Change You Can Be Skeptical Of

It occurs to me: you know what the Obama campaign needs to do?

Back in 2004, Mickey Kaus called attention to a group called “Kerry haters for Kerry” – not only because he was one of these, but because it expressed an essential truth about the Kerry campaign’s appeal, to whit: nobody actually likes our candidate, but we’ve looked past our dislike and realized that we have to vote for him anyway, because the alternative is voting for George Bush and Dick Cheney again.

That wasn’t enough, of course, but it got Kerry a whole lot closer to victory than one would have thought given what a lackluster candidate he was.

Obama has, for some time, been running on a much more positive message, a message of “hope” and “change.” He inspired enough people to win a Democratic primary against a candidate widely considered inevitable before the campaign began, and he anticipated a similar contest in the general election – a war of the future against the past, of change against the status quo, of energy against experience.

But now, things are different. The McCain campaign has managed to amp up their side’s enthusiasm. The Obama campaign’s attempt to win by tying McCain to Bush has largely failed, and he’s taken friendly fire from the media’s efforts to discredit McCain’s VP pick. (And let me just say, as one of those who was enthusiastic about the pick when he made it: it’s worked out great politically so far, but I am very disappointed nonetheless, mostly because the way the McCain campaign has used her reflects very badly on them, in my opinion.) Now Obama’s in a tussle over who has the “right” change.

Obama already has the votes of everyone he is going to inspire in this campaign; for the voters that remain, the magic hasn’t worked yet. He needs to win over people who are never going to drink the Kool-Aid.

The time has come for Obama-skeptics-for-Obama.

Because skepticism works for the Democrats this season. If undecided voters are skeptical of the claims of both campaigns – if they don’t think either one can change Washington, if they don’t think either candidate is above politics as usual, if they don’t think either candidate has the kind of resume that predicts an effective executive, if they don’t think either candidate can achieve energy independence or “win” the war in Iraq or lower their taxes or increase their wages – then I suspect they will break for the Democrat if for no other reason than to give the other team a shot, and they may break more strongly if the Democrats are right about how strong an issues advantage they have.

And skepticism works against the strongest anti-Obama story lines. Your neighbor says he’s a black radical out for revenge against whitey. Really? Your colleague says he’s massively corrupt. Really? Your mother-in-law says he’s a secret Muslim with ties to terrorists. Really?

Meanwhile your brother supports McCain because he always puts country before political expediency. Really? If you are comprehensively skeptical of the campaign’s positive campaigns, that also works for Obama, as McCain’s campaign depends almost entirely on people’s positive assessments of him as a man and a leader, much more so than the Obama campaign.

Finally, one of the many legitimate worries people have about Obama is that he might believe all his hope hype, that he’s naive and trusting and will wind up getting rolled by foreign enemies and domestic interests. Sounding a note of skepticism would reassure some people that he’s got at least a somewhat realistic view of how the world actually works.

A generic Democrat beats a generic Republican this season. Voting McCain/Palin is an act of faith that their ticket represents a profound break with the last eight years. If Obama can convince people to believe in him and be skeptical of McCain, then obviously he wins. But he probably wins if people are skeptical of both. Which means he should be selling a side of skepticism along with his main course of hope.