Enemy in sight
The New York Times reports that Barack Obama has started to run against John McCain, ignoring Hillary Clinton. This is the classic organizing tactic of taking a position in order to force your rivals to define themselves in relation to you. Obama probably figures that taking the initiative against McCain will unite the party behind him and put both McCain and Hillary in an awkward position. If Hillary attacks Obama while while he sorties against McCain, she risks casting herself as an ideological saboteur and as a traitor to the Democratic Party. On the other hand, if McCain returns the attack against Obama, he will effectively have established the narrative of McCain versus Obama. In other words, Obama will act the nominee and put the burden of knocking him off the perch to others.
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Senator Barack Obama opened the next phase of his presidential campaign here Tuesday evening, seeking to turn his focus away from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and persuade party leaders that time is running out for Democrats to start defining their Republican opponent.
A series of endorsements are scheduled to be announced in the coming days, including superdelegates who intend to pledge their support for Mr. Obama. And more campaign workers in the Chicago headquarters will be dedicated to taking on Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee.
But this tactic may be too clever by a half. Nearly seventy years ago, a British Naval officer commanding a cruiser squadron in the South Atlantic pondered the problem of how to use his three ships -- two lights cruisers and a heavy -- against the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff. The Graf Spee's 11 inch guns had a much greater broadside weight of shell than his three ships put together. A straight shootout between a line of battle composed of the three British ships and the German could only end in disaster for the Royal Navy. Commodore Henry Harwood's solution to the problem was to divide his force into wings and attack on either side of the pocket battleship. This would force Langsdorff to divide his fire, possibly leave one or more British ships unengaged free to land the fatal blow.
Everyone knows what happened next. Hardwood's ship, HMS Exter, was nearly sunk by Graf Spee's shells. But his gambit worked. The great Nazi vessel was damaged to the extent that she had to seek shelter in a neutral port. And in time the Royal Navy bluffed the pocket battleship to self-destruction. Thus ended the Battle of the River Plate, with Harwood marching in honors at the head of his men through London and Langsdorff in a cold, but heroic grave.
The question is why Obama, reprising the role of Hans Langsdorff, should purposely seek to divide his fires between the two political men o' war facing him. Isn't one enemy enough? Maybe he believes the enemy fires will interfere with each other. But this is not necessarily so. McCain can counter with a campaign aimed at his Republican base. After all, as the de facto Republican nominee, McCain is already running against Obama and has wisely refrained from attacking him directly, precisely to avoid acknowledging Obama as his opposite number. Hillary, on the other hand, can simply hammer at Obama's electability, thereby posing as the savior of the Democratic Party from the Obama train wreck.
In other words, Obama can be hit by two different angles of fire from either beam. To assume the fires will cancel each other may be wishful thinking. By leaving Hillary unengaged and focusing on Obama, he runs the risk of not being able to counter the vicious Clinton smear machine, which is certain capable of holing him below the waterline. And like the Admiral Von Graf Spee, Obama may reach the harbor of Denver and yet be unable to sally forth again.
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