My American politics undergraduate students tease me without mercy for predicting a year ago that the Democratic nomination was Hillary Clinton's to lose. (I also predicted that Mike Huckabee would outlast all the Republican hopefuls except maybe John McCain. "Professor D's latest lucky guess," they joke.)
But when the teasing stops the questions start. "Do you think there is any way that Barack Obama can lose?" they ask. I say nothing, and they share self-reassurances: "There's no way for Clinton to beat him now . . . right?" "C'mon, McCain is way behind him in the polls!" I can no longer stay mum: "Well, Hillary led by double-digits in all but a few polls for over a year, and she's still ahead in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania." Their somber faces make me wish I had said "Hey, nine straight with Wisconsin; he's in!" or handed out "Yes We Can" buttons.
Hillary-backers and College Republicans are not extinct on my campus. But the undergraduate enthusiasm for Obama transcends gender, race, religion, region, income, and party affiliation. I have been teaching American politics for a quarter-century and never have I seen so many students inspired by a candidate. And it's not just an Ivy League or secular-elite university phenomenon. The national polling data prove as much, as do exit poll numbers on young voters. Colleagues who teach at religious and other colleges attest to it too.
My students may yet get their wish. But for all that Obama has achieved so far as a hope-inspiring, crowd-swelling candidate with great appeal to young voters, and despite the successive thrashings that Clinton has received since Super Tuesday, she can still win the Democratic nomination. And if Obama does get by Clinton, an even steeper challenge awaits in John McCain.
Obama has had some stirring, even brave, things to say: most notably concerning how public education has failed too many low-income children in urban America. Organizationally, the teachers' unions are the Democratic party's throbbing heart. Obama, to his credit, was not on their Valentine's Day list. They will lean against him in several upcoming big-state primaries, and as a super-delegate bloc too.
And Clinton can deflate Obama's "change" balloon by relentlessly asking him why he decries the "politics" of the "past 15 years." Does he dislike the Clinton-era presidential politics that expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, widely regarded as the single most successful anti-poverty initiative of that period? Does he mean the bipartisan bills of the 1990s that led to work-based welfare reform? Does he mean the politics of the "past" that yielded the State Children's Health Insurance Program? Or maybe he means rolling back post-1993 expansions in Medicare coverage or college loans or spending on low-income (Title I) schools.
Older Democrats, respectful of legislative accomplishments, particularly may not like that Obama often voted "present" as an Illinois legislator, or that his state and federal records seem so thin. Blue collar voters who earn $50,000 a year or less defected from Clinton in the Potomac primaries and again in Wisconsin. But in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania she may hold voters who can't cut work the way college kids can cut class to attend midday campaign rallies.
Indeed, with big Latino turnouts expected in Texas, older working-class Ohio voters sticking to her like rust, and friends in Pennsylvania like Governor Edward Rendell and Philly's popular new mayor Michael Nutter, Clinton can still nab the nomination. Fence-sitting super-delegates would quickly warm to a three-state sweep.
Obama and his proxies keep repeating that "party insiders" (aka Clinton-backing super-delegates) should not decide the election against the "will of the people." Obama also favors the Democratic National Committee (it doesn't get any more "inside" than that) denying Clinton the delegates she won when millions of people expressed their will by casting ballots in the Florida and Michigan Democratic primaries.
Clinton herself agreed to have Florida and Michigan penalized for moving up the date of the their primaries. But that won't keep her from trying to turn Obama's public relations flank and use the "will of the people" against him--while also depicting front-running him as the "establishment" candidate. Listen for her to get at how the people's will squares with deference to national insiders' right to punish the states' insiders for holding their primaries before the former "party bosses" had dictated. Listen for her seconds to echo this: Situational solicitude for the "will of the people" might be expected from politicians drenched in the "past," but from the "change" candidate? With the press now dialing back its year-old Obamamania, the disingenuous whining might just work.
Clinton and Obama have not had a serious debate about Iraq. As Obama proclaims, almost as often as he says "change," he opposed from the start giving the president war-making authority. Stipulate that he was right--as most Democrats and a public plurality do--and then ask how, exactly, he reasoned his way to that decision when Colin Powell, John Kerry, and many others with no less information and much greater experience did not? Did he analyze the available prewar data differently, and, if so, how? Unlike Democrats from Joe Biden to Joe Lieberman, why did Obama never offer a serious plan to fix the poorly executed, pre-surge occupation?
As pleasing as his pledge is to the party faithful, how can he be so absolute about bringing all troops home by a date certain? How does that year-before-the-act pledge constitute being "as careful" getting out as we were "careless" going in? Conceding that a "new" global politics would be welcome, what wisdom is he seeking with crusty old foreign policy hands like Zbigniew Brzezinski on his national security team?
If Clinton does not have this debate with Obama, McCain surely will. There is no reason to trust any pre-October 2008 polls showing Obama beating McCain, including those now showing him beating McCain by a larger margin than Clinton would. Obama would be the second consecutive Democratic standard-bearer ranked the Senate's most liberal member by nonpartisan outlets like National Journal. He leapt leftward as he positioned himself to run for president: a "composite liberal score" of 95.5 out of 100 in 2007, up from 82.5 and a 16th-place finish in 2005. (Clinton's 2007 score was 82.8, and her lifetime score is 79.4.)
In a general election, there will be some McCain Democrats. Obama Republicans are more of a question, and independents could be either man's flock. Many general election scenarios remain possible, but, as I reckon it, the only one forecasting a Democratic victory that respects mass-electorate math and state-by-state statistics is a few-point win over McCain that involves McCain getting millions fewer evangelical votes than Bush did in 2004, the Democratic ticket getting as many or more African-Americans as Kerry-Edwards did in 2004, and the sleeping giant Latino vote going decisively against McCain.
Other scenarios for a Democratic win against McCain all pretty much assume that the stubborn post-1996 red state-blue state realities will be changed by a change-agent candidate. Obama generated voter enthusiasm even in Republican Kansas, and he may prove to be a party-realigning candidate, but believing so at this stage requires, well, the audacity of hope.
If Obama wins any two of the Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania primary trio, then he is virtually certain to be the nominee. One thing is for sure: If he doesn't win, I won't be teasing my sure-to-be down-hearted students.
John J. DiIulio Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.