Barack Obama and John McCain are running neck and neck. Impossible? It would seem so. Republican President Bush still has less than a 30 percent approval rating. Headlines blare that unemployment and inflation are up - even if we aren’t, technically, in a recession. Gas is around $4 a gallon. Housing prices have nosedived. Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, has been indicted - another in a line of congressional Republicans caught in financial or sexual scandal.
Meanwhile, the GOP’s presumptive candidate, John McCain, is 71 years old. The Republican base thinks he’s lackluster and too liberal.
So, everyone is puzzled why the Democratic candidate isn’t at least 10 points ahead. It seems the more Americans get used to Barack Obama, the less they want him as president - and the more Democrats will soon regret not nominating Hillary Clinton.
First, Mr. Obama was billed as a post-racial healer. His half-African ancestry, exotic background and soothing rhetoric were supposed to have been novel and to have reassured the public he was no race-monger like Al Sharpton. On the other hand, his 20-year career in the cauldron of Chicago racial politics also guaranteed to his liberal base that he wasn’t just a moderate Colin Powell, either.
Yet within weeks of the first primary, the outraged Clintons were accusing Mr. Obama of playing “the race card” - and vice-versa. Blacks soon were voting heavily against Hillary Clinton. In turn, Hillary, the elite Ivy League progressive, turned into a blue-denim working gal - and won nearly all the final big-state Democratic primaries on the strength of working-class whites.
Americans also learned to their regret how exactly a Hawaiian-born Barack Obama - raised, in part, by his white grandparents and without African-American heritage - had managed to win credibility in what would become his legislative district in Chicago. That discovery of racial chauvinism wasn’t hard once his former associate and pastor for over 20 years, the racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright, spewed his venom.
Mr. Obama himself didn’t help things as he taught the nation that his dutiful grandmother was at times a small-minded bigot - no different from a “typical white person.” And in an impromptu riff, Mr. Obama ridiculed small-town working-class Pennsylvanians’ supposed racial insularity.
The primary season ended with a narrow Obama victory - and a wounded, but supposedly wiser, Democratic candidate.
Not quite. Without evidence, he unwisely has claimed his opponents (“they”) will play the race card against poor him. In contrast, on the hot-button issue of racial reparations, he recently played to cheering minority audiences by cryptically suggesting that the government must “not just … offer words, but offer deeds.” He later clarified that he didn’t mean cash grants, but his initial words were awfully vague.
Second, many are beginning to notice how a Saint Obama talks down to them. We American yokels can’t speak French or Spanish. We eat too much. Our cars are too big, our houses either overheated or overcooled. And we don’t even put enough air in our car tires. In contrast, a lean, hip Barack Obama promises to still the rising seas and cool down the planet, assuring adoring Germans that he is a citizen of the world.
Third, Mr. Obama knows that all doctrinaire liberals must tack rightward in the general election. But due to his inexperience, he’s doing it in far clumsier fashion than any triangulating candidate in memory. Do we know - does Mr. Obama even know? - what he really feels about drilling off our coasts, tapping the strategic petroleum reserve, NAFTA, faith-based initiatives, campaign financing, the FISA surveillance laws, town-hall debates with Mr. McCain, Iran, the surge, timetables for Iraq pullouts, gun control or capital punishment?
Fourth, Mr. Obama is proving as inept an extemporaneous speaker as he is gifted with the Teleprompter. Like most rookie senators, in news conferences and interviews, he stumbles and then makes serial gaffes - from the insignificant, like getting the number of states wrong, to the downright worrisome, such as calling for a shadow civilian aid bureaucracy to be funded like the Pentagon (which would mean $500 billion per annum).
If the polls are right, a public tired of Republicans is beginning to think an increasingly bothersome Mr. Obama would be no better - and maybe a lot worse. It is one thing to suggest to voters that they should shed their prejudices, eat less and be more cosmopolitan. But it is quite another when the sermonizer himself too easily evokes race, weekly changes his mind and often sounds like he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.
In a tough year like this, Democrats could probably have defeated Republican John McCain with a flawed, but seasoned candidate like Hillary Clinton. But long-suffering liberals convinced their party to go with a messiah rather than a dependable nominee - and thereby they probably will get neither.
Victor Davis Hanson is nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.