Buyer's remorse? Are Democrats abandoning Obama?
May 2, 2008
David Parker understands what it will mean to take the prize away from Barack Obama.
He is well aware that Obama has amassed the most elected delegates in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and has a lead that looks to be insurmountable. And yes, he says, it will get ugly if the party establishment hands Hillary Clinton the nomination anyway.
But that doesn't mean he wouldn't vote to do just that.
Parker, a small-town North Carolina lawyer, is a Democratic party superdelegate. As such, he is among a few hundred privileged insiders who will, at some point in the next few months, decide who wins a race that has fascinated not just this country but much of the world.
As a group, the Democratic superdelegates don't give away much in public these days and Parker has not publicly committed to either candidate. But he has been studying the polling data lately. What it tells him is that the charismatic and eloquent senator from Illinois, the man who has stirred up such rapture in his party, might not be able to capture the presidency after all.
"The negatives for Obama are creeping up," says Parker, adding that for him the ability of Obama to beat Republican John McCain in the fall is all that matters.
"My job as a superdelegate," he says, "is to accurately project what the electorate is going to look like, feel like and vote like on Nov. 4, 2008, in order to assure a Democratic victory for the White House. That is what I am commissioned to do."
Has to look like a winner
Here are the political realities facing Democrats. They aren't pleasant.
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama gets on a campaign charter at Indianapolis International Airport in Indianapolis, May 2, 2008. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)
Barack Obama is ahead of Hillary Clinton in three important measures: He has more pledged delegates at this point (1,491 to her 1,322); more states (30 and a half to her 15 and a half; they split the weirdly designed Texas contest); and more popular vote (a lead of about 600,000, or 2.1 per cent of the total).
Almost certainly Obama will still be ahead on all these counts when the last primaries are held in Montana and South Dakota on June 3.
Still, he has no realistic hope of piling up the requisite 2,025 committed delegates by that time. So the final decision will be taken by the approximately 800 superdelegates, the party insiders and elected representatives who are guaranteed a vote at the Aug. 27 convention.
Just weeks ago, it looked like an easy choice. Obama appeared invincible: He was on a winning streak and consistently ahead in national polls.
Today, though, he is lurching and stumbling like a marathoner who has hit the wall. The most recent polls suggest Clinton is now even with him nationally and that large numbers of Democrats who supported him early are experiencing buyer's remorse.
The reason for that is particularly horrifying to Democrats, who like to believe they belong to the party of inclusion: Obama, it appears, cannot deliver the less-educated, blue-collar, white vote.
In Pennsylvania last month, Clinton won decisively, taking a large majority of the white vote. She did the same in Ohio six weeks earlier. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, where the next and last big contest will be held tomorrow (May 6), Obama's once-huge 17-point lead has crumbled to single digits.
Some of the reason for this, of course, must go to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor, friend and spiritual mentor, at least until very recently.
Just as Obama's campaign thought it had managed the impact of Wright's angry sermons about white America, the pastor made a flamboyant public comeback last week, repeating his denunciations. (And just in case any American Jews were considering voting for his former Chicago parishioner, Wright repeated his admiration of Louis Farrakhan, the overtly anti-Semitic founder of the militant Nation of Islam.)
Obama repudiated his old friend the next day in the strongest terms. But the entire episode appears to have left many white voters wondering why a senator who preaches racial harmony listened from the pews for so many years without apparent objection.
Other Obama damage was self-inflicted. Pennsylvania's mostly white rural voters didn't appreciate the senator's suggestion, made during a tony San Francisco fundraiser, that small-town voters "cling" to their guns and their religion out of economic bitterness.
But David Parker, the superdelegate from North Carolina, thinks the trouble with Obama goes deeper still.
"The Jeremiah Wright story is kind of like the candles on the cake," he says. "They attract your attention, but the story is about the cake and the cake is economics."
The winning issue
The economic mess in this country, says Parker, has scared the daylights out of voters. He foresees a "hellish fall for the economy," just as voters are making their final decision between the Democratic nominee and John McCain.
"The question for folks like me," says Parker, "is can Obama clear up the perception that he is not as aggressive, forceful and specific on the economy as Hillary Clinton?"
Parker notes that in Pennsylvania, 55 per cent of voters named the economy as their greatest concern and, of that group, by far the majority voted Clinton.
He thinks that result had much to do with the different messages the two candidates were putting out: Obama's gauzy, inspiring perorations on the power of hope versus Clinton's relentless reminders of how good life was in the '90s when her husband ran the White House.
"One's concrete and the other is, you know, a message for your heart," says Parker. "Well, I think the pocketbook is connected more to the brain than to the heart."
The Democrats' dilemma
Handing Clinton the nomination, though, would be an unpleasant spectacle. Black voters stand resolutely behind Obama: He is their great hope and everybody knows it might be a long time before another Barack Obama lopes into the national spotlight.
Obama has also inspired millions of new voters, many of them young, to sign a Democratic party card and participate in the electoral process, something the party has been trying to do, without great success, for years. He has even attracted widespread defections from the Republican enemy, not to mention some once prominent members of the Bill Clinton administration.
What would the backlash be if the superdelegates, who are effectively the party machine, decide to override the expressed wishes of Democratic voters and crown Hillary Clinton?
Parker says he isn't worried by that scenario. There have been bitter nomination fights before. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he notes, won on the fourth ballot in 1932; it took 46 ballots to nominate Woodrow Wilson, another successful Democratic president, in 1912.
But Parker does appreciate the consequences of rejecting a black man who has secured the winning numbers, however slim the margins. Especially if it's obvious the party brass is just afraid whites won't vote for him.
Parker argues that if that happens it will be the media's fault. "If the press can sell that story, it will get ugly," he suggests. "If the press decides that is not the story, that it's the economy, it will be less ugly."
But ugly it will likely be.
Hillary Clinton, of course, will argue that the alternative is worse. She'll be trying to convince the David Parkers out there that Obama, who has lost primaries in nearly all the big states, is too aloof, too unpopular with whites and too vulnerable to the Republican party's wrecking crew.
Parker may not need much convincing. He points to the new attack ads the Republicans are test-driving in North Carolina right now. The spots star none other than Jeremiah Wright, grimacing and gesturing and yelling what has become his most famous line: "God DAMN America!"
Obama, intones the announcer, "is just too extreme for North Carolina."
And the Republicans, as Parker knows, are just getting warmed up.