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Genie in a bottle

Obama can only hope his Reverend Wright problem ends up like the Clinton Gennifer Flowers scandal
By STEVEN STARK  |  May 7, 2008


So, as expected, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have split the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, sending the race stumbling along to West Virginia (where Clinton should win decisively) this Tuesday, and then beyond. But the big story in the campaign continues to be the whole Reverend Wright affair, which has undoubtedly damaged the Obama effort, despite his impressive showing Tuesday night.

The crucial question is whether the damage is temporary or permanent. And one helpful precedent for Obama comes from an incident 16 years ago that you won’t hear the Clinton campaign mentioning at all: the Gennifer Flowers episode.

For those with short memories, Flowers was the Wright of the ‘92 campaign. She burst on the scene in the period before the New Hampshire primary, holding a press conference and asserting that she had had a long-running affair with then-governor Bill Clinton in Little Rock. Most pundits concluded that the damage to the Clinton campaign was close to terminal. (Disclosure: I was one of them.)

The fallout from the “affair” was enough to send Clinton tumbling out of first place in the run-up to New Hampshire, and Paul Tsongas won the Granite State primary. But in the months ahead, though Flowers resurfaced occasionally, the story faded and Clinton went on to win the Oval Office (and, not coincidentally, face future Flowers-like controversies during his presidency).

Obviously, there are huge differences between a sex scandal and one involving what your preacher happens to say in church. And there are enormous distinctions that can be made between 2008 and 1992. In ’92, a three-way race enabled Clinton to become president while winning only 43 percent of the vote. Furthermore, there’s now a huge cable and Internet universe that relentlessly fans the flames of every controversy. Still, the key for Obama is whether the Wright episode will follow the same course as the Flowers one did in the run-up to November.

Sliced two ways
The election is a mere six months from now, but six months in politics constitutes the proverbial eternity — which is good news for Obama. Plus, the “Feiler faster” thesis, popularized by Slate columnist Mickey Kaus, holds that stories burn themselves out far faster in the Internet age.

But there are two worrisome aspects of this episode that have the potential to continue to spell trouble for Obama. The first, of course, is Wright himself. There may be more tapes of incendiary sermons; he may make more appearances. In his Detroit speech, Wright mentioned that he’s working on a book that, in his words, “will be out later this year.” If it’s before the election (and if he wants to sell any copies, it will be — most likely in October), he will go on a book tour. And the whole controversy will begin again.

Also troubling for the Obama camp, there are many more ways to keep a story like this alive than there were with the Clinton episode. Ultimately, there were only a few people that the media could go to for Flowers stories: the candidate (no luck there), Flowers herself (old news), and maybe a state trooper or two who could have indirectly witnessed something.

In contrast, as political operative and Fox commentator Dick Morris has pointed out, thousands heard Wright preach every week. Each is a potential source for any reporter or opposition researcher — scrupulous or otherwise — looking for quotes or a TV appearance attesting to how Obama (or his wife, Michelle) was in church when something controversial was said.

Eventually, then, the election may come down to which candidate better overcomes his liabilities. John McCain is weighed down by George Bush, now among the least popular presidents in American history. Though McCain will try to distance himself from W., as a Republican succeeding a Republican, he will still be affected by any mishaps in the Bush administration, as well as by the course of the war in Iraq, over the next six months.

Obama is tied to Wright, as well as — fairly or unfairly — other controversial African-American figures. For months, Obama was the candidate of unity, who happened to be African-American. What the Wright episode has done for now is to put the focus on him as an African-American candidate — the toast of the black community, but a candidate who has trouble appealing to working-class whites. Thus, it is possible, though unfair, that anything that goes on in the African-American community over the next six months — whether it comes from Wright, Al Sharpton, or popular culture — could affect the Obama effort.

The hunch here is that the race will hang in the balance, with a large number of undecided voters weighing each candidate’s liabilities. Then, in the final week of the campaign — much as in 1980 — the undecideds will largely break in one direction or the other, giving either McCain or Obama a decisive victory.

The nominee

Odds: 1-12 | past week: 1-5
Odds: 12-1 | 5-1

Superdelegates: 257
Total: 1845
Short by: 179

Superdelegates: 271
Total: 1693
Short by: 331

Delegates needed to win: 2024

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Genie in a bottle
Obama is a master of the Hegelian dialectic: the craftier his opposition, the better he ultimately subsumes the advantage, or "sublates" the conflict. He let Clinton ultimately burn herself out by alienating the woman demographic by doing shots with Joe Sixpack. For all his supposed character, McCain is just as much a wagon-jumper as Clinton, and Obama, though it will take time, will get a fire under him, making similar work of McCain so that he digs his own hole.
By gordon on 05/08/2008 at 3:25:24
Genie in a bottle
Bill Clinton, after the South Carolina primary, tried and failed to "pigeon-hole" Barack Obama as the candidate of Black Americans. Hillary Clinton, a few days ago, tried and has thus far failed, to "pigeon-hole" not a candidate but a demographic - - - white-working class-non-college educated voters - - - as being resistant to Obama. Rev. Wright, looking for pigeons along the rooftops as Marlon Brando did in On The Waterfront, may have accomplished their task for them. Obama got it right when he drew a critical distinction between Rev. Wright's generation and his own. The politics of Wright and those of Obama fit neatly with the Civil Rights acts of the mid-1960s separating them. Barack can maintain a respectful distance from the pre-Civil Rights era thinking of Rev. Wright's generation. The stronger the perspective, the greater the distance and the lesser the likelihood of Obama being linked to Rev. Wright. Obama is the first African-American candidate of the post-Civil Rights generation. He is way too young to have "marched with Martin" or to have strutted with Stokely, as did I. Instead of dwelling on the past, he may use past injustices as a springboard for his ideas. Rather than return to the pre-1960s, rather than return to the '90s as is Hillary's wont, he should look to the new century. His message of unity serves to unite Rev. Wright's generatio with his own.
By L-J on 05/10/2008 at 7:25:56
Genie in a bottle
Time for Obama introduce and define himself to the general American elecorate. Until now, only the committed (or, perhaps, committable LOL) Democratic and Independent voters in primary states have a clear picture and understanding of him. Mention this as a recent news story indicates the Republicans are already starting to define Barack by using his signature phrase - - "Yes We Can!" - - to justify digging deeper into his past. Most folks don't pay much attention to politics until the first TV debate between the two major party nominees. Way too long. Obama has to start defining himself yesterday or else it will be done for him and to him.
By L-J on 05/11/2008 at 5:17:49
Genie in a bottle
Note to GAYPASTOR - - - tried several times in several ways to access the "real clear politics" site referenced in your post. Could you please re-enter the information site? Thanks!
By L-J on 05/13/2008 at 7:58:10

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