Continuing our back and forth over whether Operation Flip-Flop has damaged Barack Obama, Jon cites a riff from a GOP strategist suggesting it has. He then concludes, as he has before, that "if it sticks, the flip-flopper image can be used to undermine Obama's credibility and leech over into other areas. This GOP strategist certainly sees this as the goal."
Many of our commenters agree with him. And to some extent I do, too. But this ultimately misses the point. The question isn't whether the GOP is damaging Obama with its flip-flopper attack. (It is, at least on its own terms.) The question is whether the attack is potentially damaging enough to defeat him in a year when Democrats have enormous structural advantages. I just don't see it.
Worse, I think there is a line of attack that could potentially destroy Obama--that he isn't "one of us." So the flip-flopper strategy has a real opportunity cost. Yes, the opinion-industrial complex has spent a lot of time these last few weeks talking about Obama's alleged flip-flops. But I'd rather have them doing that than endlessly chewing over insinuations that he's some un-American-Muslim-radical-aggrieved-race-man.
At the risk of annoying readers who detest sports analogies, let me offer the following: Obama's position is comparable to that of a basketball team up 20 points with three or four minutes left in the game. The opposing team (the GOP) basically has to hit a lot of threes in order to have a shot of winning. If the Obama team aggressively defends the perimeter, denying them open threes, and uses some clock on offense (all in all, the equivalent of edging to the center politically), the GOP can chip away at the lead (i.e., do some damage) by hitting uncontested twos, but they probably can't win.
In a close game, you'd never want to give up a series of easy twos. But, when you're up big, the only thing that really gives you heartburn is that barrage of threes.
For whatever reason, the GOP has decided to take the twos the defense is giving it rather than the threes it needs to win. That'll make the final score closer, but it won't change the outcome.
Update: Please don't overinterpret the basketball analogy. I'm not saying we're in the final phase of the campaign and Obama is up 20 points. (That's demonstrably not the case.) The point is simply that when one team is in a very strong position, there are certain things its opponent can do to damage but not defeat it, and certain things its opponent can do to damage and potentially defeat it. Right now the GOP is doing the former rather than the latter, in my opinion.
For all the traction McCain may be getting with the flip-flopping charge, Obama is still the nominee of a party with a 15-point generic edge--an opposition party at a time when 80 percent of the country thinks we're on the wrong track. That's a huge structural advantage. I don't think Jon Chait, who disagrees with the rest of my point, would dispute this.
Anyway, apologies for the imprecision here. I realize the analogy could be interpreted more narrowly because I wasn't careful enough in constructing it.