I don't find this too convincing, but I thought it was provocative and worth posting:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/weekinreview/11leib.html
May 11, 2008
Upside of Being Knocked Around
By MARK LEIBOVICH
WASHINGTON — So, now that it might finally be over (or maybe close to it, possibly, perhaps), does Senator Barack Obama come out a bloody mess, or a battle-tested warrior?
In recent weeks, a wiseguy consensus seems to have settled on the former: the idea that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has so weakened Mr. Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination — so diminished him, distracted him, exhausted him — that he could be a grievously damaged nominee.
The wiseguys invoke the Republican race of 1976 and Democratic contest of 1980 as examples of what happens when candidates — Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, respectively — get battered in primaries, emerging damaged in the summer and losers in the fall. They mention surveys showing almost 50 percent of Clinton supporters in Indiana telling exit pollsters that they would sooner vote for Senator John McCain or stay home than vote for Mr. Obama. They suggest that by staying in the race, Mrs. Clinton is playing a spoiler’s role.
But there is a competing view that says that Mrs. Clinton, rather than being a spoiler, has in fact been an unwitting mentor to Mr. Obama, a teaching adversary who made him better. Could competing against Mrs. Clinton have improved Mr. Obama as a candidate in the same way that competing against Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s made Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan champions in the 1990s?
Herein, we cover our pundit posteriors with the requisite “to be sure” paragraph in which we acknowledge that the wiseguys are called wise guys for a reason, and it’s not entirely sarcastic. And yes, Mr. Obama has all kinds of healing work to do, the Democrats might really be fractured beyond recognition, the wiseguys might be right and Obama might be toast.
But amid the supposed carnage, it’s easy to overlook that Mr. Obama owes a lot to Mrs. Clinton, that without her challenge, he would be a much different candidate today, and not necessarily a stronger one. Reasons abound:
1. SHE MADE HIM A GIANT KILLER
No matter what happens in the fall, if Mr. Obama goes on to win the nomination, he will be remembered as the candidate who beat the Clintons.
“He is stronger for having beaten the champion,” says Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist and former aide to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “Period, case closed.” Clinton-slaying brings with it a level of stature and prestige that, say, John Edwards-slaying or Joe Biden-slaying never could. Some aides to Michael Dukakis were thrilled in December 1987 when Gary Hart re-entered the Democratic primary race after dropping out that May, thinking it would give Mr. Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor, a giant to vanquish (as opposed to “the Seven Dwarfs,” which the Democratic field of that year had been dubbed). Mr. Hart, however, was a nonfactor by the time the voting started, and wound up dropping out again in March.
2. SHE MADE HIM ANGRY
Mr. Obama’s relentless hope-hope-hope campaign put him in danger of being seen as soft, a 2008 version of the “wimp factor” that haunted George H. W. Bush 20 years ago (before Mr. Bush, then vice president, embarked on one of the most aggressive, some say dirty, presidential campaigns in recent memory). The term “Obambi” entered the lexicon late last year, but has barely been heard of late.
Indeed, a candidate gains a certain political street credibility by being in a fight. Aides to the current President Bush when he was governor of Texas said he was greatly enhanced by the challenge posed by Mr. McCain in 2000.
“One of Bush’s liabilities coming in was that he was seen as a silver spooner who had lived a charmed political life,” said Dan Bartlett, a top aide to Mr. Bush in Texas and in the White House. Overcoming Mr. McCain, Mr. Bartlett said, was a show of toughness. “He took a punch and got up off the mat,” Mr. Bartlett said of Mr. Bush. “You could argue the same about Obama now.”
3. SHE LED HIM TO THE WORKING CLASS
If Mr. Obama goes on to win the nomination, one of the signature challenges of his general election campaign will be his ability to win over the traditional Democratic blue-collar voters that have flocked to Mrs. Clinton in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. In a sense, Mrs. Clinton’s success with this constituency exposed his vulnerability with it — a vulnerability he might not have known existed to such an extent had Mrs. Clinton dropped out early and Mr. Obama breezed to the nomination.
In recent weeks, Mr. Obama started doing more retail events, talked more about his family’s economic challenges growing up (to address a creeping rap of elitism, however ill-fitting that label is). He saw what played well (a tough-love opposition to the gas tax holiday) and what needed work (his bowling). He worked to escape the pigeonhole that he was a big arena rock star. He has recently done fewer big rallies and more one-of-you performances (pick-up hoops games in Indiana). He seemed to heed Mrs. Clinton’s recurring criticism that Mr. Obama was all about “creating an atmosphere” and “giving great speeches.” There have been fewer shots of a larger-than-life Mr. Obama at a podium, more of him face-to-face with workers (or waffles). More listening photo ops, in other words, and fewer talking ones.
4. THE WRIGHT FIGHT
While this doesn’t involve Mrs. Clinton directly, the long primary battle allowed the emergence, and re-emergence, of Mr. Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., to take place now, rather than later. It’s generally assumed that Mr. Wright would have been an issue at some point, so better for Mr. Obama now than October.
“It’s entirely likely that we’ll hear from Reverend Wright again,” said Dan Payne, a Democratic media consultant. “But from now on, the Obama people will be able to play it as old news.”
As a corollary to the “made him angry” benefit, Mr. Obama’s handling of the Wright controversy signaled an evolution that could serve him well. “The Reverend Wright thing struck me as Barack learning to be president,” said Richard Ben Cramer, author of “What It Takes,” the exhaustive examination of six candidates for president in 1988. “When your friend causes you trouble, a president gets rid of those friends. It may come to pass that they become friends again. But for the time being, this is more important.”
5. SHE HELPED DEFINE HIM
Consider Mr. Dukakis and John Kerry, both serious and sober sons of Massachusetts who enjoyed relatively easy primary races before getting beaten in their respective general elections in 1988 and 2004 by their respective George Bushes. Both could have benefited greatly from tougher early tests. “Tough primaries can give you antibodies,” Mr. Rogers said.
Bill Carrick, who ran the 1988 Democratic presidential campaign of Representative Richard Gephardt, recalled that Mr. Dukakis had been pilloried for claiming that the election would be more about competence than ideology. “It was a weak message,” Mr. Carrick said. “And he could have honed it into something much more meaningful if he had been challenged more in the primaries.”
Likewise, Mr. Kerry emerged relatively unscathed from his nomination fight, but also largely undefined. “That gave Bush an opening to fill in the blanks,” said Stephanie Cutter, a top communications aide to Mr. Kerry’s campaign. Mr. Bush did just this that spring, Ms. Cutter recalls, by running ads ridiculing Mr. Kerry for his line about supporting a funding provision for Iraq before opposing it. The Kerry campaign had no money to respond, and by the time it did, the damage was done.
By contrast, Mr. Obama is now a better prepared and better defined candidate, and no doubt a stronger one, than he would have been without his rival. He went through 21 debates against a tough opponent, Mrs. Clinton, and improved steadily (with an exception in Philadelphia last month). He has made mistakes, but nothing fatal, and nothing he can’t learn from.
6. AND HAS THE RACE BEEN SO BAD?
It has become a kind of operating assumption that the Democratic race has been a bloodbath, with mud slung in all directions and grudges that will never be resolved. Throughout the campaign, Mrs. Clinton has pooh-poohed this idea. “There really is no cause for nervousness,” Mrs. Clinton said at a fund-raising event in Washington last week. She has seen and been in far worse, she said.
So have others. “I find the idea that this has been such a negative campaign to be way over the top,” Mr. Carrick said. There have been some heated moments, mistakes and gaffes, he said. “But we haven’t seen the thermonuclear warfare in paid advertising. We haven’t seen a tremendous ideological divide like we did in 1968 and 1972.”
Mr. Carrick and others point out that ideological splits can be much more toxic to a nominee than stylistic or even demographic ones. For instance, the Democrats were divided over Vietnam, a highly emotional issue that laid bare irreconcilable fault lines. Some years later, a cultural and ideological gap was exposed by the bitter campaign between Edward M. Kennedy and Mr. Carter in 1980. Others point to the primary challenges posed by Ronald Reagan against Mr. Ford in 1976 and Pat Buchanan against the first President Bush in 1992. But as has been said so many times, Obama v. Clinton has been waged in uncharted territory, a battle of firsts.
Mrs. Clinton has also been criticized for using arguments against Mr. Obama that Republicans might use in the fall. She has suggested, in so many words, that Mr. Obama is all talk, that he is not experienced, that he might not be ready to be commander in chief.
“Yeh,” Mr. Rogers said, “like we couldn’t have thought of that.”