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'64/'68 & '04/'08

By David

Can he win?

With the trauma of the primary drawing to a close, that is the question Democratic activists are asking themselves as Hillary Clinton sows doubts that Barack Obama can actually rally a plurality of the electorate to his side.

It’s a valid question. Barack Obama is a singular, incandescent politician, the likes of which has not walked across the public stage in years.

But he is not without serious, serious flaws as a candidate. He would be one of the least experienced men ever to sit in the Oval Office. He comes out of the ward-heel Chicago political tradition. If he wins, he will send American men and women overseas while pointedly not wearing in American flag.

And with a middle name of Hussein, an international upbringing and law professor pedigree, he doubtless strikes any voters as strange, if not downright Manchurian. Does he even own a dog?

Recent polls suggest that a growing number of Democratic primary voters won’t vote for Obama because he’s black, but race may turn out to be the least of Obama’s problems with Main Street.

(continued) Just four years ago, a senator with a long and distinguished Senate career, who wrapped up the nomination early, and who looked North Vietnamese soldiers in the face and shot them dead was painted as too weak and ineffectual to keep the terrorists at bay.

Even in a year where his opponent has his own problems — age, issues with base, a deeply unpopular war, if Obama were to win it would mean that this country is a vastly different place than it was four years ago.

Such electoral sea changes are not unprecedented. As Rick Perlstein pointed out in Nixonland, in 1964 LBJ’s promises of a “Great Society” garnered over 61 percent of the vote. Four years later, Richard Nixon and George Wallace combined for almost 57 percent of the vote.

If Obama hopes to eke out a win against McCain, he has to hope for similar shift in the American landscape, one where ads of lurking wolves and menacing serial rapists don’t move the needle much.

That could be the case. The electorate is growing steadily younger, and the nation more urban. Terrorism is receding as a worry. Most voters have grown up with the idea that “diversity,” is a public good for it’s own sake.

The conventional wisdom has always been that for Democrats to win, they must be “Bubbas,” comfortable at hog rallies and bowling alleys, and be unashamedly Middle American. Obama, with his nuanced answers and graceful glamour, is not.

Between 1964 and 1968, the bulk of the electorate grew disenchanted with civil rights gains and with the stridency of anti-war demonstrations, and the New Deal consensus collapsed. It is impossible to imagine, even with remarkable gifts, a 2008 version of Barack Obama seriously challenging for the presidency in 2004.

If the distance between '04 and '08 is four years, Obama is likely finished. If it’s '64-'68 style chasm, he’s got a shot.

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