Barack Obama and John McCain may turn out to be victims of their own success. With Obama success has come, in part, from energizing African-Americans, as we've seen here in Cincinnati at the NAACP convention. For McCain success has come in Iraq. But both could backfire.
Senator Obama entered this campaign as a post-racial candidate. Iowa couldn't provide him a lot of black voters and, for whites, the chance to make history by caucusing for an African-American was balanced by the chance to launch the first female president. Obama won Iowa not because he's black but because he out-organized Hillary, and because Iowans resent the inevitable.
It wasn't until Obama upset Clinton in Iowa that black voters nationwide really gave him a good look. Before then, Hillary was trouncing Obama and the rest of the Democratic field not just among white voters; she was also leading among blacks, who felt loyal to the Clintons and skeptical about a young unknown.
By the time Obama racked up the eleven straight primary and caucus victories in February that effectively clinched the nomination, he was winning more than 90% of the African American vote. Blacks came to believe he could win. They resented the apparent race baiting of Clinton supporters like Bob Kerrey, Andrew Cuomo, Andrew Young, Bob Johnson, Geraldine Ferraro and Bill Clinton. And they pushed back against perceived attacks on black churches after ABC aired the Jeremiah Wright tapes.
No one could blame blacks for evincing pride in Barack Obama. Jews, after all, had supported Joe Lieberman almost monolithically, as had Catholics with Jack Kennedy and, before him, Al Smith. Yet many conservatives and independents doubted a conservative African-American - a Condoleezza Rice or a J.C. Watts -- could have inspired that pride.
And the outpouring of black support appeared to produce a backlash. Hillary Clinton continued winning most of the biggest blue states by explicitly appealing to white blue collar voters, Hispanics, and her core constituency -- older white women. Many of those voters may now support McCain.
However, Senator McCain may be the victim of his own very different success. He defends the Iraq War as just and necessary, and called for a troop surge years before President Bush finally agreed. McCain and an increasing number of Americans see that surge as a spectacular success, both militarily and for Iraq's democracy. In fact, under pressure from Iraqi nationalists as their own elections approach, Prime Minister Maliki now feels secure enough to call for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops.
Senator Obama, who of course opposed the war from the outset, also opposed the surge -- denying that more troops could quell what he called a civil war. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went further, declaring in April 2007 that the war was already lost.
McCain can claim Obama's faulty judgment would have surrendered Iraq to Al Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. And he may be right. Yet Obama may benefit from his own error because - though he first said America must leave Iraq since the war was unwinnable -- Obama can now claim we should leave... since the war is nearly won.