Politics

Thoroughly Beatable Barack

Though Hillary Clinton probably can’t, John McCain can certainly defeat Barack Obama. Obama’s weakness has nothing to do with his race, his liberalism, or his inexperience.

The Greeks had a term for it: hamartia. The one flaw — different in every man — that makes him imperfect, vulnerable and gives his adversaries, if they discover it, the ability to bring him down. Achilles’ was his heel. Obama’s is his political glass jaw.

The supposedly-brilliant Democratic wunderkind can’t take a punch. Like a Hollywood actor, he’s only comfortable, quick and charismatic as long as the crowd is oohing and ahhing. But the moment that he is challenged — as we first saw in his presser after he lost the Ohio primary in March and again last week in the ABC debate — the mask shatters. What we see is what we would get with an Obama presidency: a man whose range is so small and ego so huge and fragile that when taken out of his comfort zone, he not only fails to shine, he barely is able to speak.

In that post-Ohio presser, the reporters who had previously been a source of adulation were themselves riled by a Saturday Night Live skit which portrayed them as they had been: fawning over Obama. (In the skit one actor-reporter offered him a pillow.) And then, when he lost to Clinton in Ohio, reporters dared to actually ask a few questions that required more of him than to smile and mutter “change.”

Obama was flustered, angry, and terminated the event with a sharpness that startled some of the participants. Last week, he showed another side.

In the last debate against Clinton before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama had a very bad night. He ducked and weaved, demonstrating an amazing shallowness on critical issues. On capital gains tax, he said he’d raise it to a “fair” level, shrugging off the questioner’s statement that the proven result of capital gains tax hikes is a reduction in collected tax revenues. He, and Clinton, are suddenly big fans of the Second Amendment, but he (and Clinton) both spoke favorably of gun control laws. The former chief of the Harvard Law Review didn’t display much understanding of the Constitution. Or of the Supreme Court case that’s about to decide the constitutionality of the DC gun ban.

Obama may be able to float like a butterfly but he also stings like one. At a rally later last week in Raleigh, N.C., Obama was critical of Clinton, saying, “Sen. Clinton looked in her element” in the debate. And then he did something as shocking and juvenile as we’ve seen a pol do since the last time Bill Clinton stuck his thumb in a lady’s waistband and snapped her panty hose.

Obama was speaking critically about Hillary Clinton and — unable to control his impulse — he smirked and made an obscene finger gesture (in a manner well-known to high schoolers) with his middle finger against his nose. (To those who doubt, see the video and judge for yourself.) Everyone saw what he meant: the crowd understood. And so did Howard Dean and John McCain.

The Pennsylvania debate and aftermath drew a frustrated plea from Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. In a CNN interview last Thursday, Dean practically begged the superdelegates to put him out of his primary misery. “I need them to say who they’re for starting now…We cannot give up two or three months of active campaigning and healing time,” Dean said. Not just campaign time and fundraising time. But healing time?

Dean — having done much to create this Frankenstein-like primary season — has, like the mad Baron, realized what he has done. He may not have forseen the Obama phenomenon or the fact that Hillary Clinton couldn’t close the deal on Super Tuesday. But even the man who brought primal scream therapy to televised campaigning sees open, not-soon-to-heal wounds separating the biggest Democratic constituencies: black voters and the most liberal of Democrats overwhelmingly for Obama versus women and more moderate Dems for Clinton.

Dean’s party is split neatly down the middle, in a battle growing rougher by the day. Which is why he is pleading more for time to heal than time to campaign against John McCain. But Hillary Clinton isn’t going anywhere, and neither Dean nor any of the other party elders can either stop her or compel superdelegates to decide the race. Both Hillary and Obama have gone negative in the days before tomorrow’s Pennsylvania primary. Healing is delayed, indefinitely.

Which leaves Sen. John McCain able to throw sharp above-the-belt jabs at Obama to keep the Democrats divided. On Sunday, McCain raised Obama’s long-time association with former Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers. In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulous, McCain said that Obama’s defense of his relationship with Ayers “borders on the outrageous.” Having done the damage he desired — like any good fighter pilot — McCain headed back to base saying he didn’t question Obama’s patriotism. “But,” McCain added, “his relationship wit Mr. Ayers is open to question.”

When Pennsylvania Democrats vote tomorrow, they’ll be placing their bets on who can survive a 15-round fight with Sen. John McCain. Sen. McCain wants to fight the fall campaign by Marquis of Queensberry rules. In his own words, McCain is older than dirt and has more scars than Frankenstein. He can throw a pretty good political punch.

Obama is young and unscarred. And he can’t take a punch. John McCain can beat Obama even if Hillary can’t.

Sign Up