For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country ... –Michelle Obama
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama rolled up two more one-sided victories, in Wisconsin and Hawaii, last night and can drive Sen. Hillary Clinton from the field with wins in Ohio and Texas March 4. But over the past couple days, a flap has arisen over a statement by the candidate's wife, Michelle Obama, which must be set right immediately or the national media, Republicans, and the Clinton campaign will chew on it ceaselessly in the two weeks before March 4.
The Michelle Obama statement Monday was taken out of context. But it was not an ad lib. It was part of a prepared text which had been delivered more than once. And unless Obama and his wife set it right immediately, it has the potential to be a campaign wrecker – if not now, certainly in the fall general election contest.
Context: Seemingly small and irrelevant matters can sink major candidacies. Richard Nixon lost a vital 1960 nationally televised debate to John Kennedy because Nixon had a five o'clock shadow, a loose collar, and unduly sweated under the studio lights. George Romney, in 1968, was eliminated as a Republican presidential candidate because of his admission that he had been "brainwashed" by military briefers in Vietnam. George McGovern in 1972 sank like a stone after declaring that he supported his vice presidential nominee, Tom Eagleton, "1,000 percent" and then abruptly dropped Eagleton from his ticket. Ed Muskie, earlier that year, blew his candidacy by crying on camera while attacking a New Hampshire newspaper publisher. Gerald Ford, in 1976, self-inflicted a fatal blow by seeming in a televised debate with Jimmy Carter to be confused about the relationship of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. That same year his running mate, Bob Dole, stupidly questioned whether Franklin Roosevelt should have entered World War II against Hitler and Tojo. Walter Mondale, in 1984, promised the Democratic National Convention that he would raise taxes; that was all voters needed to hear. Mike Dukakis, leading George W. Bush by 18 points on Labor Day 1988, sank himself in part by posing for a ridiculous photo in an Army tank and giving a decidedly wrong answer in a televised debate about what he would do if his wife were murdered. (He undertook an antiseptic discussion of the death penalty.) George H.W. Bush hurt himself badly by checking his watch repeatedly during a debate with Bill Clinton, thus leading voters to be believe he might be bored and that it indeed was time for him to leave. His running mate, Dan Quayle, blew it by comparing himself to Kennedy.
Sometimes the blows are externally rather than self inflicted – such as when Dukakis was hurt by GOP commercials focusing on the release from prison of Willie Horton, who subsequently committed murder. John Kerry was hurt badly by 2004 Swift Boat commercials depicting him as anything but a hero in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, won a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, in part because his TV commercials depicted Goldwater as likely to widen the Vietnam War (which LBJ, after the election, promptly did).
The point is this: Candidates must draw clear and unmistakeable pictures of themselves for the electorate – so clear that they cannot be distorted – lest the opposition draw alternative pictures which are ugly.
The picture drawn thus far of Obama has been a hopeful, positive one, of a candidate committed to positive change and able to reach across racial, ethnic, religious, partisan, and other barriers to bring Americans together behind a common agenda. Michelle Obama's statement, and the exploitations of it which will follow, tore the picture. Michelle Obama draws a high income from Sidley & Austin, an establishmentarian Chicago law firm. She attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, according to her own account because of assistance afforded her as a minority woman with comparatively unimpressive test scores. She is highly intelligent and has earned her opportunities. But in many other countries, she would have been precluded from doing so. Moreover, it is indisputable that, in her lifetime, enormous leaps forward have taken place in the country toward both equity and justice. The candidacy of her husband – as well as those of Hillary Clinton, a woman; Mitt Romney, a Mormon; Rudy Giuliani, an Italian Catholic; Bill Richardson, a Latino; and Mike Huckabee, a Protestant fundamentalist – symbolize that progress. In earlier years, all of them would have been considered as marginal because of race, gender, religion, or ethnicity. To state that "for the first time in her adult life" she was proud of her country is to gratuitously offend perhaps 80 percent of American voters.
The two-week pause before March 4 will give critics a huge opportunity to exploit the statement. Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, already has made repeated criticisms of it. News channel types are recycling it ceaselessly. The Clinton campaign, nearing desperation status, can be expected to attack it through surrogates, if not directly.
Check your news channels during the day today. If, by noon, the Obamas have not definitely buried the issue, it will linger and hurt them, perhaps quite badly. If they do not deal with it decisively, and put it behind them, Obama will be hurt unnecessarily on the brink of what could be decisive victories in the Democratic nominating race.