Monday, May 19, 2008

Is Obama ‘tempting fate’ by declaring presidential primary victory too soon?

It’s a good thing that the political people from “The West Wing” are merely fictional characters. Otherwise the conduct of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama would be causing Toby Zeigler to throw a fit.

Zeigler was the presidential speechwriter with a cantankerous temperament played by actor Richard Schiff, and in one memorable episode of that now-defunct television drama about the White House staff, Zeigler engaged in a rant against his staff prematurely celebrating the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice backed by the fictional President Bartlett.

HE KEPT TRYING to tell his staff that “bad things” happen to people who “tempt fate” by declaring victory and celebrating before the political event actually happens.

I can’t help but wonder if we should hire Schiff to reprise his Zeigler character for one day so as to give the Obama campaign a lecture about how silly they could potentially look if they proceed with plans to declare “Victory!” after the Oregon primary on Tuesday.

I don’t doubt that Obama will prevail in the Oregon election-by-mail, just like I fully expect opponent Hillary R. Clinton will be able to declare a victory that same day in Kentucky.

At this point in the primary season, the results of individual states really don’t matter much. That it why it turned out to be rather irrelevant that Obama did so poorly last week in West Virginia. His 40-plus percent loss in the heart of Appalachia did not change the delegate count significantly.

IN FACT, OBAMA has continued to gain pledges of support from super-delegates, which is really the only thing that matters any more.

The plan is for Obama to say that after Tuesday, he will have a majority of the regular delegates who go to the Democratic National Convention pledged to support a specific candidate. Unless Obama were to lose both Oregon and Kentucky by about 90 percent to 10 percent margins, he will achieve that level of support this week.

But pledged delegates are not the complete story.

The simple fact is that neither of the Democrats will have enough support to automatically take the presidential nomination – not even after June 1 when Puerto Rico has its primary or June 3 when the primary season comes to an end in Montana and South Dakota (where Clinton and Obama likely will win another split of states).

THIS IS GOING to be the Year of the Super-delegate, where the party bigwigs’ worst nightmare will come true – they will have to put themselves on the record and actually pick a presidential nominee (thereby irritating half of the political party).

So it is going to be “a lie” when Obama says he has won the primary. It is going to sound as ridiculous as when Hillary has claimed in recent weeks she has a majority of the national popular vote.

That’s only true if one counts the disputed Michigan and Florida primary elections where Obama didn’t even run in one state (voters couldn’t pick him) and he did not campaign in the other (in accordance with the national party leadership’s desires).

Hillary Clinton has had to take some ridicule from people who say she is so desperate to make herself not look like a loser that she’s twisting the truth. Now, Obama is going to be guilty of the same offense.

THIS IS GOING to be the nominating process that won’t end until the Democratic convention in late August.

While I can understand why Obama wants to create the perception that he has “won” the race and can now divert his campaign’s attention to knocking around Republican opponent John McCain, it just has too much potential to go bad.

For one thing, it’s not necessary.

Obama already has created the perception amongst Democrats that he has won (or that the negatives that popped up about him came too late to overcome the early wave of Obama-mania that struck the country and caused a 12-state primary or caucus victory string).

HE CAN ALREADY focus on McCain in a credible manner. Some people think he already has done so, with the way he went after both McCain and President Bush the younger last week to reinforce the perception that the two are linked politically when it comes to Bush’s unpopular policies concerning the no-end-in-sight Iraq War.

Obama ought to keep hammering away with facts, not engaging in silly spin tactics that merely reinforce the disgust level felt by people who wanted Hillary for president and may turn out to be sore losers who sit out the Nov. 4 elections.

More dangerous is whether some other tidbit that the social conservatives opposed to Obama could distort into a “scandal” could come up, thereby causing Democratic super-delegates to support Clinton.

Obama may be gaining verbal pledges from these super-delegates that they will back Barack come the convention. But there is nothing legally binding them to their word – they can change their mind.

ANYBODY WHO EXPECTS a politico’s word now to hold for a convention floor vote to be taken in August is naïve. Making some statement this week that could be turned around into a premature comment would make Obama look like one of the most ridiculous creatures in the history of U.S. electoral politics.

So what will happen?

Obama is likely this week to have a press conference/rally, where he will formally claim a moral victory of sorts from the American people. He’ll be able to do it because the Oregon primary is a mail-in event, and most people have already cast their votes. The Obama campaign’s work is already done – there’s no need for him to be in Portland, and he certainly doesn’t want to be in Louisville Tuesday night.

The speculation is whether the victory declaration would take place in Iowa (the scene of his first primary victory) or in his adopted hometown of Chicago. For those of us Chicago political geeks, being able to attend the “victory” announcement (or watch it on television at a location we recognize) will be our one moment of election glory, since the Illinois primary got lost in the shuffle of Tsunami Tuesday.

OBAMA WANTS TO create the perception that if the Democratic Party later turns around and gives the nomination to Clinton, it will be an act against the will of the American people and a greater injustice than that which denied the U.S. eight years (or at least four) of President Al Gore.

For those who want Hillary back on Pennsylvania Avenue, the moment will motivate them to want to make Barack eat his words.

And for those of us who cast ballots for Obama, we will literally be saying our prayers that this act of “tempting fate” does not come back to bite us in the behind, just like Toby Zeigler so many years ago said it always does.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: The Brits are more willing to buy into the spin that Barack Obama (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/us_elections/article3953669.ece) can legitimately declare victory this week.

Obama already is hitting back against John McCain – engaging in the aggressive campaigning required if he is to take full advantage of McCain’s uncertain support (http://marcambinder.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/05/obama_bushmccain_have_a_lot_to.php) among the social conservatives who make up the base of the Republican Party these days.

Obama should learn a lesson from the fictional “West Wing” if he ever hopes to work (http://www.tv.com/the-west-wing/six-meetings-before-lunch/episode/805/recap.html) in the White House’s real West Wing.

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