Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Obama and Clinton: Joined at the Hip

One major mistake by the Obama team is the botched handling of the Clintons. To be sure, Obama's in a tough spot; he can't look weak by appeasing the runner-up, but he needed to pay proper deference. Obama’s campaign believes they did everything they can. Obama was very respectful to her after Super Tuesday and pretty much treated her with kid gloves since the North Carolina/Indiana primaries, and showered her with effusive praise since the primaries ended. All that was fine. But what they haven't done is manage the expectations of the Clintonites with a deft hand.

This is vital because the easiest group of undecideds to swing your way *should be* Clinton supporting (non racist) Democrats. These are folks who are core Democrats on the issues and loathe the GOP. By recent polling Obama's hemorrhaging roughly 20% of Clinton supporters, which amounts about 3 million voters (the margin between Bush and Kerry in 2004). Some of these Clinton supporters are out of Obama’s reach for obvious reasons. But most aren’t. Many are working class Democrats skeptical of Obama’s background, persona and qualifications but despise Bush. And some are hardcore Clintonites who were emotionally invested in Hillary’s candidacy and are still disgruntled. For these purposes, my discussion of persuadable Clintonites do not include the few that are truly “PUMA” dead-enders, who are just attention-seeking idiots, racists, or so emotionally unstable that they are beyond reason.

That leaves the other two segments. The number one objective of the Convention should be to consolidate Obama’s support with these core Democrats. With working class Democrats, I would say the key is to push a partisan contrast and launch intense attacks on McCain’s policies and character. But with Clintonites, I think a more careful handling of the Clintons is important, because you can’t count on either one to be magnanimous and mature on their own.

From my perspective, the Clintons are self-pitying, myopic fools who should’ve known their dishonest tactics and constant whining would damage the nominee. Their die-hard supporters are even worse, viewing the election through a martyrdom prism and viewing everything as some kind of personal affront. But you know what? As flawed as they are, they're power-brokers who exercise uncommon influence over voters Obama needs, voters who, irrational as they may be, have their votes count just as much as anyone else's.

Obama’s made a few big mistakes over the last month. First, would it have been so hard to do a vetting kabuki? Vet Clinton, then demand documents from Bill relating to the presidential library or foundation? (I understand that Clinton indicated that she didn't want to get vetted unless the vetting was serious, but come on.) Or send out obvious cues that Clinton isn’t being considered? Second, just send out a damn e-mail to his supporters about paying off her debts. Sure, I would never give her a penny, but this isn't about efficacy, it's about making a gesture. Third, just have some campaign staff talk up the Clintons. No real harm done, but some sweet notes go a long way with folks like this. These are all soft skills that we'd like to see in a diplomatically-oriented president.

Barack would do very well to talk up the Clinton era as well (references to the Clinton economy has been incorporated into his stump speech, but the point can be further amplified). A persistent problem for Obama (and for Obama supporters) is that he doesn’t really have many tangible accomplishments he can point to. But if he moves towards a more partisan footing, he can lay claim to the recent accomplishments of the party, the most compelling of which was the Clinton economy. The Obama administration: peace, prosperity, but transparency and inspiration instead of scandal.

(And on the negative front, if I were the Obama team, I would also be much more aggressive in circulating – under cover – the stuff about McCain abandoning his sickly wife for a trophy heiress, the Chelsea Clinton joke, his penchant for the word “cunt” and such issues. These kinds of stories, more than the my tax cut is bigger than yours ads, will be effective in influencing a certain kind of voter.)

For the Clintons, they really need to understand that, if Obama loses and the exit polls show that Hillary dead-enders were the cause, Hillary’s presidential ambition is cooked. So the speech tonight looms large for the former rivals. Obama needs her full-throated support; and she needs to provide it. So how does she help him close the deal? Clinton supporters typically raise two key objections to Obama: one is that he’s “unqualified”, an empty suit”; the second is the nonsensical but strongly held belief that he won the primaries through shady means (via DNC help, etc.). I actually don’t think that Hillary Clinton is sufficiently reflective to realize that her campaign fanned these dangerous and wrong memes – extremely damaging to the Obama campaign -- but she has an obligation to walk back from this. I would suggest a speech that hits three points.

Point 1. Obama is qualified.
Working with Obama; he is smart and shows good judgment. Good presidents show good judgment, not years in Washington. See Clinton, Bill; Kennedy, John; Lincoln, Abe.

Point 2. Obama wo fair and square. Discussion on how Obama masterfully ran a $200 million dollar campaign and made smart decisions regarding the primaries and caucuses. Only she knows how hard that is because she ran against him.

Point 3. Partisan contrast. Issues Hillary cares about will advance under Obama. Health care, economic disparity, choice, energy. McCain/Bush a disaster if you care about those issues. McCain is also a smear merchant, a war-monger and totally out of touch.

However, I expect that Hillary cannot, for her own political reasons, concede that Obama won fair and square or walk back the "he’s not qualified" frame. Instead I expect that her speech will be first a celebration of the "invisible" hard-working white Americans of whom she now believes herself to be a champion. Then, the speech will build to point 3, a lengthy, hard-hitting partisan contrast between Clinton and Obama on one side, and McCain and Bush on the other. To be sure, Hillary's speech will surely offer plenty of juicy red meat for Democratic partisans to chew on. The press will likely conclude that this speech did everything Clinton could to help Obama. And a speech like this would help quite a bit, with that segment of working-class core Democrat voters that remain skeptical. But you know, if she doesn’t address the "unqualified" and "dirty campaign" misconceptions, she still will be leaving Obama out to dry with the die-hard Hillaristas. Let’s remember: not everyone views their votes in a transactional way, on the basis of issues alone. Voters often get attached to certain narratives fed by campaigns. As her chances for the nomination dwindled after the Wisconsin primary, Clinton continued to sell voters on the idea that Obama is unqualified for the presidency, and that she had the most votes and might have won if not for DNC hijinks with Florida and Michigan. This narrative is at the heart of the resentment of the Hillaristas. She needs to walk this back.

If she does, she deserves all the lavish praise she’ll undoubtedly receive tonight.