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Conventional wisdom '08

Every election season, pieces of conventional wisdom are treated like absolute truths, and a few already deserve some further investigation.
/ Source: National Journal

Every election season, we see articles of conventional wisdom turned into articles of truth. TV talking heads and late-night comics repeat them enough that we forget to check out whether these “truths” are actually so. Already, I’m seeing a few that deserve some further investigation.

A. The drawn-out primary has been/will be disastrous for Democrats and helpful to John McCain.

If you’re a Democrat, you hate the idea that McCain is taking advantage of Democrats’ indecision. He essentially wrapped up the nomination in early March and, until just recently, Democrats have trained their fire at each other instead of at him. But what empirical evidence is there to suggest that he’s benefited from it?

Take a look at Gallup’s daily tracking polls, and you’ll see that McCain has a very narrow “trading range” -- anywhere from 43 percent to 47 percent. No amount of talk about Rev. Jeremiah Wright or white working-class voter “problems” or flag pins has been enough to push McCain ahead of Barack Obama by any significant margin. Nor has it taken a toll on Obama’s standing. If anything, the contest between the two of them seems insulated from the day-to-day back-and-forth. McCain is as well-positioned as he’ll ever be -- which doesn’t bode well for the time when the full brunt of the Democratic machine will be trained on him. If he can’t build a cushion now, can he ever?

B. Disaffected Clinton voters won’t vote for Obama in November.

It is impossible to determine how serious a threat this is before these voters have been offered the stark choices that will confront them in the fall. On every major issue, especially those most important to them like the Iraq war, health care and the economy, McCain and Obama offer dramatically different visions — unlike the Democratic primary, where the differences are more stylistic than substantive.

Lately, I’ve taken to comparing the Democrats' primary decision-making process to being offered two different types of ice cream. Maybe they really like one flavor but aren’t crazy about the other. Fine. But they are both still ice cream. Unless there is some allergy issue involved, can you really be that unhappy with a scoop?

In November, however, these voters will be given the choice of the ice cream they don’t like and, well, broccoli. Now, maybe they’ll still choose the vegetable (I know I need more in my diet, after all). But they will know that one is very different from the other.

C. After three straight special election losses and the prospect of huge losses in November, National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Tom Cole should be ousted.

Besides the fact that no one else in his/her right mind would want this thankless job, the bigger question is not whether Cole should be replaced but whether he’s willing to replace the NRCC playbook. That playbook says that the committee’s first priority is to play defense: Protect incumbents at all costs and then defend your open seats. Offense is a luxury that can only be enjoyed after the ramparts are shored up. But does that model really make sense this year, given the NRCC’s cash troubles and the fact that many of its own seats may be beyond saving?

Cole would be better off telling his members today that the committee’s first job is to do triage. They have to dump races they see as sure losers -- whether it’s an incumbent or a long-held GOP seat -- and focus only on races they can win. If, for example, the numbers look better against a vulnerable Democratic incumbent than they do in a seat held by a Republican, they’d have to go with the challenger.

It seems like an obvious strategy, yet it also means saying no to friends and colleagues. That’s not easy to do in a members-only club. But it may also mean the difference between moderate losses (say, 10 to 15 seats) and big ones (20 or more). Or, if Cole needs a more stark illustration to give his team, think of it as the difference between spending just two more years in the minority versus four years or more.