- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2008

OP-ED:

Sen. Barack Obama’s triumph over Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries will undoubtedly go down as one of the most shocking upsets in American electoral history. Mr. Obama, a dark horse (no pun intended) with no national track record, was able to beat the formidable Clinton machine because he was a phantom. He confounded his rivals because he provided little of substance for them to stick their swords into. Because he lacked a track record, he could switch directions easily without seeming incongruous. He was flexible, and could not be locked in or nailed down on anything.

Along comes Gov. Sarah Palin, who, like Mr. Obama, is also an unknown. Like Mr. Obama, she has a razor-thin track record on issues of substance; and her appearance on the national stage came almost out of nowhere. Thus far, her very presence has sucked the air out of Mr. Obama’s sails. He finds himself at a loss for words, veering sharply off script into ad hominem attacks that are so very uncharacteristic of him. Yet he finds that Mrs. Palin is proving difficult to impale.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Palin has contented herself with making her points, and then stepping back with confident smugness. Thus far, she has stayed firmly on message. Borrowing a chapter from Mr. Obama’s playbook, she has resisted the urge to respond to her detractors, refute the rumors or even humor her critics in any way. Instead she has merely basked in the glow of her ascension and allowed her charisma and charm to speak for itself.


How do Mr. Obama and Co. intend to beat this phantom menace? Or better yet, how would Mr. Obama fight the mirror image of himself? Some have suggested that the only way he can do this is by clearly defining Mrs. Palin on his terms; that is, by throwing enough mud in her direction that it begins to stick. Yet, everything we know about Mrs. Obama thus far suggests that his greatest strength is defense and not offense. His acceptance speech before the Democratic convention, his most aggressive attack thus far on Mr. McCain, was at best an attack from a defensive position. He attacked only on issues over which he has been attacked (experience, love of country, etc.), but did not open up any new fronts in the battle. He did not thrust, but merely parried.

One senses in observing him that perhaps he is afraid of his own power; he may have adapted his defensive position because he is afraid of summoning forces of negativity within himself. He may not have found a way of exhibiting aggression without becoming vindictive. But this just will not work going down the stretch to the election. Everyone knows that this will be a dogfight, and Mrs. Palin has signaled as much by referring to herself as a pit bull with lipstick. If indeed she proves to be a pit bull, her habits and instincts will become readily apparent. Mr. Obama must figure these out and play the matador. He must test her discipline while keeping his cool.

While Mr. Obama must be seen as the cool, calm and dignified matador, he has to employ his allies in a successful effort to goad Mrs. Palin into defining herself before she is ready. Sen. Joe Biden and the Clintons have to be put to use for this purpose. Thus far, neither of the Clintons has dedicated any effort to dismantling Mrs. Palin. Some see the Clintons’ reluctance to go after Mrs. Palin as a play for more support from Mr. Obama, possibly for his promise of support for a Clinton bid in 2016. Some have rejoiced in the notion that the Clintons secretly want Mrs. Obama to lose because they would have another chance to run in 2012.

However, in order to secure the Clintons’ fervent support, Mr. Obama would have to convince them of the likelihood of a different scenario. He would have to highlight the fact that there is a betting chance that Mr. McCain, who has already suffered multiple outbreaks of skin cancer, may not survive the first term; an event which would elevate Mrs. Palin to the presidency. If that happened, Mrs. Palin would steal Mrs. Clinton’s thunder as the first female president and severely damage her chances of winning the election in 2012 against a female incumbent. If Mr. McCain survives two terms in office, Mrs. Palin will have gained all of the experience she needs to make a convincing case that she is more qualified than Mrs. Clinton, as she actually worked in the executive office, and was not merely a presidential spouse. This, Mr. Obama would have to argue, would spell doom to Mrs. Clinton’s chances of winning in 2016.

Mr. Obama may feel that hitching his wagon to the Clintons’ ambitions will unnecessarily constrain his own choices. He feels somewhat reluctant about entering the presidency already indebted and leveraged. But this is the price he has to pay for victory in November. After all, no one makes it to the top without help - not even a phantom.

Armstrong Williams’ column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.