Contest of the Implausibles

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In an often-hilarious talk at the Beyond Conference in Washington, DC, on July 24, 2008, political observer and noted handicapper Charlie Cook gave the audience an insider’s view of the 2008 campaign for the presidency, complete with personal anecdotes, acerbic observations, and his own picks for vice-presidential candidates. “If the last year were a political novel, we would have put it down after the second or third chapter as politically implausible,” he says of the contest between the 47–year-old freshman senator and the 72–year-old war hero.

Cook cited the call for change of Sen Barack Obama (D-Ill) and the romantic, idealistic aspects of his campaign as the key elements of his success to date. “For 40 years, the Democrats have been looking for an icon—someone who would make them feel good about things,” Cook says.

Obama was also given a rocket boost by President Bush’s low approval rating of 29%, which was the most pessimistic number that the NBC–Wall Street Journal poll has ever registered; this, Cook says, is nonetheless typical of an eight-year occupant of the White House. “Take all this together, and it was like nitroglycerin that propelled him past all other Democratic candidates,” he notes.

Each party has a core value, Cook notes. “You expect Democrats to be compassionate; you expect Republicans to be competent. One by one, each Republican auditioned and flopped, and what remained was a vacuum. Politics avoids a vacuum, and when you have a vacuum that long, even a dead man come back.”

Cautioning the audience not to discount Sen John McCain (R-Ariz), who possesses considerable fortitude and a formidable gene pool, Cook shares an anecdote about Roberta McCain, McCain’s 96–year-old mother, and her identical twin Rowena, who, when spurned as too old to drive by a car-rental agency in Australia, purchased a car instead and proceeded to tour the country.

Ultimately, Cook views the race between McCain and Obama as something bigger than both candidates. “I don’t think this is a choice between two men,” he says. “The polls are showing a clear preference for change.”

The Hurdles, the Odds, and the VPs

While polls in July still showed Obama with a clear lead in the popular vote and strong support among African American voters (92%), Hispanic voters (62% to 63%), and white voters under 50, Cook identifies Obama’s significant hurdle in winning over a demographic that has, to date, held back its support: voters over the age of 50.

“People over 50 tend to be less agreeable to change,” he says. “For people over 50, race is probably more of an issue. When working-class heartland voters over 50 look at Obama’s biographical information, they don’t see much they can relate to. Can they get comfortable enough with him?” If Obama can cross that threshold, he will occupy the White House, Cook predicts. “McCain wins the race if Obama can’t cross that threshold,” he says.

In order to win the presidential race, Obama needs 269 electoral votes, including those from all 19 states that went for John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000; all three that went for Kerry or Gore (Iowa, Mexico, and New Hampshire); and one more, such as Colorado or Nevada.

At the time of Cook’s talk, both parties’ vice-presidential picks were unknown. Cook has his own suggestions for the candidates. “My dad turned 90, and he says, at his age, he doesn’t buy green bananas,” Cook notes. “McCain needs to get somebody who is ready to be president at noon, January 1, 2009. I’d pick Rob Portman.” Portman is the former director of the Office of Management and Budget. McCain chose Alaska’s governor, Republican Sarah Palin.

“If I were Obama, I’d want to heavy up on experience,” Cook continues, specifically in defense. Cook identifies Sen Evan Bayh (D-Ind), Sen Chuck Hagel (D-Neb), Sen Richard Lugar (R-Ind) (a Republican who is opposed to the Iraq war), and Sen Jack Reed (D-RI). He dismissed Obama’s ultimate choice, Sen Joseph Biden (D-Del) with a now familiar criticism: “He talks too much and too long.”

In conclusion, Cook cites the competing concerns of Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending, with health care trumping all among voters. “I’m not sure we can continue to kick the can down the sidewalk,” he says. “We’ve got to confront. We’ve got to do something about health care in this country.”

Calling on the leadership in the audience, Cook urged the attendees to get involved at the national level, saying, “You people have to engage in the process,