You couldn’t be doing better raising money than Barack Obama has been. While an experienced, veteran senator and candidate like John McCain is running out of money and firing the staffers who haven’t quit themselves— staving off obituaries that are at least in draft form— the young senator from Illinois is literally rolling in the dough.
To beat Hillary Clinton in raising money is a very very big deal; to have raised more than Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, both of whom have been in this game for longer than Obama, is a major accomplishment in anyone’s book.
Obama doesn’t have to defend a vote in favor of the war; he’s had one wife who is a terrific woman and extraordinarily attractive campaigner; he has adorable children, a very smart staff, and a committed army of Internet fans.
So the question is: where’s the surge? Why is the guy who can outraise everybody, who has more donors than anybody, basically stuck in second and not moving in the polls?
It certainly isn’t the media’s fault. I’ve never seen anyone get the kind of coverage he does. It’s not the fault of his fellow candidates, or the folks on the other side. Other than a spat over a year ago with McCain, and Sen. Joe Biden’s inarticulate description of his cleanliness— which hurt Biden and not Obama—no one has laid a glove on him.
Like all the Democratic candidates, he’s been calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, which obviously requires some planning to accomplish properly, but you don’t see the Defense Department goons going after Obama the way they did Hillary this week, accusing her of giving comfort to the enemy. Hillary has a legion of pundits and pontificaters who wake up every morning hoping to fill their space or air time with something she did wrong, but it’s hard to find anyone out there doing Obama parodies, or calling him names, or questioning his masculinity, his competence, or his loyalty. Respected and not-so-respected journalists have turned the business of writing books attacking Hillary into a cottage industry, but with Obama, he writes his own books, tells the story his way, and with a little help from Oprah, is on the bestseller list with his memoirs, not ducking the books attacking him.
Nor is it a matter of race, at least if people are being half-honest. In any number of polls, the public, as well as Democrats, are asked if they’re ready for a black president or a woman president. And in every one, people are always more accepting of the idea of a black president than they are of the prospect of a woman in the top job. At least in terms of who should be president, sexism tops racism every time.
But then something curious happens. In the same polls, when the same people are asked whether they support Clinton or Obama, Hillary wins handily, beating her rival by as much as 20 points. What gives?
I have a simple answer. Actually, it’s not mine, but one I learned from my one-time rival, the late Lee Atwater, the legendary political operative who ran George Bush the elder’s campaign against my candidate, Michael Dukakis, back in 1988. Lee had a theory he told me after the election.
The way he described it, there’s a little boat and in it are the people Americans are willing to accept as qualified to be president. It doesn’t mean they like them, doesn’t mean they’d ever vote for them, but it means they have passed the essential test of being big enough and capable enough to be in the job. His theory, back then, was that George Bush, even when he was trailing Dukakis in the polls, was always in the boat. Dukakis, he believed, never was.
When push came to shove, that meant Dukakis was vulnerable in ways Bush was not; he couldn’t withstand mistakes the way Bush could. People might like the idea of a Dukakis better than the idea of a Bush, but Dukakis was easier to destroy, and Bush was always more likely to win. Lee’s view was that it was difficult for newcomers to national politics to get in that boat, and relatively easy to push them out when they tried.
Barack Obama is a great first date. He is the smartest, freshest, most exciting new face to come along in politics in years. But he is a new face. It’s hard to forget that on 9/11, when Hillary was in the Senate, and Rudy was at Ground Zero, and Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, Barack was in Springfield, Ill., serving as a state senator. He was right about the war in Iraq, as it turned out, but he wasn’t there, in the Senate, in the debate, in the place where it mattered.
He’s still a first date, and he’s not in the boat yet. He can’t really prove himself in the Senate. He’s hardly there, is junior on every committee, isn’t in charge of anything or able to put in the time to make anything happen. The place he has to prove himself is on the campaign. But that requires more than winning the money primary. He needs to prove to people that he belongs on that little boat, a place where Hillary is already sitting, and the former state senator has yet to climb in.
Ironically, he needs precisely the sort of confrontations he has yet to face, crises he has yet to endure, challenges he has yet to surmount, to prove that he is up to a promotion to the hardest job in the world.
The one thing most of us would probably agree upon, regardless of our politics or persuasions, is that the world is a much more dangerous and complicated place than it used to be, or at least than we thought it was. Dealing with invisible enemies who hate us as a matter of religious faith, hate us more than they love themselves or their own children, is nothing less than terrifying.
We are traveling in rough waters, and that makes climbing in to Lee’s little boat more difficult than it has ever been. For all his money, Barack has his work cut out for him.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.