Susan Estrich: Bad News for Obama?

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Published May 14, 2008

| FoxNews.com

There is good news and bad news for Democrats in the wake of Tuesday’s voting in West Virginia and Mississippi.

The good news is that Democrats are now three-for-three in the contests for open House seats, adding Mississippi to the list where a Democrat, albeit one running as pro-life and pro-gun, defeated his Republican opponent in a traditionally Republican, conservative district.

The bad news is that Barack Obama, who has been crowned by the media as the "presumptive nominee" of the Democratic Party, got trounced in a state that every Democrat to be elected president in recent generations has carried on his way to the White House.

Is the Republican "brand" in trouble? Absolutely.

Has the Republican base shrunk? Yes.

Is any association with the GOP/George Bush/the last eight years enough to send people to a place they haven’t been recently, which is to say, the Democratic column? Clearly.

Are the Democrats in a position to score major victories in the House and Senate elections come this fall? No question.

Could Democrats end up with a commanding majority in both Houses? I’d be willing to bet on that.

Has Obama closed the deal with the voters he will need to carry the critical blue-leaning states in the fall, voters who are white, working-class and key to a Democratic victory in the presidential contest? Clearly not.

There are, certainly, some who will argue that Hillary Clinton is hurting Obama by beating him, that -- ironically -- the better she does, the more she hurts Obama by staying in the race and, potentially, hurts herself by hurting him.

Usually, of course, it’s when you’re losing that people demand you drop out. In Hillary’s case, it’s her winning that can be seen as the problem that demands a solution. I don’t buy that.

So long as Hillary keeps her focus on McCain, as she has done in recent speeches, and avoids giving McCain ammunition to use against Obama, she’s not affirmatively hurting Obama. All she’s doing is making clear the vulnerability that is his challenge, his problem, not hers.

Obama has a problem with one of the core groups in the Democratic base. If he has won this nomination, he has won it without them, despite them. The problem is he can’t win the White House that way.

You can talk until you’re blue in the face about the new voters Obama has brought to the process, about the enthusiasm among students and his appeal to independents, but at the end of the day, if you’re a Democrat, you don’t win the White House without winning the votes of white, working-class voters in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and New Jersey and, yes, West Virginia.

And you can call these people every name in the book, starting with racist, as some Obama supporters are prone to do, but questioning people’s motives generally is not a very effective approach to addressing their doubts or bringing them into the fold. Insults do not turn skeptics into supporters.

There are a couple of questions every pollster always asks and looks at in predicting election results. One is the right track/wrong track issue: On that question, with 80 percent of the country answering the wrong track, with an overwhelming majority disapproving of George Bush, Democrats are in better shape than they have been at any time in recent memory.

But the other is whether they think the candidate understands the problems of "people like them." My guess is, given the polls I’ve seen and the results we’ve all seen, that is where Obama runs into problems with white, working-class voters.

They aren’t sure that the Illinois senator understands them, understands their lives and appreciates their values and concerns. And that’s not necessarily, or even primarily, an issue of race: It’s about values, philosophy, ideology and experience.

It’s about whether he’s too liberal, too elitist, too much the candidate of the well-off and the well-educated, of college students and their professors, of higher taxes and more help for the poor at the expense of working Americans.

Is he tough enough? Is he experienced enough? Does he understand both the pride and the fears of people who are getting by, but barely, who can’t afford to pay more in taxes, who are proud to be Americans, and wonder if he is?

In the short run, Obama’s challenge is to convince superdelegates to come out for him in sufficient numbers to give him the statistical majority he needs to claim the Democratic nomination. There is every reason to expect that he can do that, if only because the math is getting more and more difficult for Clinton.

But his real challenge is not to convince the "supers" but the regulars that he, indeed, is one of them, that what makes them want to vote for Democrats for House and Senate should convince them to vote for him as well.

Whatever role race plays in their concerns about him, it will do him no good to focus on it in addressing those concerns.

It is only by respecting these voters, not questioning their fairmindedness, that Obama will win the support from them that he desperately needs.

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.

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