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Losing It

Democrats despair as Obama's campaign falters.

12:00 AM, Sep 17, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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As bellwethers of liberal demoralization about this election go, I've not yet come across anything so clanging as the following comment from Hannah Rosin, responding to the phenomenon of Sarah Palin: "One of my many depressed Obama-supporting friends suggests a tidy solution: Repeal the 19th Amendment." That would be the one that extends the franchise to women, and the point was driven home by the forum Rosin chose for relaying this morose alternative: the XX Factor feminist blog at Slate. I'll save you the trouble of searching out any black conservative's anguished recommendation that the 15th Amendment be put on hold until after John McCain is elected.

Yes, it's rather moonlight and self-pity in Democratic circles now that the prospect of an Obama administration may not be the certainty it seemed only weeks ago. "There is a growing sense of doom among Democrats I have spoken to," the Financial Times quotes a party fundraiser who formerly supported Hillary Clinton. "People are going crazy, telling the campaign 'you've got to do something'." Evidently, even congressional candidates from Obama's party have taken to distancing themselves from him and declined also to attack John McCain. Perhaps most telling of all was the banal remark from Bill Clinton, taken by Michael Crowley at The New Republic to be inspirational, that Obama would still win "pretty handily."

If you didn't know any better, you'd say an Obama falling-off is in progress. "Another election lost," runs the grim thought through the minds of perspiring Democrats, many of whom have misplaced their nuance once again and rushed to defend every line of attack on the Barack of the Right, from suggesting she owes her political career to an absence of abortions to demanding a post-natal Warren Commission to determine her true from fabricated offspring. So far Palin has proved impervious to even legitimate complaints made against her, and there are some women I know who hate everything she stands for but can't help but love the fact that she stands in high heels. Camille Paglia admires Palin's Wild West style of feminism and compares her to Madonna--and not the one with which social conservatives typically identify.

In his almost jaw-dropping inability to stand up to the revitalized McCain campaign (at least not without allowing it to dictate the rules of every engagement) Obama appears more and more like a hapless professor in a chaotic classroom, the kind who'd love to get to the lesson plan but is reduced to meekly asking everyone to "settle down now." Mark Cunningham of the New York Post offers a shrewd explanation for the disarray: It's David Axelrod's fault. Obama's chief strategist is used to managing urban campaigns where the stakes are not only smaller but the contestants are barely distinguishable from each other. And in the ultra-specific give-and-take of a primary, having a city-boy genius who can split differences and siphon off votes is an asset. But in a national contest against a well-organized and Machiavellian party machine, which specializes in the "vision thing," it's a liability:

New Yorkers may recall that [Axelrod] was on the Freddy Ferrer team - and how the class-warfare theme of "the Two New Yorks" managed to lose the 2005 mayoral race in a city that's overwhelmingly Democratic. (Yes, Bloomberg had his billions - but he was beatable.)

Nor did the same shtick do much for Axelrod client John Edwards, who didn't exactly score big with "the Two Americas" in the Democrats' 2004 presidential primaries.

With the economy being the biggest domestic issue, the shtick was to have been embodied by Joe Biden, a true-grit Irish Catholic with prolier-than-thou street cred. But since his selection as a running mate, Biden has been either a cipher or a disaster. His latest blunder, made in an attempt to wrest the feminine mystique away from Palin and restore it in his own party's warrior woman, was to suggest that Hillary Clinton would have actually made the better addition to the ticket. Don't my mind me, I'm just running for vice president.

Meanwhile, Obama can't decide whom he's running against: a longtime senator and Cold War veteran or a first-term governor who derives her sense of internationalism from living next door to our Cold War enemy. (Nabokov on what scenes he would like to have seen filmed: "The Russians leaving Alaska, delighted with the deal. Shot of a seal applauding.") Obama may or may not be better equipped to deal with North Korea, having been born in nearby Hawaii, but he sounds slightly insecure assailing Palin as a beginner in the game of brinkmanship, which is why he's mainly letting others assail her on his behalf. And yet... The real challenger is still McCain, and Vladimir Putin is not a product of the post-Cold War era or cognitively evolved beyond its sham moral equivalences and bullying rhetoric. Obama must know that, following Russia's invasion of Georgia, many even within his own ranks are worried that he hadn't got the sufficient mileage to stare down a familiar adversary.

As to the foreign policy issue that got him nominated, where'd that go? I can't remember the last time we heard those dire and willfully misconstrued words about "100 years" in Iraq. (Instead, there's been lots of fact-checking on a Bridge to Nowhere.) Come to that, we hardly even hear him speak the word "Iraq" these days unless it's to concede to that the troop surge, which he opposed and which was championed most loudly by his opponent, has succeeded beyond "our wildest dreams." Next up: Admitting that it wasn't such a bad idea to remove Saddam Hussein, after all...

There was a moment during the primary when Obama had every mathematical advantage over Clinton yet still seemed somehow overwhelmed by her--almost bowed, really. It began to tell on just how narrow that advantage wound up. Yet we're constantly reminded that one of his great attributes as a politician is his ability to learn quickly and to recover from his mistakes. Why, then, does he seem so behind the curve and so committed to repeating them?

Michael Weiss is a writer living in New York.