February 13, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd
If the 2008 primary season has taught us anything, it’s that the conventional wisdom is not to be trusted.
Take, for example, the adage that money is the lifeblood of politics. Not this year. Just look at the Republican field, where Sen. John McCain has methodically marched to the front despite the serious financial woes that dogged him all the way up to the Florida primary.
It pays to recall that McCain was virtually out of money last July, with just $250,000 available. By comparison, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who won precisely zero primaries, had raised $47 million by the end of 2007; former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who gracefully exited the race after Super Tuesday, $62.8 million; Sen. Hillary Clinton almost $91 million; Sen. Barack Obama $80 million.
But on the strength of Super Tuesday and the so-called Potomac Primary—and even after a less-than-stellar batch of weekend contests in Kansas, Louisiana and Washington state—McCain is the undisputed Republican frontrunner and will secure the nomination before his Democratic counterpart.
And that’s not the only example of shoestring candidacies winning in the year of the “billion-dollar campaign.” McCain’s lone remaining primary rival, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, had raised just $9 million by the end of 2007, and was reportedly outspent 15 to one before the Iowa caucuses. Yet he won in Iowa, he won on Super Tuesday, and he’s still winning.
Speaking of Iowa, after Huckabee and Obama stunned the nation by winning the Hawkeye state, the purveyors of conventional wisdom were of two minds: Some wrote off the Clinton campaign and prepared for the coronation of Obama. Others reminded us that Iowa winners usually fade way sometime around the New Hampshire primary.
Well, New Hampshire ensured that there would be no coronation, but more than a month after Iowa, Huckabee and Obama are still rolling. Both held their own on Super Tuesday and are promising to extend their improbable campaigns into March—and well beyond for Obama.
While on the subject of extended campaigns, the conventional wisdom once held that Americans would tire of 2008’s endless campaign season, which actually began in early 2007. Clinton and Obama, for example, announced their candidacies in January 2007. The first debate was held in April 2007.
But there’s little sign of campaign fatigue, at least not among the voters. In fact, there is a rising level of energy and interest, especially, as the press dutifully tells us, among Democrats.
Yet even as the media focus on, and swoon over, the Clinton-Obama duel as if it’s the only race for the White House, there also is growing interest in the GOP race. As they vie for Ronald Reagan’s mantle, Republicans are defining conservatism for a new generation—and generating some sparks along the way.
On this point, it pays to recall that just because a party seems splintered during the primaries, just because the eventual nominee will not have rolled through the primaries like a juggernaut, doesn’t mean Election Day is a lost cause. Reagan, after all, had to fight for his nomination throughout 1980. And as George Will reminds us, Bill Clinton “lost to four different competitors: Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown” and lost seven of the first nine primaries/caucuses on his way to the nomination—and the White House—in 1992.
Speaking of Bill Clinton, with a strong assist from the ex-president, the purveyors of conventional wisdom once argued that the former president’s wife was inevitable. A corollary to this piece of conventional wisdom held that Bill Clinton would be Hillary Clinton’s not-so-secret weapon.
But more than a year after the candidate of inevitability officially began her bid for the presidency—and with more than half the primaries now behind us—Obama looks increasingly inevitable. And the former president has been exposed as a liability. Much of Obama’s post-New Hampshire success appears to be a backlash against Bill Clinton and his win-at-all-costs stumping style, tinged as it was in South Carolina and elsewhere with race-charged rhetoric.
Win or lose, Clinton Inc. doesn’t appear to be the life of the party anymore.
Finally, a year ago, six months ago, even 60 days ago, the conventional wisdom held that the Iraq War would be an albatross around the neck of any candidate who supported it, especially a candidate who supported President George W. Bush’s risky surge strategy. In fact, the candidate most closely linked with the surge—and most un-nuanced, unequivocal, unconfused and unembarrassed about his position on the war—is John McCain, the man who is painstakingly wrapping up the GOP nomination.
While his critics alternately say he’s undependable, unpredictable and unelectable, McCain has been this war’s—and this commander-in-chief’s—most dependable and articulate ally in Congress. And because he stuck to his guns and took a huge political risk—reminding us that “presidents don’t lose wars; political parties don’t lose wars; nations lose wars”—voters have steadily rallied to his side. In fact, recent polls indicate he would beat Clinton, is in a statistical dead-heat with Obama, and would capture more Democratic voters than Obama would Republicans.
And as Karl Rove noted this week, citing new polling data, “McCain is doing better consolidating his base than are the Democrats.” Indeed, the Democratic Party increasingly looks to be splintering along racial and gender lines, leaving fractures that may not easily heal.
So, if the current conventional wisdom says conservatives won’t support the “maverick” McCain, maybe they will. Indeed, many of them already are.
And if the conventional wisdom says an electorate that has turned against the war won’t vote for a candidate who refuses to do the same, maybe it will. Just ask Joe Lieberman (see 2006)—or George W. Bush (see 2004).