Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Obama, The Jews, And The Mirage Of "Electability"

Richard Cohen's column in today's Washington Post is a forerunner of the kind of chip-away-and-destroy tactics the right wing will be using against Obama should he win the Democratic nomination. After writing about how the minister of Obama's church has publicly praised Louis Farrakhan, Cohen says:
I don't for a moment think that Obama shares Wright's views on Farrakhan. But the rap on Obama is that he is a fog of a man. We know little about him, and, for all my admiration of him, I wonder about his mettle. The New York Times recently reported on Obama's penchant while serving in the Illinois legislature for merely voting "present" when faced with some tough issues. Farrakhan, in a strictly political sense, may be a tough issue for him. This time, though, "present" will not do.
As so often, Black leaders are expected to "denounce" anyone even indirectly associated with them whom the mainstream media dislikes. And, as Greg Sargent points out, Cohen quotes but then ignores a statement by an Obama spokesman in which he quite clearly disagrees with his minister about Farrakhan--which evidently is not enough of a denunciation for Cohen.

Then, too, like Andrew Sullivan, I wonder about Cohen's choice of words: "Mettle? Is this code for 'sound on the Jews'? Too soft on the Muslims? Or what?"

I have a friend who is a conservative Jew, quite hawkish on Israel, who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans over the years. When we got to chatting about politics recently, he told me that the buzz among his connections was over the question of whether "Obama can be trusted." The issue, he made it clear, was not whether Obama is a liar, but whether or not he might betray Israel, kowtow to Iran, or otherwise let down the side in the Middle East. The anti-Obama foundation is there for the right wing to build upon.

Despite Republican inroads in recent decades, Jews still vote mostly Democratic. Their numbers are fairly small, but they have real clout as fund raisers and opinion leaders. It's very likely that the Republicans will be doing all they can to spread rumors, via the Internet and elsewhere, that Obama is an anti-Semite, in hopes of peeling away this significant bloc of Democratic support in 2008.

This illustrates a factor that needs to be considered by those who insist on basing their candidate preferences on "electability." Hillary certainly has her points of vulnerability. But I think we'll all be amazed as to how many points of vulnerability Obama has once the G.O.P. focuses its attention on discovering--or inventing--them.

As for me, the older I get, the less I believe in that arcane combination of calculus and clairvoyance known as "gauging electability." Nobody knows what "electability" actually means, and, in practice, choosing a candidate on that basis amounts to ignoring one's own preferences (which at least are real) and instead trying to guess the preferences of some hypothetical set of "average" voters. It's a mug's game.

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