Who can beat McCain?

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If, as seems fairly likely at this point, John McCain comes out of Super Fat Tuesday with a lock on the Republican nomination, the most important question for Democrats is who can beat him. Most polls have Barack Obama narrowly beating McCain and Hillary Clinton narrowly losing to him, although it's pretty early in the process and the margins are too narrow to put too much stock in them at this point. But there's good reason to believe that Obama would have a far easier time beating McCain than Clinton would.
And that's something primary voters should think seriously about before casting their ballots today.

While most indicators point to 2008 being a good year for Democrats to retake the White House, McCain represents a worrying challenge. He's not an evil capitalist like Romney or bible-thumping bumpkin like Huckabee or hawkish neanderthal like Giuliani or anti-government ideologue like Paul. While I don't share McCain's basic worldview, he has been a real leader on many issues that progressives care about, such as campaign finance reform, corporate governance, and banning torture. He would represent a real threat to Democrats that should be taken seriously. And I believe it's a threat to which Clinton is most vulnerable.

Clinton has made experience the cornerstone of her campaign, but McCain's long public service makes Clinton look like a relative newbie. Her argument that she's been taking the hits from Republicans for decades and is fire tested also doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The reality is that those attacks have worked and there are people in this country who just hate her. Maybe that's sexism or some other unfair motivation, but the reality is polling has consistently shown that about half the country has a negative impression of her. It's also silly to assume that she's taken all the hits that she's going to. Clinton's early support for the war would make an easy target for Republicans, who will portray her as a soulless flip-flopper (a charge that worked against John Kerry, who seemed to have a far easier opponent than McCain represents). And the frontal and whisper campaigns about Hillary's role during her husband's presidency -- from screwing up health care reform to standing by her philandering man -- will be brutal. Add to that the fact that many progressives also resent her war vote and health care sellout (that was the moment to create socialized medicine in this country and she dithered for a year and then proposed a plan that relied on insurance companies, just as her current plan does) and won't be working very hard on her behalf.

Yet Obama is different. Unlike Clinton, he can actually run as a credible agent of change, which is what the electorate has been crying for this year. Next to Obama, McCain looks like exactly what he is: an old conservative white guy who represents the ruling class and the political Establishment. Polls have consistently shown that voters from across the country and across the ideological spectrum aren't satisfied with the status quo and Obama is the one candidate in the race who can argue that he's not beholden to the system that people want changed. Like the sexism that hurts Clinton, Obama would also be hurt by the lingering racism in this country, but the election and polling results so far this year seem to show that he does well with white voters. And I have to believe that we've finally gotten to the point in this country where overt or coded racist appeals might just backfire and end up helping Obama rather than hurting him.

Finally, during the long campaign that's still to come, voters will begin to ponder the heavy symbolism at play in this fall's presidential race. Maybe President Bush will drop some bombs on Iran or we'll suffer a terrorist attack and the fear factor will ratchet up again, causing Americans to opt for the conservative war hero. In that circumstance, it just seems unlikely to be the right moment for a woman to be elected commander-in-chief, unfair as that may be. But whether it's a time of military or fiscal crisis, or a more hopeful time for this country, it seems that the Democratic Party needs to offer voters a candidate who can move this country forward and create a new political dialogue and reengage with the world. Who represents that? That should be the question we all try to answer at the polls today.

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