The Ideal Opponent

We are, at long last, nearing the time when the two parties will be choosing their nominees, and more than one candidate is thinking about whom they'd most like to face in the general election. Fortunately for us political junkies, the races on both sides present a fascinating cast of characters, full of strengths and weaknesses. While some carry more of one than the other, there are no obvious losers among each party's leading contenders, none whose supporters seem destined to say, "How on earth did we nominate that joker?" (Although you never know what next fall may bring.)

As I described in two earlier columns, successful presidential candidates weave compelling narratives around their candidacies. The most successful incorporate their opponents into those narrative as villains or goats, so that their stories paint the candidates as two sides of a finely etched coin, one strong and secure, inspiring and reassuring, the other twisted and ugly -- frightening or pathetic or both.

So who are our potential presidents crossing their fingers for, wishing to incorporate into their campaign narratives? Let's run down the list, starting with the Republicans:

Giuliani: Rudy Giuliani entered the primaries with one big problem: his moderate positions on a few issues, particularly abortion, gay rights, and gun control. Besides working overtime to muddy the waters on those particular issues (these days he sounds awfully anti-abortion, anti-gay, and pro-gun), Giuliani has labored with no small measure of success to make the agenda all terrorism, all the time. His message has been that "The Terrorists' War On Us" is being waged all around us, and if you want to avoid getting your head lopped off, or at best find yourself living in an outpost of the worldwide Islamic caliphate, you'd better hand over the keys to the White House and not ask too many questions about whom Rudy has to brutalize to keep our country free (or at least in a state of freeishness, which is when you talk a lot about how much you value freedom while simultaneously working every day to make your country less free).

Therefore, the candidate best suited for Guiliani to contrast in his campaign for commander in chief of the war of civilizations is Barack Obama. After all, Obama is a Muslim with suspiciously dark skin, educated in a fundamentalist madrassah in Indonesia and quite possibly sent here to acquire the presidency, then turn our country over to Osama bin Laden.

What's that you say? Obama isn't a Muslim? He wasn't educated in a madrassah? Well, true or not, that's what people have heard and will continue to hear. And just as George W. Bush never explicitly endorsed the lies exuded like a slug's slime trail by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against John Kerry, Giuliani won't actually come out and say those things about Obama. But he'll make sure the message gets across.

Romney: Mitt Romney's biggest problem is the purity of his phoniness, an encompassing artificiality that hovers over everything he says and does. The villain from Terminator II or the X-Men's Mystique is able to assume someone's outward appearance upon coming in contact with them; Romney just as quickly takes on their most deeply held beliefs as his own. Yet his unflagging commitment to pandering to whatever issue happens to rouse the ire of his audience is paired with what seems his truer person, the technocratic businessman committed to obtaining and evaluating relevant data before pursuing appropriate action.

So in an opponent, Romney needs someone he can portray as both less competent and even more phony than he is. History has demonstrated that "I know you are but what am I" can be a devastatingly effective political argument, one that Romney will need to employ.

For these reasons, the candidate Romney most wishes to face is John Edwards, not because Edwards actually is a phony, but because the political press has decided unequivocally that he is. Few things inspire their scorn more than a politician evincing a genuine caring for the less fortunate, and so Edwards' attention to poverty was followed inevitably by claims that he is a "hypocrite" for being rich himself, as though what he was actually arguing was that everyone should be poor. Many months ago, reporters decided that Edwards' big house is unseemly, while Romney's three big houses aren't worth mentioning (unless, as here, they write an admiring story about the political benefits of Romney's 11-acre compound in New Hampshire). They didn't bother to ask what Romney spends on his haircuts.

Huckabee: A few weeks ago, Mike Huckabee wouldn't have been on this list, but his increasing strength in Iowa, the possibility that evangelical Republicans may be coalescing around his candidacy, and the coughing and sputtering of the Thompson and McCain campaigns mean that Huckabee now has a real shot at winning the GOP nomination. He has certainly become the media favorite, something that while extremely valuable is no guarantee of success (as non-presidents Babbit, Tsongas, and McCain could attest).

An ordained Baptist minister, Huckabee is currently selling himself as the most Christian of all the candidates, full of piety and compassion, a conservative by inclination but happy to reach across the aisle. So the contrast he'd like to draw is with the candidate believed to be not only insufficiently devoted to the Guy Upstairs, but the most harsh and partisan. That would be Hillary Clinton, not because she actually is those things -- in fact, she's the most personally religious and politically moderate of the Democratic candidates -- but because the caricature drawn of her over the years suggests that she is. (Despite her lifelong faith and steady attendance at Bible study, voters perceive Clinton to be the least religious of the major candidates.)

And now, on to the Democrats:

Clinton: What about the candidate against whom every Republican is already running? Their focus on Hillary Clinton is less because they assume she'll be the Democratic nominee than because nothing mixes up the stew of misogyny, resentment, and plain old hate coursing through the GOP base the way a mention of the woman that a McCain supporter called "The Bitch" does.

Clinton's best bet is not to avoid this hate -- she couldn't if she tried -- but to embrace it and use it to her advantage. She needs to make the mania of the right an issue in and of itself. If played correctly, the snarling visage of her opponents can turn independents and moderate Republicans in her favor, encouraging them to cast a vote against anger and bitterness. In 2002, Garrett Epps wrote in the Prospect, "Bill Clinton did not destroy his enemies; he drove them insane, and they destroyed themselves." The best candidate to push that process along for Hillary Clinton will be the one most likely to encourage the radicals and feed off their anger. That would be the angriest of the Republican candidates: Rudy Giuliani.

In particular, a Giuliani-Clinton race would widen the gender gap even further. Giuliani's simple-mindedness, his sadism (sometimes directed toward women, particularly soon-to-be ex-wives), and his bloodlust in foreign policy are likely to make women voters recoil in horror. Most of all, such a race would be as mean and dirty as they come, and that is a game for which Clinton is well prepared.

Obama: The candidate Barack Obama would most want to oppose is clearly John McCain. Whatever McCain's supposed appeal to independent voters, he is everything Obama is not. Obama's central argument is that he alone can deliver the country from the poisonously divisive culture war of the 1960s; the centerpiece of McCain's story, the fact from which all of his biography and candidacy flow, is that he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Obama could drain the inspiring story of McCain's courage as a young man of all its electoral power, to the point where any time McCain mentioned it, voters would roll their eyes and say, "Enough with Vietnam, let's move on." Obama is young, McCain is old (he'll be 72 on inauguration day, 25 years older than Obama), Obama is fresh, McCain is stale, Obama is the future, McCain is the past. A contest with McCain could be a referendum on whether we put the 1960s behind us or not, one Obama would be bound to win.

Edwards: While John Edwards is the candidate Mitt Romney probably most wants to face, the reverse is also true: Romney is the Republican against whom Edwards could most seamlessly transfer the message he has been offering thus far. It would be hard to find a more obvious representative of the elite half of the Two Americas than Mitt Romney, after all. Son of a wealthy industrialist and Michigan governor, with wealth estimated near a quarter of a billion dollars, in his new more-Republican-than-thou stance, Romney has pledged allegiance to the entirety of the GOP economic agenda, including tax cuts for the wealthy, no meaningful health-care reform, and all the other positions and perspectives that make it so clear that Republicans are the party of the elite. And Edwards' greatest strengths -- storytelling and connecting with voters on an individual, emotional level -- are things at which Romney does not excel.

Of course, candidates don't get to choose their opponents. But a little over two months from now, both parties' nominees will be determined. What happens in the general election will be in large part a function of which nominee got his or her wish.

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