Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stupid political meme of the year: "reinforcing the brand"

If you read a lot of smart bloggers, you'll find of them talking about "reinforcing the brand." In fact, the sharpest commentators during primary season, guys like Al Giordano and Kos, talk incessantly about how Obama's "brand" is change, and so he needs a Veep that reinforces change. [Name of establishment Democrat] undercuts the "theme of change", the argument goes; Tim Kaine or Kathleeen Sibelius would double down on change. This outsider-fetishism is echoed in the Obama-sphere by his most ardent supporters, who are themselves outsiders.

I'm afraid this line of thinking is almost entirely wrong, for the same reasons "Obama beat Clinton in the primaries by being [X/Y/Z], and so he'll beat McCain by being [X/Y/Z]" type of arguments are wrong. It reflects a misunderstanding of the general election vis-a-vis the primary battle. In the primaries, Obama had to distinguish himself from Clinton, the establishment Democrat. Since they agree on most issues, Obama had to find a distinctive identity. He settled on "fundamental change," an insider v. outsider message that dovetailed perfectly with his background and persona. Throughout th early months of the year, Obama talked about himself as the Change Agent while Clinton was said to play "the same old Washington games." This message, based on largely on process and trust in Obama himself, proved especially appealing to two influential segments of the Democratic primary electorate -- the affluent professional class (who are the main donors) and liberal activists -- that are unusually open to the fresh and new. But let's keep in mind that this message hit a wall even during the primaries.

We all know by now that Obama faced considerable resistance from the white working class and the elderly in the primaries, resistance which has carried over the general, where these groups expand as a share of the persuadable electorate, while Obama's base of liberals, activists, and African-Americans are less significant. Some of this skepticism undoubtedly has racial/cultural undertones. But the problem for a lot of these voters -- less engaged and more risk averse -- is this query: how do we know this guy will make our lives better?

Obama's doesn't have an easy answer to this basic question. Supporters like me will cite the quality of his thinking and judgment; others can talk about the symbolic value of his candidacy, or his ability to inspire. But these aren't concrete, easy answers. They don't cut with simple force the way McCain's "I was a POW, and then I became a Maverick Republican who put 'country first'" message does. You can see this dichotomy play out in the Saddleback discussion, where Obama gave beautifully thoughtful answers that rarely referenced real-life accomplishments while McCain referenced his experiences repeatedly. If you scrutinize McCain's answers, they're often simple-minded and ill-considered, but so what? The average persuadable voter does not work for the New York Times Editorial Page, and these kinds of simple concrete answers and explanations are generally much more powerful than meta-messaging and considered policy arguments that Obama offered.

Given this problem, do we really want Obama to keep hammering away at process-oriented messages like "changing the way Washington works" by adding another unknown to the ticket? It's absurd. If you interviewed one hundred persuadable voters, I bet less than ten can tell you what a "Washington lobbyist" actually does. Process arguments like "changing the way Washington works" thrill political junkies and high-information voters, but these voters already know where they stand.

The "brand" that Obama needs to exploit is a more basic one: he's a Democrat and McCain is a Republican. Under the last Democratic presidency we had peace and prosperity. Under the present Republican presidency, we have botched wars and a tanking economy. We have exploding deficits, high inflation, wage stagnation, job losses, high energy prices, environmental degradation, a city almost destroyed, and rank incompetence throughout the government. In this climate of economic anxiety, you want to convey above all a reassurance as to why you'd be the steadier hand. The party-based message is easily understood: your life was better under a Democrat. I'm a Democrat. Your life will be better. (Of course the campaign has also long needed to find a character-based attack frame against McCain, but that's fodder for another post.)

Why do folks want Obama to squander the Democrats' party advantage by making it about outsiders vs. insiders? The overarching message should be obvious: Democratic policies = proven to be good for middle-class Americans; GOP policies help only the rich while fouling it up for everyone else. Obama is far better off making moves, including choosing a running mate, that "reinforce" the party advantage than to keep pushing the process angle.