For lifelong, unabashed, but frustrated liberals (like me), Sen. Barack Obama might appear to be as close to a perfect candidate for the presidency as we could imagine. He seems to have it all: a warm and even charismatic personality, great character (despite a minor lapse, involving a real estate deal, that he now calls a "boneheaded mistake"), enormous intelligence and a strongly liberal voting record, including a sustained opposition to the Iraq War. In short, there is every reason to think he would be a fine president.
There's only one problem: He can't get elected, at least not in 2008. It appears increasingly likely that the Republican nominee will be Sen. John McCain. In any case, Obama will have to make that assumption when he decides whether to seek the Democratic nomination. McCain would have three probably insuperable advantages over Obama:
*McCain is a personally attractive conservative, but not an extremist, facing an electorate whose overall ideology is best characterized as moderately conservative. When was the last time an anti-war candidate with a strongly liberal domestic record was elected president of the United States?
*The war on terrorism will not be over by 2008. McCain is a military hero with decades of experience in dealing with national security issues; Obama did not serve in the military and his political experience almost exclusively involves domestic issues.
To be sure, Obama has proven to be right on Iraq, and McCain almost certainly wrong. But that probably will not be decisive. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the Iraq War catastrophe, it is national security rather than the economy, health care, etc., that is likely to be the central issue in the 2008 race, and McCain will have the advantage.
Remember the 1972 presidential election, held while American troops were still fighting the Vietnam War? Despite the fact that something like 70 percent of the electorate were fed up with the war, the anti-war candidate, George McGovern, was overwhelmingly defeated by Richard Nixon, who had been responsible for the war since his election in 1968.
*McCain is white. Despite the enormous progress in this country, racism -- especially closet racism -- has not disappeared, and it will almost surely make itself felt in the ballot box. It won't be a large factor, but it doesn't have to be.
The current Obama mania -- the infatuation and adulation he receives in front of some audiences -- may have gone to Obama's head. Otherwise it wouldn't have occurred to him that a young black liberal could be elected president of the United States in 2008.
Add all these factors up, and Obama faces electoral trouble. There still is what used to be called a "silent majority" in this country -- or, at least, a substantial silent minority -- and they are the ones who will likely decide the election.
In any close election, the swing vote is no more than 5 percent of the total vote, and it is concentrated in key states -- such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Illinois and others -- that often determine the outcome, and which historically have sometimes gone Republican, sometimes Democratic.
Hard-core Democrats will vote for Obama, but they would also vote for just about any Democrat. However, almost surely some conservative Democrats will defect to McCain, just as large numbers of conservative Democrats defected to Ronald Reagan when he ran against Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine any Republicans who will defect from McCain to Obama.
Do the math: In terms of winning the election -- not necessarily, let me emphasize, in terms of who would make the best president -- Obama would be a net liability to the Democrats, and in a close election he would have little chance to win.
As a number of columnists have suggested, Obama will have future opportunities to run for president. However, if he should run and lose in 2008, thus costing the Democrats yet another eminently winnable presidential election, he may well be perceived as having naively succumbed to the Obama mania and embarked on a predictably Quixotic quest.
And that would certainly imperil his chances of winning the Democratic nomination in 2012 or 2016, when his present liabilities may well have less impact and his chances of winning would be far greater. Moreover, he will have more experience and maturity, and this should make him a better president, not just a better candidate.
No doubt a similar analysis could be made about Sen. Hillary Clinton, which is also why she shouldn't run, or why the Democrats shouldn't nominate either Obama or Clinton if they do decide to run. The perfect Democratic candidate is a white centrist or moderately liberal male with strong military credentials. His name is Wesley Clark.
Jerome Slater is a university research scholar at the University at Buffalo.