While McCain Watches


On Tuesday Hillary Clinton made the best speech of her campaign. She told the American Society of Newspaper Editors how she conceives “the power and promise of the presidency.” She asserted that President Bush had been “unready” for the office, did not understand its “constitutional character,” exhibited in his decisions an “ideological disdain.” She said she hopes to “restore balance and purpose” to the presidency, and detailed specific actions she would take immediately on entering the White House.

It was an important speech, and someone, probably many someones, worked hard on it. It was highly partisan, even polar, but it was a more thoughtful critique of the administration, more densely woven and less bromidic, than she has offered in the past, and she used a higher vocabulary. So eager was she to be heard she actually noted at one point that what she’d just said was not “a soundbite.”

And here’s the thing. It didn’t matter. Nobody noticed. A room full of journalists didn’t notice this was something new and interesting. And they didn’t notice because nobody is listening anymore.

Mrs. Clinton is transmitting, but people aren’t receiving. She has been branded, tagged. She’s been absorbed, understood and categorized. People have decided what they think, and it’s not good.

It took George W. Bush five years to get to that point. It took her five intense months. Political historians will say her campaign sank with the mad Bosnia lie, but Bosnia broke through only because it expressed, crystallized, what people had already begun to think: too much mendacity there, too much manipulation.

Timing is everything. “Too late to get serious,” I wrote in my notes. For before this, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was all dreary recitation of talking points, rote applause lines followed by rote applause.

The next day the Washington Post had its latest numbers. A “majority of voters now view her as dishonest,” it said, bluntly. Six in 10 said she was “not honest or trustworthy.” Which itself doesn’t tell us, really, anything new, but concretizes, like the Bosnia story, what is already known.

This is what I think will happen. At some future point Mrs. Clinton will leave, and at a more distant one she will try to come back. But more than one cycle will have to pass before she does. She’ll need more than four years to shake off the impression she made in 2008. And this is how you’ll know she’s making another bid for the presidency. She will wear skirts. Gone will be the pantsuits that made her look like a small blond man with breasts. It’s the new me, I wear skirts! Her first impulse is to think cosmetically. A long and weary life in politics has left her thinking this is the way to think.

All of which sounds as if I foresee a Pennsylvania drubbing for her. I do not. I just think that whatever happens in Pennsylvania, the decision has been made, the die cast. Barack Obama’s supporters will not be denied. He broke through, gained purchase, held his ground, the one thing Mrs. Clinton could not afford. When I speak to superdelegates, the vibration is there: It is the moment of Obama.

And now his problem emerges. It is two-headed. It is not that he is African-American, or half so, and it is not that he is liberal. Liberalism too, one senses, is having a moment.

It is his youth, his relative untriedness, the fact that he has not suffered, been seasoned, been beat about the head by life and left struggling back, as happens to most adults by a certain time. This is what I hear from older people, who vote in great numbers. They are not hostile to his race, they are skeptical of his inexperience.

The other is elitism, a charge that clearly grates on him and unnerves his wife, who has a great deal that would be attractive in a first lady (intelligence, accomplishment, beauty) but lacks placidity, which is, actually, necessary. All first ladies, first spouses, should be like Denis Thatcher, slightly dazed, mildly inscrutable, utterly supportive. It is the only job in the world where “seems slightly drugged” is a positive job qualification. The key is to know you are not the drama, you do not draw the lightning, you are a background player who yet has deep, unseen power. (The “deep, unseen power” part keeps you serene and energized. The constant possibility of quiet revenge keeps one peppy.)

Sen. Obama seems honestly surprised by the furor his the-poor-cling-to-God-and-guns remarks elicited, and if one considers his background—intense marginalization followed by the establishment’s embrace—this is understandable. He was only caught speaking the secret language of America’s elite, and what he said was not meant as a putdown. It was an explanation aimed at ameliorating the elites’ anger toward and impatience with normal people. It’s a way of explaining them, of saying, “You have to remember they’re not comfortable and educated like us, they’re vulnerable and so we must try to understand them and feel sympathy for and solidarity with them.” You could say this at any high-class dinner party in America and not cause a ruffle. But America is not a high-class dinner party.

Mrs. Obama said Tuesday that she is from the South Side of Chicago and a working-class home, and seemed to argue that no one from such humble beginnings could be an elitist. But America is full of people who started low, rose high and internalized what the right people think, which is another way of saying what the elites think. To rise in America is to turn left, unless you are very, very tough or protected by privilege of the financial or familial kind.

Can Mr. Obama survive this? Yes. But it made a bad impression, the kind it’s hard to eradicate. Good news for him: the trope that blacks aren’t snobs, they’re patronized by snobs. Also, he doesn’t seem haughty. He seems like a nice man. Also the person exploiting his gaffe is Mrs. Clinton.

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Meanwhile, John McCain makes daily, small, incremental gains. He happily watches the Democrats fight and happily advances his cause. Did you see him on “Hardball” the other night with the college students of Villanova? They were beside themselves at the sight of him. It seems to me it would be a brilliant thing for him to announce he means to be a one-term president, that he means to have a clean, serious, one-term presidency in which he will do things those under pressure of re-election do not and cannot do. This would be received as a refreshment, a way out for the voters in a year they seem to want a way out. For many in the middle it would be a twofer. You get a good man, for only four years, and Mr. Obama gets to grow and deepen. He’ll be better older.

The downside? Americans like knowing they can fire a president. It’s how they keep them in line. And lame-duckness from day one would not be empowering.

If Mr. McCain went this route, how and when he said it would be everything. As with Mrs. Clinton, timing will be everything.