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Hard Knocks

Now Barack Obama can't enter the general election contest unmindful of the resistance that he is encountering from older and downscale white voters.

"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

Like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, this contest for the Democratic presi-dential nom-ination is getting curiouser and curiouser. Sure, arithmetically speaking, it's practically impossible to see how Hillary Rodham Clinton can win, even with her jaw-dropping 41-point, 67 percent to 26 percent, win in West Virginia and her lead of 25 to 34 points in Kentucky polling. But Democratic superdelegates and activists have to be swallowing hard looking at Barack Obama, their presumptive nominee, running so weakly in West Virginia, a state that has voted Democratic in five of the last eight and eight of the last 12 presidential elections.


To be sure, as Americans over the years began placing more value on social and cultural issues and less on economic ones, West Virginia became less Democratic in presidential voting, giving George W. Bush a win of 6 percentage points in 2000 and 13 points in 2004. But, still, Obama rang up a big "No Sale" sign in the Mountain State this week.

The West Virginia primary results and the likely outcome in Kentucky on May 20 will probably not derail Obama's candidacy so much as give Democrats cause to pause and allow Clinton's backers the right to say "I told you so" should Obama lose the general election.

Astute political analyst Norman Ornstein has said that Clinton's backers must go through a mourning process over the next few weeks. That brings to mind Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Clinton supporters are pretty much past denial and anger, are now mostly in the bargaining and depression phase, and will eventually get to acceptance. That's why Ornstein argues that it was best for Clinton not to get out earlier or even now--that Clinton and her supporters must work through this disappointment to bring real closure. Only then will they, at least most of them, rejoin the Democratic fold. They have to be given time to get over their loss.


Watch for Hillary and Bill Clinton to work their tails off for Obama, allowing no one to say that they didn't do their part. If Obama wins, they will be seen as team players. If he loses, the "I told you so" argument emerges and she is well positioned to run a better campaign in 2012, should she choose to do so.

In a perverse way, Obama's recent knocks have been very important for him, too. Now he can't enter the general election contest unmindful of the resistance that he is encountering from older and downscale white voters. His campaign knows what has to be done and must figure out how to do it. I wonder whether John Kerry would have responded to the Swift Boat charges more effectively during his general election campaign if he'd had to grapple with them during the primary season.

Curious developments are also occurring beyond presidential politics. In the other big election news on Tuesday, the Republican loss in Mississippi's 1st Congressional District after previous losses in former Speaker Dennis Hastert's 14th District of Illinois and Richard Baker's 6th District of Louisiana should signal to GOP leaders that a political Armageddon is a very real possibility.

If the GOP can lose in these districts, it can lose anywhere. Although each loss can be explained away, together they tell us that when a president is extremely unpopular, lots of bad things happen to his party's candidates. The Republicans need to do some deep soul-searching, and contemplate what has gone wrong with their party.


First, just as Ronald Reagan effectively delivered a generation of voters to the GOP, George W. Bush has effectively lost one. Second, Reagan's undiluted conservative formula, which worked so well in the 1980s, is obsolete. Republicans must find a new approach.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Republicans need to start thinking about that.

This article appears in the May 17, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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