Presidential campaigns are fraught with challenges and obstacles. One of the biggest is how, in a national race in the cable television age, can a candidate define himself and his opponent in a way that highlights differences without alienating too many voters.
Every word uttered by either Sen. Barack Obama, or Sen. John McCain, will be dissected, analyzed, and interpreted by the chattering class for the 24 hours (or longer) following the comment.
It isn't just the things they say, either. Anyone who works for the campaign, whether paid or volunteer, is also subject to this intense examination. Similarly, anyone who even has a fleeting or tangential connection to either candidate is also included in the universe of the 24-hour news cycle.
Recent events illustrate this point more effectively than anything I could ever write.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the lead pastor of Senator Obama's former church, is a firebrand preacher who employed confrontational rhetoric from the pulpit to energize a lethargic congregation. The church itself has a reputation for community activism, no doubt inspired by Pastor Wright's inspiring, but controversial, exhortations.
In addition to his Sunday sermons, the Reverend Wright traveled the country providing his messages to urban church groups and civic gatherings. As an urban preacher, his rhetorical skills are unmatched. As a big-vision community builder, maybe not so much!
Senator Obama was faced with a series of speeches the Reverend Wright gave many years ago on speaking tours highlighting the challenges faced by African-Americans in rundown urban centers, involving drugs, lack of community investment, and a lack of basic human values and self-esteem among teenagers in those communities.
Pastor Wright's words were intended to rally people in these communities to action, and sometimes involved making clear that the enemy comes from outside a neighborhood. Each speech was carefully scrutinized, particularly by conservative talk radio hosts.
Senator Obama has several other surrogates and campaign designees, some who function by direction and others who hip-shoot all on their own. Senator McCain does too, although the GOP candidate seems to hold a tighter rope on his teammates.
An occasional loose lip risks McCain's ship, as evidenced by comments from a Southern Baptist preacher who announced his support of the Republican senator's candidacy in spite of his well-publicized disrespect for anyone of the Roman Catholic faith.
Swift Boat Veterans' for Truth, the bane of Sen. John Kerry's failed 2004 presidential bid, are also supporting Senator McCain. These guys are either major vote-getters or electoral Kryptonite, depending on your personal view. John McCain will have trouble controlling them, either way.
Even Senator McCain himself isn't off-the-rhetorical hook. At a speaking engagement last winter, attempting to make a point about the long-term nature of our force commitment to building Iraq's fragile democracy, he suggested we should embrace the need to sustain their efforts "even if it takes 100 years."
He did not say we should definitely keep U.S. combat troops in Iraq for 100 years, yet every single Democratic pundit has altered McCain's own words to become a bumper-sticker definition. It's what happens in politics today.
Senator Obama's wife Michelle once commented that she was never as proud of country as she was in her husband's candidacy, inferring that she had been ashamed of her nation prior to that. That set the Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage's of the radio world into high-gear, bemoaning the idea that we would have a First Lady who was ashamed of her own country. That clearly wasn't her point; even the strictest partisan would have to acknowledge that.
The title of this piece refers to Barack Obama's dilemma, and that doesn't really apply to either the Reverend Wright, or even Mrs. Obama. The dilemma refers to retired Army general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark.
General Clark served an apparently distinguished career as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, serving in combat operations in Vietnam, a base commander, and the officer in charge of the eastern European theater operations during the early 90's.
Questions surround his forced retirement as the Supreme Allied Commander of the European theater. General Clark’s advocates claim his retirement was a natural consequence of the rotation of 4-star generals. People, who may not care for his post-service political commentary, see more behind the story.
General Clark had developed a reputation for engaging in foot-in-mouth disease while serving in sensitive positions, even receiving a warning from senior Army General Hugh Shelton that Department of Defense Secretary William Cohen wanted General Clark to "get his [expletive deleted] face off of the television."
Keep that admonition in mind as you read on.
Recently, General Clark, acting as a campaign surrogate for Senator Obama, went on national television to make the case that John McCain's war record alone does not qualify him to be our next president. The way he did that is stunning in its lack of eloquence and sensitivity.
General Clark suggested that being a fighter pilot who drops laser-guided bombs and being shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese is not indicative of the skills, vision, and leadership needed by our next president. Implicit in that logic is the idea that being locked in the Hanoi Hilton, that being beaten and tortured is lower on the value judgment scale than being a four-star general who orders those same fighter pilots into action.
The problem with Clark's statement (and apparent value system) is so obvious that even a child can diagnose it. Senator Obama himself never served his country in the U.S. military, not even as a grunt, a swabby, or a ground-pounder. He didn't fly a fighter; he didn't command a single U.S. soldier. If General Clark were running, then his stupid and dangerously misguided view of the value of service might carry some water. In this case, the logic vessel is full of holes.
Senator Obama is a bright, passionate, and eloquent spokesman for his party and his ideology. As long as he has surrogates like Wesley Clark out there speaking for him, the electoral gap will narrow to the point that Senator McCain has a real chance to win the presidency.
That might be the most telling evidence of Mr. Obama's dilemma. In this political season, with the Iraq War facing serious challenges, with the Taliban rebuilding in Afghanistan, with the economy in the toilet, and consumer confidence battered by $4 per gallon gas, any Republican candidate ought to be so far behind that only a miracle or major scandal could close the gap.
Every poorly worded surrogate comment narrows the gap, and for that, Republicans ought to celebrating Barack Obama's dilemma!