By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—It is insane to waste time and energy worrying that somewhere, doubtless in a high-tech subterranean lair, Republican masterminds are cackling over their diabolical plot: The use of reverse psychology to lure unsuspecting Democrats into nominating Barack Obama, an innocent lamb who will be chewed up by the attack machine in the fall. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Or maybe Republicans are using double supersecret backward reverse psychology to exploit the Democratic Party’s congenital paranoia: Let’s say nice things about Obama so Democrats think we really want to run against him, and that will make them play into our hands by nominating Hillary Clinton, who so energizes the Republican base that we can actually win an election that we ought to lose. Cue another round of deranged mad-scientist laughter.
Amazingly, those are the kinds of things you hear Democrats say out loud these days. Let me suggest that the party has enough to think about without dreaming up imaginary dilemmas.
Democratic primary voters, caucus-goers and superdelegates are right to keep electability in mind as they choose between Obama and Clinton. But Democrats shouldn’t give a second thought to whether Republican strategists have some secret “agenda” in mind. No matter which candidate Democrats nominate, the Republican game plan is obvious: Go negative.
The Republican Party is saddled with an unpopular president, a long-running war and a slumping economy. In state after state, participation has been vastly greater in Democratic primaries and caucuses than on the Republican side—an indicator not just of where enthusiasm can be found, but of which way independents are leaning.
John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, should be able to capture some of those independents. But none of the fundamentals remotely suggest that this should be a Republican year. The party’s strategy almost certainly has to involve creating doubts in voters’ minds about the Democratic nominee, and how to do so is no mystery.
If Obama is the nominee, Republicans will attack on the question of experience and claim he’s not ready to be commander in chief. If it’s Clinton, the obvious ploy will be to remind voters of the tawdrier episodes of the Bill Clinton presidency and portray Hillary Clinton as a divisive figure. Subliminally, Republicans can try to undermine Obama with race or Clinton with gender. In either case, things could get ugly.
It’s worth noting that a recent Time magazine poll showed Obama beating McCain in a hypothetical contest by 48 percent to 41 percent, while a Clinton-McCain race was deadlocked at 46 percent.
Instead of letting Republicans get inside their heads, Democrats should come to their own conclusions about who is more electable. Neither has been able to consistently stitch together the whole patchwork of Democratic constituencies. Obama is relatively weak among Latinos—but not as weak as Clinton has been among African-Americans. White men have gone both ways, depending on the state; white women have constituted Clinton’s base. Younger Democrats are all about Obama, while older Democrats remain loyal to Clinton.
Frankly, I don’t see any of these groups defecting en masse to McCain. Would whites actually vote for an African-American as president? After Obama’s victories in states such as North Dakota, Idaho, Iowa and Maine, we might want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Would black voters return to the Clinton fold? I think most would, as long as she was seen to have won the nomination fair and square, with no more of the race-fueled nastiness we saw in South Carolina.
One indicator that might mean something is that Obama has done better than Clinton in red states, purple states and any-colored states with open primaries where non-Democrats are allowed to participate. This could mean he has more ability to win support from independents in the general election—unless, of course, the Republican Party’s evil geniuses have transmitted coded instructions to their loyal foot soldiers to vote in Democratic primaries, for Obama, whenever and wherever possible.
Enough with the Dr. Evil routine. I think there’s a simpler reason why so many Republicans speak admiringly of Barack Obama and say he would be the tougher candidate to run against. Obama disagrees with conservatives without demonizing them. He even invites Republicans to join him in building the post-partisan America he envisions.
Hillary Clinton, author of the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy,” is more confrontational, to say the least.
Democrats can and should argue about which approach is better. But they should worry about their own strategy—and not obsess about Republican mind control.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group