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Obama's Flaws Multiply


April 15, 2008

Barack Obama's San Francisco-Democrat comment last week – about how alienated working-class voters "cling to guns or religion" – is already famous. But the fact that his aides tell reporters he is privately bewildered that anybody took offense is even more remarkable.

Democrats have been worrying about defending Mr. Obama's highly liberal voting record in a general election. Now they need to fret that he makes too many mistakes, from ignoring the Rev. Wright time bomb until the videotapes blew up in front of him, to his careless condescension towards salt-of-the-earth Democrats. Mr. Obama has a tendency to make such cultural miscues. Speaking to small-town voters in Iowa last year, he asked, "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?"

Mr. Obama is the closest thing to a rookie candidate on the national stage since Dwight Eisenhower, who was a beloved war leader. Candidates as green as Mr. Obama make first-timer mistakes under the searing scrutiny of a national campaign. Even seasoned pols don't understand how unforgiving that scrutiny can be. Ask John Kerry, who had won five statewide elections before running for president.

For all his winning ways and natural appeal to the camera, Mr. Obama hasn't really been tested in a major campaign. In 2000, then-state Sen. Obama challenged Congressman Bobby Rush, who was vulnerable after having been crushed in a bid to become mayor of Chicago. Mr. Rush, a former Black Panther, painted Mr. Obama as "inauthentic" and beat him 2-1.

In 2004, when Mr. Obama ran for the U.S. Senate, he had the good luck of watching both Blair Hull, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and Jack Ryan, the GOP nominee, self-destruct in sex scandals. Mr. Obama's eventual Republican opponent, Alan Keyes, was an unserious candidate who won the votes of only 56% of Republican voters.

Mr. Obama has prospered in Democratic primaries. But as John Harris and Jim VandeHei note in Politico.com, that's in part because these primaries have "been an exercise in self-censorship" about Mr. Obama's weaknesses. It is "indisputably true," they write, that "Obama is on the brink of the Democratic nomination without having had to confront head-on the evidence about his general election challenges."

There are many. His statements that he wants to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, combined with his lack of foreign policy experience, could hurt him. And his aides are hard pressed to come up with any deviations in a voting record the nonpartisan National Journal calls the most liberal of any U.S. Senator.

As a state legislator he was even more off-center. In 1996, he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Senate approved 85-14 and President Clinton signed into law. He twice voted "present" on a bill to ban partial-birth abortions. In 1999, he was the only state senator to oppose a law that prohibited early prison release for sex offenders.

Mr. Obama also backed a total ban on handguns, a move his campaign now says was the result of a rogue aide filling out a questionnaire. But Mr. Obama's own handwritten notes were found on the questionnaire, calling into question the campaign's version of what happened.

Everyone knows Mrs. Clinton's electoral vulnerabilities – GOP consultant Mike Murphy jokes that "half of the country thinks she rides a broom." But Mr. Obama has shown weakness with key Democratic constituencies. He's had to fend off concerns about his Middle East policies with Jewish voters; he's also won only a third of Hispanic primary voters.

Then there is trade, where his insincerity is at least as clumsy as Mrs. Clinton's. During the San Francisco episode, Mr. Obama had a throwaway line about how working-class voters fixate on "anti-trade sentiment" in order to vent their frustrations. But isn't it Barack Obama who has been spending months stirring up "anti-trade sentiment?" He has threatened to yank the U.S. out of the North American Free Trade Agreement unless Canada and Mexico renegotiate it. Last week, he denounced the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

According to Canadian diplomats, top Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee admitted to them that they could dismiss his man's anti-Nafta rhetoric. All of this makes Democrats wonder if Mr. Obama is ready for prime time.

But they have themselves to blame for letting him get this far largely unexamined. While Republicans tend to nominate their best-known candidate from previous nomination battles (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and now John McCain), Democrats often fall in love during a first date. They are then surprised when all the relatives don't think he's splendid.

Michael Dukakis had a healthy lead in 1988 against the elder Bush at this time and right through the political conventions. Then came the GOP's dissection of his Massachusetts record and his tank ride. Bill Clinton was able to win with only 43% of the vote in 1992, thanks in part to Ross Perot's presence as a spoiler. John Kerry had a six-point lead in the May 2004 Gallup poll over President Bush, then the wind-surfer crashed. All of those candidates had never run for national office before. Democrats paid a price for running a rookie.

Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager and an undeclared super delegate, is worried. "With the Wright controversy still lingering and now Obama's unartful comments," she told CNN, "it will paint the picture of Obama as being 'out of sync.'"

With 81% of voters telling pollsters the country is on the "wrong track," no one disputes Democrats can win in November. Still, it should be a matter of concern to them that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama currently trail John McCain in general-election matchups. Democrats would be wise to have more debates and sharper exchanges in the remaining primaries. It may help minimize the surprises they are likely to encounter this fall.

Mr. Fund is a columnist for WSJ.com.

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