Does Obama expect to lose?

Dateline: 31 October 2007

How to account for the behavior of Barack Obama? He used to wear a lapel pin of the American flag. He stopped doing so. When challenged he said there are different ways of showing patriotism. Well, yes, but why was a way of showing patriotism that he found appropriate a few months ago suddenly inappropriate today? He wouldn’t say. He pointedly adopted a relaxed stance and glanced nonchalantly around during the national anthem. Behind him were clearly visible Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson and John Edwards. All were standing to attention, right hands over their hearts. This is a man who has, in the past, eschewed class warfare and looked for optimism and unifying themes. What is he up to?

I suspect the real question concerns what he is not doing. He is not running for president.

To distance himself from symbols of patriotism plays well with some elements of his liberal base, but not with the wider electorate. He can make himself popular with primary voters, but alienate swing voters. I don’t think he can be calculating that this is a way to become president. He is too smart to believe that thumbing his nose at the flag in 2007 will win him the nomination and then be conveniently forgotten at the general election in 2008. John Kerry’s stunts with his Vietnam medals and dishonest testimony to Congress came back to haunt him after 30 years – and he was insulated against charges that he lacked patriotism by his military service.

Let me see if I can guess what Obama is playing at. I suspect he has calculated one of two things: either that he cannot possibly beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries or that if he does he will go down to defeat in the general election. It is probably the former. The general election remains very open, as we do not know how the economy or Iraq will look next year, or who the Republican candidate will be.

If he cannot win the nomination then it does not matter how his tactics would play in the general election. It is therefore worthwhile firing up an enthusiastic section of the base, so positioning him for a future presidential run. He is only 46.

If he attracts sufficient support, Hillary Clinton may feel obliged to put him on her ticket as running mate. Of course, he delivers no electorate that she cannot be expected to carry anyway, so that is unlikely. I doubt that Obama is counting on this. Bill Richardson (who is Hispanic) and Mark Warner (who is popular in Virginia) would be much better running mates.

So what does Obama do? He campaigns enthusiastically and tirelessly for Hillary Clinton. He should be seen in every swing state and raise money for every Democrat in a tight race. Then, whoever wins the 2008 election, he should run for governor of Illinois in 2010. 2008 gives him a national profile. If he follows that by actually running something – gaining real and relevant experience of governance – the next time the Democrats are looking for a candidate, he will be there.

He can sit out 2012 if Clinton holds the White House and decide nearer in 2011 if he wants to challenge a Republican incumbent. Most likely he will end up waiting for 2016. Won’t that be odd? He’ll be running against Bobby Jindal and there won’t be a white candidate on the ballot.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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