The Case for Overconfidence

As we watch the Republican primary come down to a contest between (to caricature for a moment) a fight between the flip-flopping, wooden, private equity gazillionaire and the repellent, philandering, pompous influence-peddler, Democrats can't quite figure out who they want to win this race. On one hand, the path to Barack Obama beating Mitt Romney is absolutely clear: he's the candidate of the 1 percent whose lust for power will lead him to say anything to anyone. On the other hand, it's harder to tell what an anti-Newt Gingrich campaign would be like, since there are so many awful things about him to attack. But this makes me wonder: Is this how Republicans felt four years ago?

As you'll recall, the 2008 Democratic primaries were pretty hard-fought. And I'm guessing that at least some Republicans looked on and said to themselves, we can't believe our luck. Either we'll face Hillary Clinton, whom we know everyone hates, or we'll face this neophyte black guy from Chicago whose middle name is Hussein, for cripe's sake. How can we lose? Granted, by this time in 2008 it was already plain that Barack Obama was a pretty special political talent. But could Democrats be similarly overconfident?

I'm going to say no. It's true that if the economy takes a downturn, it's going to be all but impossible for Obama to get re-elected, no matter who he's running against. But I'd also point to something else: maybe my memory is faulty, but as I recall it, the 2008 Democratic debate was much, much closer to where the public as a whole was. Obama and Clinton were arguing mostly about who was better equipped to deliver change, and the American people did indeed want change. Even before the economy collapsed, they were tired of the Iraq war, tired of the ever-worsening health insurance crisis, and tired as hell of George W. Bush. They didn't just want things to get better, they wanted something different, and so Obama, who promised something extremely different, was very appealing.

But today, it seems that most Americans aren't looking for some kind of wholesale policy shift, they just want things to get better. Obama's personal approval remains high, despite people's dissatisfaction with economic conditions in the country. They like the guy and they want him to succeed. They aren't itching to reinstate "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," or outlaw abortion, or cut taxes for the wealthy, or start a war with Iran. But Republicans do want those things, and that means that the debate in their primary drifts further and further away from the rest of the country.

It's always possible that this primary will strengthen the eventual nominee in the same way Obama was strengthened by his contest with Clinton. But it's more likely that an already unlikeable guy will come out of it even more unlikeable than he was before.

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