Two months away from the Iowa caucus, nationwide polls indicate that Hillary Rodham Clinton is leading her Democratic primary opponents by the kind of comfortable margin a politician can only dream about. Indeed, if it were not for Iowa—where Senator Clinton is in a dead heat with Senator Barack Obama—one could project that only some fluke misstep on the part of Mrs. Clinton could derail her from gaining her party’s nomination.
While such a cakewalk to the convention may be good for Mrs. Clinton in the short term, it’s far from clear that her current aura of inevitability will serve her long-term interest in the race for the White House. Nor will it necessarily improve the Democratic Party’s chances to win the presidency and repair the damage done to our nation by the administration of George W. Bush.
Despite coming into the race with the most bracing package of ideals of any Democratic candidate in recent memory, with a promise to restore faith in democracy and cleanse Washington of entrenched special interests, Barack Obama has yet to enchant the American public. If he wishes to stay in the game, he needs to crank up the volume immediately, and offer a clear message that will magnetize his core audience—Democratic primary voters—and offer a stirring alternative to the careful calculations of Mrs. Clinton. His promise to keep his campaign out of the gutter has also somehow kept him out of the ring. A rising, new-generation star in the Democratic Party ever since his invigorating speech at the 2004 convention, Mr. Obama has nonetheless ceded vast territory to the Clinton campaign.
Meanwhile, for all of her strengths, Hillary Clinton remains an unsettling enigma to many Americans, giving the appearance of dodging direct questions about what she stands for and rarely risking unscripted interaction with voters. While her reticence certainly isn’t hurting her in the early polls, it’s less clear it will wash in a general election.
What Mrs. Clinton could use, at this point, is a good dust-up with her primary opponents, a scuffle that would allow voters to identify with her passion, rather than simply admire her professionalism. The Democrats cannot, and should not, treat the nomination process as just a chance to put the party crown on Mrs. Clinton. This is a political battle, not a coronation.
Which is why we hope Mr. Obama was being sincere this week when he declared that “now is the time” for him to step up and confront Mrs. Clinton. When he announced his candidacy, he vowed to put principle ahead of political pragmatism, rejecting the notion that a politician should do and say anything to get elected. But at the moment it looks like he simply expects to get votes because he is charismatic and charming. Americans want a president who can do battle with political opponents; that is one way we learn what they are made of, and whether they have the temperament for the real battles around the globe.
It is now up to Mr. Obama to demonstrate that he understands how to fight for a nomination. He has tried to be a nice guy. But in politics, as Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher once said of sports, “Nice guys finish last.”