Obama and the long haul

We’re not taking sides at Beyond Red & Blue, and I’m not cynical enough to hope for drawn-out presidential primary campaigns just to amuse us and give us data with which to make pretty maps. But I will say that it would be nice if the Massachusetts presidential primary (which will probably happen on February 5) had some influence on the nomination process. And that won’t happen if Hillary Clinton and, less likely, Rudy Giuliani nail down their respective parties’ nominations in January, after contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Over the past couple of weeks, Barack Obama has rallied a bit, increasing the probability that Clinton will face serious competition next year. One reason is that he’s been criticizing Clinton more directly, as John Dickerson notes on Slate.com:

In midsummer, a peppery Obama comment was big news because it was so rare. Then three weeks ago, he told the New York Times he’d be drawing more distinctions between himself and Sen. Clinton. Since then, he hasn’t stopped. Obama has gone on the offense in debates, on the stump, and in interviews on topics ranging from Social Security to Iran and Iraq to giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

As Dickerson notes, the success (so far) of this strategy is a surprise to those who warned that Obama couldn’t play political hardball without looking like a hypocrite, not after promising a "new kind of politics" based on optimism and on engagement with one’s opponents. But I think this particular hypocrisy charge has always been a bigger deal to political reporters than to voters, who are probably more concerned that Obama wouldn’t pick enough fights as president. Since mainstream reporters do not feel comfortable saying that a candidate is wrong or misguided on issues, they tend to magnify any inconsistencies (or "flip-flops") in a candidate’s rhetoric and record. The idea that Obama is reneging on what could be interpreted as a promise not to attack his Democratic rivals, even on policy matters, is a good hook for campaign stories, but I doubt that he’ll suffer any backlash among actual voters for negative campaigning per se.

Of course, it’s another question if he carries things too far and is seen to be distorting Clinton’s record or getting too personal. For the time being, however, it seems premature to call the nomination race over before it officially begins.