OK. So where do things stand in the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary?
On the Republican side . . .
John McCain reclaimed his role as the principal adult in the room — solid, experienced, wise. Across the state, he spoke of the war on Islamofascist terror as the “titanic” and “transcendental struggle of the 21st century.” In accepting victory, he cited the need for fiscal integrity and a strong defense, and eloquently employed words such as “truth,” “respect,” and “trust.” This is the guy who gets it.
Mitt Romney is toast, though he possesses the cash to press on in a failing enterprise. Fred Thompson cannot long survive. Rudy Giuliani probably can’t either — having resolved to forego the early contests and devote his time and energy to Florida later this month and the 23 states holding primaries Feb. 5.
Mike Huckabee tanked in New Hampshire after his surprising success in Iowa. Yet Iowa is not a reliable predictor of ultimate success. Huckabee may win heavily evangelical South Carolina and carry that success into Florida, where he also may do reasonably well if McCain and Giuliani divide what might prove a common constituency there.
Huckabee represents the Republicans’ social conservatives, who have issues with McCain. But McCain trumps him in experience and depth, and it’s difficult to foresee how Huckabee can prevail through the convention — let alone against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama come fall. The party’s social conservatives seem destined to face this choice: accept a less-than-perfect nominee (e.g., McCain) or resign themselves to a Democratic president reigning in Washington, with a Democratic Congress just down the street.
On the Democratic side . . .
It’s now a two-person race. Angry plaintiffs’ lawyer John Edwards should get out, but he is the Democrats’ Romney — albeit with less money. What may force him to leave is recognition that thereby he would strengthen Obama against the dread Clinton machine.
Obama is a sensational political property — electric, inspiring, a communicator verging on the demagogic, and decidedly left-wing. Many in the press view him, in the words of The Washington Post, as “(John) Kennedy, Santa Claus, and the Messiah all rolled into one.” So do many of those rallying to his banner and his mantra of “change.”
It may take a more disciplined intellect, like Hillary Clinton’s, to force a discussion as to what sort of change Obama has in mind — and such a discussion could determine the Democratic nominating outcome. So far the two are saying fundamentally the same diaphanous thing. Obama: change we can believe in; Clinton: change you can count on.
If Sen. Clinton found her “voice” in New Hampshire — as she said Tuesday night — she may have meant any of several things:
(1) That she has learned the importance of an image softer, more caring, more capable of (yes) tears;
(2) That however she may cast them, her White House years as the wife of Bill hardly qualify her as presidentially experienced; and/or . . .
(3) That devoutly liberal as she is broadly known to be, she can present as a moderate/centrist and begin differentiating herself from Obama by contrasting her record of action with his airy, action-free talk of dream-fulfillment and “post-partisan” hope.
The Democratic result may turn on the extent to which the newly voiced Hillary Clinton is willing to stick it to Barack Obama — forcing a comparison of records and views.
Hillary Clinton must grow, and soon, beyond such campaign pabulum as these bon mots in Manchester, N.H., when she greeted a little girl walking a cocker spaniel: “I will be a good president for dogs, I promise!”
Obama must grow beyond offering the sum of his experience in foreign policy as his madrassa school years in Indonesia and a visit or two to his grandmother in Africa. The very-nice Sen. Obama also needs to grow beyond enlisting recruits such as the very-nice Oprah Winfrey, who says nonsensical things on his behalf, such as: “You can’t be fooled by this experience question because you know it’s not the amount of time you spend with your child, it’s the quality of that time.”
Obama must grow beyond statements such as this, too:
“What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income — to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to — a dumb war.”
Obama and Clinton might productively style themselves after John McCain — a certifiable grown-up. He believes global warming is less important right now, and less susceptible to human remedy, than global terror — and boasts abundant experience in terrorism and national security: “I know how to handle the issues. I’ve been there.”
He understands the war in Iraq, terming it “an American war, and its outcome will touch every one of our citizens for years to come.” Osama? “I’ll get (him) if I have to follow him to the gates of hell.” And the U.S. troops? “I’ll bring ’em home, but I’ll bring ’em home with honor.”
If the Republicans are moving toward nominating a grown-up — an adult — in McCain, prudence would suggest the Democrats find an adult of their own to run against him.
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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