The Magazine

Six Things We Don't Know

In which an observer surveys the landscape of Campaign '08 and raises the white flag of surrender.

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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1. John McCain: Does his appeal to independents, centrists, and Lieberman Democrats outweigh the ennui, nausea, and revulsion he evokes among those on the right of the right? In a sense, this is a row between conservatives who are politicians, and concerned with assembling a center-right coalition they can use to wield power, and movement conservatives who are theoreticians and see the coalition as a vessel to contain their ideas. The first camp are mainly in Congress, the second on the radio and online. When the latter realized after the Florida primary that McCain might become head of the party, it set off a week of ferocious assaults; some struck a pose like that of Rebecca in Ivanhoe, and threatened to throw themselves over the parapet rather than submit to the stranger's embrace. Damage control was commenced by McCain allies such as Tom Coburn, Sam Brownback, Jack Kemp, and George Allen, who have strong ties to movement conservatives.

The results of Super Tuesday, which McCain won in the face of an all-out assault from the right, suggested that while movement leaders may be in touch with their base, the base itself is only part of a large coalition. Yet in a country this size, even a niche movement can account for millions of voters, and in close elections every vote counts. If some people don't vote, the states in which they don't vote could be important: A poll done by SurveyUSA in 2007 showed both McCain and Giuliani falling below the Bush totals in some red states (though not by enough to lose), but doing better than Bush in blue states and swing states, the latter of which they might win. Low blows from the left, like the New York Times's muckraking last week, not to mention Democratic attempts to define McCain as a right winger, may be just the thing he needs. Nothing arouses the right like the enmity of the left. Will it be enough to compensate for McCain's enthusiasm gap with conservatives? This is one thing we don't know.

2. The Democrats: If Republicans seem to be pulling back from the brink of intraparty war, Democrats are still on the edge of one. The party that has lived, and more frequently died, by identity politics now has its dream candidates: the first credible black and the first credible female candidate for the world's most powerful office. But the nightmare is they are running against one another. Barack Obama has shown an uncanny talent for exposing the seamier side of the Clintons, the memory of which had faded since they left the White House. He lured Bill Clinton down from the pedestal he was trying to ascend as revered elder statesman and left him floundering in the muck of race-tinged innuendoes, issuing red-faced tirades that turned much of the public against him and earned him a scolding from party grandees.

If the convention arrives without a numerical winner, as still appears plausible, the loathing between the two candidates, and the polarization of their main backers, could lead to an ugly row. "Clinton and Obama have split the Democrats into rival tribes--blacks versus Latinos, young versus old, upscale versus downscale, Kennedys versus Clintons," Michael Barone tells us. The best case scenario for the Democrats at the start of the year was that Hillary would sweep to an unopposed coronation, leaving a unified party thrilled with its chance to make history. Now the best case is that Obama is able to sweep her away, seduce her most loyal followers, and emerge at the head of a more or less unified party, thrilled with its chance to make even more history. The worst-case scenario is a comeback in Texas and Ohio that allows her to go staggering on, slashing away every day at her rival, holding him below the number of delegates needed, and fighting to the bitter end at the August convention, at which point there will be blood on the furniture. How long will she last, and how low will she take this? This is a key thing we don't know.