Sunday, June 08, 2008

Obama Should Debate McCain, Go Abroad

This is a morning of many retrospectives about what happened to Hillary Clinton, all the mistakes she made. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, however, may have it about right when he says that if Barack Obama had been ten years younger and run in 1992, both he and Bill Clinton would have lost to him. And blogger Ben Smith makes a worthwhile point too: She should have contested more of the caucus states; Obama built his delegate advantage in them.

It is time to look ahead and not back. And, as usual, this morning, the best column is by Frank Rich, in the New York Times. Every election year, there seems to be one writer who "gets it" best, who is on the proper wave length, and then a host of them who remember the past campaigns, but don't get the present one.

Rich has two main pieces of advice for Obama today, and both of them, I believe, are good.

One is, he ought to accept John McCain's proposal for a series of "Town Hall" debates.

Second is, he ought to go abroad, to Iraq, and elsewhere, to showcase for the American people his popularity abroad, and how much the rest of the world feels it has a stake in the success of a new administration in America, a break from the past.

Rich's feeling, like some other observers of the scene, is that McCain did not do particularly well last Tuesday night when he appeared in Louisiana to make the first of the three major candidate presentations that evening. The other presentations came from Clinton and Obama.

McCain did not speak particularly well, his audience was small, and it seemed he was not well presented -- the wrong kind of hall, the wrong kind of the crowd, too white, none of the Latinos and Asians who he presumably thinks that, like Hillary, he can win against Obama.

If Obama and McCain meet frequently in these common discussions (a better term than debates, the way McCain has presented them), then it is Rich's feeling that Obama's superiority as a candidate, his youth, his ideas for the future, will come across clearly, and that McCain, by contrast, will suffer.

Is he right? I don't know, but I suspect that Obama, in this campaign, is like the circus performer on the trapeze: As long as he is sailing along, performing without hesitation, making use of his skills, he's fine. But if he hesitates, grows cautious, he is apt to fall. Obama, riding a tiger, has soared out of obscurity as an inspirational candidate. He cannot now afford to become less of one, and going up against McCain in these discussions is an important way to continue to put himself forward.

As to Obama going abroad, I just, of course, returned from visiting numerous African countries, including three Arab ones and several others with large Muslim minorities. At every hand on this trip was evidence of Obama's popularity. If Obama is elected, America will appear in all these places in a much more favorable light.

But Obama need not visit The Gambia and Togo to show his popularity. If he goes to Iraq, if he goes to Israel (as long as he talks to both the Israelis and Palestinians), if he goes to Russia, France and Britain, then he will demonstrate clearly for all the American people to see, his popularity and the advantages of a new face in Washington.

Of course, I do not underestimate McCain. If his life proves anything, it is the advantage of hanging in there, of daring to defy his North Vietnamese captors, and, for a long time, the ire of President Bush. He is an admirably resilient character, with a talent for innovation in both his life and his politics.

If events -- the soaring price of oil, a possible new terrorist attack, anything that upsets the apple cart and really further challenges America -- do occur, it may be that McCain will gain an advantage, by appearing a safer candidate than the less experienced Obama.

But Obama's emphasis on hope and a more forthcoming America has already proved its power in this campaign and may continue to do so. That and the tremendous organizational skills he has demonstrated in his campaign thus far.

As I said yesterday, I do not agree with the old friend who told me that America will never vote for a black man. The fact is, America has changed in that respect. During our adult life spans, our generation has seen black candidates elected mayor, governor or U.S. senator, in places like Los Angeles, and the states of Virginia and Massachusetts, that do not have anywhere close to black majorities. They all won primarily with white votes.

Obama, wisely, seldom talks up racial issues in his campaign, except when he is forced to, as he was in the Jeremiah Wright controversy. His vision is far wider than race, and I think most of the American people already realize that, or will come to realize it.

I also agree with Rich (who is no relation of mine, by the way), when he warns Obama against too much "preening," making too much of himself and his prospects.

Yesterday, when Obama appeared at a ceremony celebrating Chicago's selection by the International Olympic Committee, as one of four finalists for award of the 2016 Olympics, he suggested that he would just be finishing his second term in the presidency when Chicago held the 2016 Games. (Maybe both the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times will be under different ownership by then).

Obama should avoid, I think, drumming his vainglorious career too deeply into the minds of onlookers. With the kind of humility that marked Lincoln, he must go forward primarily with his idealism, organizational skills and hopes.

--

Besides Rich, another brilliant column about the campaign comes in the London Times from Andrew Sullivan, who has a very good feel for the appeal of the Obama candidacy. How telling it is, in fact, that the London Times has been so much the better reporter on the election campaign than the L.A. Times. That shows the superiority of Rupert Murdoch to Sam Zell.

But Jim Newton, the L.A. Times editorial pages editor who has now quit, can take pride in the Times editorial that originally endorsed Obama and McCain for their respective party nominations. That understood the flow of events well too. It's too bad L.A. Times "publisher," David Hiller, didn't treat Newton better. He might have stayed around for the election.

But the editorial page of the LAT does not distinguish itself as much Sunday, with a long, tedious editorial saying that on many issues Obama and McCain are much alike. Those Americans who do not yet realize how different a kind of president Obama would be from McCain are, I think, sure to understand it by election day.

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