Thoughts on Obama

There’s simply no way to spin this–Obama won Iowa, very convincingly. In fact, had the race been run a few weeks later, he probably would have won even more, given his strength with college-age voters. It is hard to see how this isn’t the dominant story over the next few days, and it’s likely that this will put him over the top in NH, and then SC. Obama’s fundraising should also spike over the next week, putting him in a good position to compete in the big, media-heavy states in a few weeks. This also shows that a lot of the support for Hillary is soft, and I’d also bet that Obama got a lot of second-place votes, which bodes well for his ability to pick up supporters of second-tier candidates in later races. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them go ahead an endorse him, if not immediately, then right after NH. The money has got to be on Obama to win it all now.

Looking further out, I think it’s probably the case that Obama is, in fact, the candidate that Republicans least want to run against. In fact, I think that it’s actually the case that where Obama is concerned, conservatives lack much of the gut-level animus that drives them to really hate HRC, Kerry and Gore. All of these Dems represented what conservatives most hate about liberals–they all represent a liberal style (as apart from substance) that looks down on and dismisses conservatives. Obama, by contrast, comes from a generation of folks who, while certainly not conservative, have actually engaged seriously with them. Obama taught at U. of Chicago law school, and so he knows that conservatives are driven by a respectable set of ideas. He disagrees with those ideas, but I sense that he knows at least some conservatives who he believes are respectable interlocutors. And I think conservatives know this.

The other thing that should not be ignored is that some conservatives actually see Obama’s success as a vindication for them. They dislike black interest-group politics, and have argued for some time that things like majority-minority districts in Congress are counter-productive, since whites will vote for blacks who speak to their interests and are not seen as simply representing other blacks. So…they see Obama as a kind of test-case for this hypothesis. A number of conservatives have a lot invested in the idea that America is not a racist or race-obsessed country, that it is basically fair and just. While they disagree with his policy positions, they see his success as proof of what they deeply believe about America’s basic goodness and justice. Many conservatives do genuinely believe that the GWOT is the dominant issue of our time, and that Obama will be a significant soft power asset for the US–even if they support what the Bush administration has done, they know that in doing it the US has damaged its reputation and alliances and that these will be necessary in the next few years. All of these factors are amplified by the fact that many conservatives think that the Republicans would be better out of office for a few years, in order to get their house back in order. If that has to happen, and a Democrat has to be in the White House, Obama is better than the alternatives, for the reasons just identified.

For those reasons, I think that, while some of the Republican noise machine will be directed against Obama–to believe otherwise is folly–it will be hard for conservatives to gin up quite the same fervor against Obama that they could against HRC. Republican voters won’t have quite the same fire in the belly to turn out to vote and encourage their friends to do so. I now believe that the Republican vote in the general election, if Obama wins, will be considerably depressed (both because of Obama, because of the lack of a consensus candidate on the Republican side, and because of continued conservative distaste for how Republicans have governed).

Therefore, I’m now willing to predict that if Obama is nominated, he will win the popular vote comfortably–54-46. The Democrats will pick up seats in both the House and Senate as well, putting them in a position to pass significant legislation across a range of issues. The challenge for Obama will be to craft sufficiently strong, clear and focused (that is, prioritized) policy positions during the election that a strong win gives him (and his party) a victory that cannot be chalked up to the idiosyncracies of his personality.

Finally, I think that Hillary and Edwards need to think very carefully before unloading with both barrels against Obama over the next few weeks, in an effort to get themselves back in the running. The Democrats just can’t afford to damage their likely nominee via friendly fire. If they can get back in the game by playing this fairly straight, fine. But the importance (both for the Democrats, and as I have argued before, for the Republicans, over the long run, as well) to get the Republicans out of the White House is just too great to risk damaging the party’s nominee. Party leaders should begin to make this clear, as soon as they can.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.