THE TRIUMPH OF NARRATIVE?

As observant Prospect/TAPPED readers know, I've written a lot about the importance of narrative in presidential campaigns, and I can't help but see Barack Obama's win in Iowa as evidence of the key role storytelling plays. It has been clear for a long time that Obama had the most carefully constructed and coherent story to his campaign. To put it simply, if you cast a vote for Obama, you know what that vote says about your beliefs about the country, your beliefs about him, and your beliefs about yourself. With the possible exception of Edwards, none of the candidates on either side has a story nearly as clear.

And this may be Hillary Clinton's key problem -- the problem she had in Iowa, and the problem she'll have moving forward. Just what is a vote for her supposed to mean? What kind of a proclamation am I making if I vote for her? For all the Clinton campaign's skill and experience, they never answered this fundamental question.

And now it appears that John McCain could well end up being the Republican nominee (and we should note that Tom Schaller predicted this a full month ago, when most people weren't even considering the idea). As I argued not long ago, despite McCain's alleged strength with independents, he is actually the candidate who offers the best contrast with Obama. Obama is young while McCain is old, Obama is the post-boomer candidate while McCain's career is built on his service in Vietnam (read: the Sixties, divisiveness, etc.), Obama is the future while McCain is the past, and so on. But McCain also has a narrative problem. When he ran in 2000, he had a story to tell: Washington was corrupt, and only he -- the "maverick" war hero -- had the independence, integrity, and courage to clean it up. But McCain doesn't tell that story any more, because in his attempt in 2006 to become the establishment candidate, he knelt down to lick the boots of those very lobbyists and special interests he had claimed to oppose before. Right now, the argument for McCain is essentially that Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are each unappealing to a lot of Republicans. But in a general election, he would have to come up with a story that explains what his candidacy means. Obama already has his story, but it's hard to see what McCain's is.

-- Paul Waldman

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