of these seats were in districts that George Bush carried by big margins in 2004 -- and each is now being represented in Washington by a Democrat. This is a cautionary tale of great significance -- showing just how bad the situation is for Republicans this year. John McCain ignores this signal at his own peril.

In the end, much will hinge on the kind of campaign McCain runs. If he is firm, aggressive and relentless is exploiting the emptiness of Obama's message and the danger inherent in his lack of experience -- while showing voters that he has a better direction for the country -- he can win. But McCain's platform has to have real purpose: lower taxes, lower regulation, market-driven solutions to health care and a true commitment to anti-corruption in Washington. He must show voters -- conservatives, independents and "Reagan Democrats" -- that he, and not Barack Obama, is the change they've been waiting for.