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What Didn't Kill Barack Made Him Stronger

There is no question that Barack Obama is a stronger leader now than he was six months ago. I made that point a few days ago here:

Politics is dirty business, and much of the teeth gnashing over in-fighting between Clinton and Obama camps is just inexperience talking on the part of the large number of Obama supporters who are now engaged in a process that is new to them. They've never experienced this kind of rallying push before, and they've never believed in a candidate as much as they believe in Barack Obama, and they are understandably distressed at the ugliness of the battle it takes to win on the road to the White House.

To those people I say welcome to politics. I'm a firm believer in the axiom -- and this is especially true in politics -- that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Both Clinton and Obama stand taller than ever before. They stand as the best candidates from a very impressive field of Democratic hopefuls, and they both stand proud of their success with huge legions of supporters behind them who are equally proud. They've fought the good fight, and emerged on top.

Now, in an column titled "The Upside of Being Knocked Around," NY Times writer Mark Leibovich present evidence to support this thesis.

So, now that it might finally be over (or maybe close to it, possibly, perhaps), does Senator Barack Obama come out a bloody mess, or a battle-tested warrior?

In recent weeks, a wiseguy consensus seems to have settled on the former: the idea that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has so weakened Mr. Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination -- so diminished him, distracted him, exhausted him -- that he could be a grievously damaged nominee.

The wiseguys invoke the Republican race of 1976 and Democratic contest of 1980 as examples of what happens when candidates -- Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, respectively -- get battered in primaries, emerging damaged in the summer and losers in the fall. They mention surveys showing almost 50 percent of Clinton supporters in Indiana telling exit pollsters that they would sooner vote for Senator John McCain or stay home than vote for Mr. Obama. They suggest that by staying in the race, Mrs. Clinton is playing a spoiler's role.

But there is a competing view that says that Mrs. Clinton, rather than being a spoiler, has in fact been an unwitting mentor to Mr. Obama, a teaching adversary who made him better. Could competing against Mrs. Clinton have improved Mr. Obama as a candidate in the same way that competing against Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s made Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan champions in the 1990s?

One of the side effects of a rigorous nomination process, and this one is a classic, stellar example of this, is that people who don't normally get involved in politics find their voice, and become more aware and more involved. The long, drawn out nomination process that is still being played out in West Virginia, Guam, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Kentucky has invigorated and electrified the citizenry of the 43 states that have held Democratic primaries and caucuses.

For the first time in a very long time their votes have counted. It even woke up conservative Wizbang blogger Lorie Byrd, who lives in North Carolina:

What an amazing election season this has turned out to be. [...]

For the first time in my adult life, North Carolina matters in a presidential primary. We've gotten visits from the candidates and their spouses and their kids, we got an incredible amount of media attention last week over the NC GOP ad featuring Jeremiah Wright, and now it looks like we might even get to see a pretty decent contest here to boot. Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina next Tuesday.

The Times' Leibovich outlines 5 reasons why Obama is a stronger, better candidate now as a result of this rigorous campaign {see the article for detailed arguments, space prohibits including the full text of each of his points):

1. She Made Him A Giant Killer.

No matter what happens in the fall, if Mr. Obama goes on to win the nomination, he will be remembered as the candidate who beat the Clintons.

"He is stronger for having beaten the champion," says Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist and former aide to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "Period, case closed." Clinton-slaying brings with it a level of stature and prestige that, say, John Edwards-slaying or Joe Biden-slaying never could.

Yes - he's now been tested and proven able to go the distance and succeed.

2. She Made Him Angry.

Mr. Obama's relentless hope-hope-hope campaign put him in danger of being seen as soft, a 2008 version of the "wimp factor" that haunted George H. W. Bush 20 years ago (before Mr. Bush, then vice president, embarked on one of the most aggressive, some say dirty, presidential campaigns in recent memory). The term "Obambi" entered the lexicon late last year, but has barely been heard of late.

Indeed, a candidate gains a certain political street credibility by being in a fight. Aides to the current President Bush when he was governor of Texas said he was greatly enhanced by the challenge posed by Mr. McCain in 2000.

"One of Bush's liabilities coming in was that he was seen as a silver spooner who had lived a charmed political life," said Dan Bartlett, a top aide to Mr. Bush in Texas and in the White House. Overcoming Mr. McCain, Mr. Bartlett said, was a show of toughness. "He took a punch and got up off the mat," Mr. Bartlett said of Mr. Bush. "You could argue the same about Obama now."

At times, face with adversity, Barack had a deer in the headlights stance that caused me concern. He's gained a lot of confidence as a result of surviving this process.

3. She Led Him to the Working Class.

If Mr. Obama goes on to win the nomination, one of the signature challenges of his general election campaign will be his ability to win over the traditional Democratic blue-collar voters that have flocked to Mrs. Clinton in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. In a sense, Mrs. Clinton's success with this constituency exposed his vulnerability with it -- a vulnerability he might not have known existed to such an extent had Mrs. Clinton dropped out early and Mr. Obama breezed to the nomination.

He knows what he's up against and he's learning how to win them over. His strong showing in North Carolina and Indiana shows that he knows how to win these voters over. He did it there largely with his opposition to Clinton and McCain gas tax holiday. He'll have an even easier road against a pandering McCain.

4. The Wright Fight.

While this doesn't involve Mrs. Clinton directly, the long primary battle allowed the emergence, and re-emergence, of Mr. Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., to take place now, rather than later. It's generally assumed that Mr. Wright would have been an issue at some point, so better for Mr. Obama now than October.

"It's entirely likely that we'll hear from Reverend Wright again," said Dan Payne, a Democratic media consultant. "But from now on, the Obama people will be able to play it as old news."

Obama's first instinct in response to Wright was to give a speech, and he chose Philadelphia and delivered a nice speech on race -- and many of his supporters loved it -- no surprise there. I was wholly unimpressed as were many of my fellow Democrats. But when Wright reared his ugliness again six weeks later Obama did the right thing and threw that racist, theological luddite under the bus for good.

5. She Helped Define Him.

Consider Mr. Dukakis and John Kerry, both serious and sober sons of Massachusetts who enjoyed relatively easy primary races before getting beaten in their respective general elections in 1988 and 2004 by their respective George Bushes. Both could have benefited greatly from tougher early tests. "Tough primaries can give you antibodies," Mr. Rogers said.

Bill Carrick, who ran the 1988 Democratic presidential campaign of Representative Richard Gephardt, recalled that Mr. Dukakis had been pilloried for claiming that the election would be more about competence than ideology. "It was a weak message," Mr. Carrick said. "And he could have honed it into something much more meaningful if he had been challenged more in the primaries."

Likewise, Mr. Kerry emerged relatively unscathed from his nomination fight, but also largely undefined. "That gave Bush an opening to fill in the blanks," said Stephanie Cutter, a top communications aide to Mr. Kerry's campaign. Mr. Bush did just this that spring, Ms. Cutter recalls, by running ads ridiculing Mr. Kerry for his line about supporting a funding provision for Iraq before opposing it. The Kerry campaign had no money to respond, and by the time it did, the damage was done.

By contrast, Mr. Obama is now a better prepared and better defined candidate, and no doubt a stronger one, than he would have been without his rival. He went through 21 debates against a tough opponent, Mrs. Clinton, and improved steadily (with an exception in Philadelphia last month). He has made mistakes, but nothing fatal, and nothing he can't learn from.

I've sensed a hesitancy on the part of Obama to confront and attack on the issues in his past Democratic debate performance that I suspect will be lessened as he faces the true opposition, John McCain. The differences between them are enormous, and I have every confidence that Obama will be able to vocalize the differences.

Overall, there is no question that the Barack Obama who stands before the nation today is a stronger candidate than he was before as a direct result of the long process he's faced in getting to the position he's now in.

And as the Democratic party begins to pull together and row the same boat I predict Obama will quickly lengthen his lead over John McCain in the public opinion poll. Barring any large surprises, it'll be smooth sailing to victory in November.

Note: Wizbang Blue is now closed and our authors have moved on. Paul Hooson can now be found at Wizbang Pop!. Please come see him there!

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Editors: Lee Ward, Larkin, Paul S Hooson, and Steve Crickmore

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