Taking the high road is the high-minded approach to campaigning, but the high road can lead to disappointing places. That’s why successful pols usually look for alternate routes, just in case.
Successful candidates are careful to create the illusion of traveling the high road. Richard Nixon campaigned as the man who would “bring us together.” Jimmy Carter would “never tell a lie.” Bill Clinton only pretended to search for the high road, taking frequent detours to look for the red-light district.
Here we go again. Barack Obama, fortified with 92 percent of the black vote, talks about transcending race to impose “unity” and “change.” (He took the precaution yesterday in West Virginia of showing up with a new flag pin, bigger than the one he wouldn’t wear last week.) Cindy McCain, who heard it from her pillow, says her husband had rather lose than emphasize the considerable Obama “negatives.” All this is happy talk for April and May. Mr. Obama must contend with a color problem that won’t go away: Voters aren’t concerned that he’s too black to be president, but that he’s too green. Such “experience” as he has is experience only in “activism” in shady precincts far out in left field.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who has endorsed Mr. Obama, is typical of Democrats with such concern. “I am sure there are people in Missouri who won’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s black,” she says, “but there are not that many of them. I don’t think that’s going to be a deal breaker. The key is going to be whether Barack Obama can avoid getting on defense on social ‘wedge’ issues and can stay on the offense on economic issues.”
Some public-opinion polls suggest that John McCain, who just the other day completed a tour to convince conservatives that he really and truly is one of them, is regarded by many swing voters as a “centrist,” far closer to the mainstream than Mr. Obama. Not only that, he’s perceived as tough enough and then some to defend the nation’s security, and Mr. Obama isn’t. The likes of Iran are not likely to intimidate a man who showed his grit hanging by his arms on the wall of a prison cell in Hanoi. The prospect of dealing with the likes of Iran already intimidates Mr. Obama, who says he’ll offer supplications to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with or without his demonstration of good faith.
More trouble. Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center, says his polls find that Mr. Obama’s first problem is that he’s perceived as a liberal. Indeed, he has the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate. “He is perceived by many voters as not well-grounded on foreign policy and not tough enough and he has a potential problem, distinct from race, of being an elitist, an intellectual.” Just the sort of candidate you might expect to pander to wealthy San Francisco Democrats by mocking the faith and values of small-town America.
Barack Obama naturally wants to keep the fight on the high road, the avenue of the familiar. There are few mosques on the high road, and try as he might Mr. Obama, who professes a born-again Christian faith discovered under the unlikely tutelage of a bigoted preacher, has, unfair as it is, yet to persuade small-town America that he’s “one of us.” Worse, his conversion is a crime in the eyes of traditional Muslims.
“As the son of a Muslim father,” writes Edward N. Luttwak in the New York Times, “Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as [he] has written, his father said he renounced his religion.” His conversion in Muslim law is a crime worse than murder, and in radical Muslim quarters the punishment is beheading (though certain Muslim moderates say stoning and hanging would suffice). The Secret Service, charged with the senator’s safety, has taken due note.
John McCain need not point out these pot holes on the high road; others are ready and eager to do it whether he approves or not. Barack Obama’s own wise men are aware of the pot holes, too — and are looking for alternate routes around them.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.