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Vaporous Obama Turns Off Many Centrists

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Despite the hard contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, party leaders keep telling Democratic-leaning voters that they have two good candidates. They are right, but one of them may well be a Republican.

Far from the pumped-up Obama rallies, centrists who voted for John Kerry last time now say they are considering John McCain -- especially if the Democrat is the vaporous Obama. At least that's what many are telling me -- and I'm telling myself.

One friend said he'd vote for the New York senator, and if she's not the candidate, then McCain. When I reminded him that he doesn't like Hillary, he shrugged. Another acquaintance e-mailed, "Hillary is to me extremely unlikable, but I do not regard likability as a qualification."

The notion that many Clinton voters cannot be easily transferred to Obama contradicts much "expert" opinion. But a Super Tuesday exit poll suggested there is something to it. While 52 percent of Obama's supporters were amenable to a Clinton candidacy, only 49 percent of Clinton voters said they'd be happy with the Illinois senator, according to the survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

And at that time, the news media were still lavishing love on Obama. That situation is about to end. "He's the fashion plate of the moment," an editorial page editor remarked, "but fashion week is over."

Sophisticated commentary now notes the growing creepiness of the Obama campaign: Its aversion to substantive policy discussions. The sermonizing -- "In the face of despair, we believe there can be hope." And the messianic bit -- "At this moment in the election there is something happening in America." (That would be he.)

Volunteer trainees at Camp Obama are told not to talk issues with voters, but to offer personal testimony about how they "came" to Obama. Makes the skin crawl.

Centrists generally do not find cults of personality entertaining. The mass hypnosis reminds them of the mortgage frenzy -- all these people buying into a dream and not caring about the fine print.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, has given them a choice. This is despite the best efforts of its right wing to pick a candidate against whom any Democrat would be better. And the more the radicals beat up on the Arizona senator, the more he looks like a contender to moderate Democrats.

Why might this group like McCain? Count the ways. He had the fiscal discipline to vote against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and the decency to complain that they unfairly favored the rich. He's OK on the environment, concerned over global warming and against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He supported tighter fuel-economy standards and opposes torture. John McCain is not an embarrassment.

Of course, much could happen before November. To try to make up with the right, McCain might hedge on the very positions that moderates admire. He's already vowed to make permanent the tax cuts he once opposed.

And there's the war in Iraq. McCain courageously slammed the Bush administration's early handling of it, and the troop surge he supported has calmed things in Iraq, at least for now. But he has yet to adequately explain why going to Iraq was ever a good idea.

On the Democratic side, Clinton might prevail and thus offer a serious alternative to McCain. Or Obama might decide to get serious and apply critical thinking to real issues in a way that appeals to wonky centrists.

What Democrats must understand is that their moderates now have another candidate to consider. And this slice of the electorate is big enough and grumpy enough to swing a general election to John McCain.

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