Friday, August 29, 2008

Palin and the Tire Gauge

At a townhall, a voter asked Obama what the average American can do personally to conserve energy. In response, Obama suggested that inflating your tires as a way improving gas efficiency. Seizing on this advice, the McCain campaign decided to create and pass out "Obama tire gauge" to reporters. Get it? Me neither. But you can just envision these Maxim-reading little cretins sitting in McCain headquarters giving each high fives as they come up with the latest taunt. This tire gauge prank is emblematic of a myopic campaign that is defined by its insistence on winning hourly news cycles by any means necessary. Many of these efforts, like this one or the mockery of yesterday's DNC backdrop, involve idiotic frat boy antics that elicit giggles from right-wing mouthbreathers but end up only as fodder for the Colbert Report. Others, like those Hillary Clinton attacking Barack ads, are tactically savvy for a day or two, but serve little more than to fill up cable news dead time.

This sort of Animal House as political campaign is probably the only aspect of McCain's operation that's close in spirit to McCain's appealing 2000 run (there's a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster that captures the freewheeling, insurgent vibe of the Straight Talk Express; read it and weep at what's become of Mr. Maverick). And this impulsiveness speaks to McCain himself, a man of many virtues but whose disqualifying personal flaw is that he makes decisions on the fly, often as a gut reaction to a provocation.

The choice of Sarah Palin, it seems, is another product of McCain's impulsive, reactive decision-making and the thinking of a campaign that's effective in staying afloat primarily by being good at feeding the news media. McCain surely punk'd Obama for a news cycle or two, and he'll succeed in generating some excitement leading up to next week. But for what?

Thinking about it some more, this pick will almost certainly be a bad one. On August 25, 2008, when Wolf Blitzer went PUMA-hunting and the Democrats took turns mocking McCain's seven houses, this pick would win you a few newscycles. You can see McCain gather up his little advisors that day, wondering how he can poach the Hillaristas and get him some regular guy cred. Hey, how about that Palin? Regular gal. And the wingers like her. How about it?

But have they given thought to this? What's Palin's attack line on the campaign trail? What's McCain gonna say about Obama's readiness, when he can now respond, "you picked a woman a heartbeat away from the presidency, who's never visited Iraq, whose web page on foreign policy was blank space." It gives Obama an easy defense while highlighting Obama's seriousness of purpose in tapping Biden. Then there's the problem of making McCain's age fair game: "On his 72nd birthday, McCain decided that someone two years removed from being a small town mayor will be a heartbeat away from the presidency." What's more, don't they see the huge risk in trotting this neophyte out on the campaign trail in perhaps the most intensely watched and scrutinized campaign ever? And the whole thing looks desperate, especially to Hillaristas fixated on "qualifications." I've seen Hillary dead-enders, and ovaries aside, I just don't see them getting psyched about a beauty pageant winner.

There are the long-term benefits of grooming a GOP future star as McCain's not likely to win. But I'm not sure that's what McCain's really thinking about.

Hitting the Big Shot

The most impressive speech of my lifetime was Barack Obama's speech on race relations delivered in Philadelphia. That speech was a virtuoso display of Obama's dialectical, agile mind, his ability to self-examine and empathize with others, to eloquently explain both the root of white resentment and black anger in what was, at heart, a put-out-the-fire political speech.

In the four years since he's been on the scene, Obama's delivered a number of terrific speeches -- perhaps all of the best speeches of the last four years. Obama's 2004 keynote address, a brilliantly constructed and delivered oratory that's a bit too utopian and gooey for my taste, is certainly one of the most memorable events in political rhetoric of recent years. I'd personally rank the Jefferson-Jackson Iowa address, which relaunched his candidacy and provided the bones of his primary stump speech (including the "a nation at war, a planet in peril..." formulation), the New Hampshire "concession" speech (with the famous "Yes We Can" passage), the South Carolina victory speech, and the Selma anniversary address right up there among Obama's best addresses.

Last night's nomination acceptance speech didn't soar as high. As rhetoric, it was fairly prosaic and disjointed, with long streches of laundry-list prescriptions and responses to trivial campaign memes. Substantively, he made promises that no one can meet and offered proposals and goals that gave off a whiff of yucky paleoliberalism. (This insightful article from the New York Times shows that Obama is actually a very sophisticated economic thinker, seeking to find that right balance between U. of Chicago thinking, Rubinomics, and Robert Reich-human investment liberalism. Thankfully, he also understands that discussions of "moral hazard" or "cap-and-trade" won't win him too many votes.)

But I loved it. I loved it more than any of the more eloquent speeches. I loved it especially because Obama took the wood to McCain and bashed him in the very area that McCain is perceived by voters as strong, but is actually the main reason why McCain should never be president: McCain is a far-right neocon on foreign policy whose instinct is to rattle sabres in response to any and every foreign threat. McCain is too dangerous to lead. Voters don't understand foreign policy, we all know, and typically will gravitate towards "wrong and strong" rather than "weak and right." But Obama never sounded weak as he argued forcefully to reclaim liberal internationalism but talked tough on Afghanistan and al Quida. With Biden on board, Obama can re-fight the stupid skirmish that flared up earlier in the campaign, when Obama expressed that he would take out Bin Laden in Pakistan with or without Pakistan's permission. McCain, then, was talking about getting a hall pass from Musharref.

Politically and substantively, the right political formulation for a Democrat is to argue for "diplomacy and international cooperation" generally, get out of Iraq "responsibly", but take a hard line on Bin Laden himself. Force McCain to be hawkish on Iraq and make him move to the right and look like a unilateralist.

Obama doesn't have to win the political argument. And he probably can't, given that a lot of people simply will trust a war-hero Republican over a young black Democrat on national security no matter what positions they take. But Obama just needs to make up some ground -- make sure he sounds confident and appears to be a credible commander-in-chief. And he should if he continues to speak confidently and offensively about foreign policy. One thing I loved about the Joe Biden pick is that he exudes confidence on national security. He treated idiotic hawks like Rudy Giuliani with the disdain they deserve. Even if voters don't understand foreign policy issues, a lot of folks can sense which side is confident and which side isn't. By signaling that he won't be in a defensive crouch on national security, Obama won't make the mistake of looking like the typical backtracking Democrat who won't fight for what he believes in. That's the real weakness people sense.

More generally, his speech showed an aggressiveness and messaging savvy that seemed lacking in the last couple weeks. Slamming McCain every which way: that was the change I needed.

A Cornered Animal

McCain's VP choice is who? Democratic political obsessives have always feared a female "gamechanging" pick, and Palin always seemed one of the more logical choices. She's a pro-life governor who talks energy policy. But she was a mayor of a small town just two years ago. She doesn't even have much in the way of surrogate experience, unlike a guy like Tim Pawlenty, who at least can be counted on to spew some right-wing talking points in an amiable manner. Palin may pay off big -- peeling off disgruntled HRC supporters -- but she's a big gamble.

When Obama tapped Joe Biden, it indicated that the campaign knows he has some weaknesses that needed to be shorn up, but fundamentally he likes where he's at. If Obama were running scared he would've picked HRC, whom he didn't want, but whose addition would almost guarantee a win.

By contrast, the Palin pick indicates that McCain's campaign believes they're down by a couple of touchdowns, and has figured that their tactical games aren't going to do it for him. With Obama showing last night that he's gonna blitz'em good, McCain's forced to go for a flea-flicker, a big, gimmicky play with high risk and high reward. I think it's a smart move, even if it takes the experience argument completely off the table. The experience angle wasn't going to fly once people see, at the debates, that Obama knows his shit.

Though Palin has winger credentials, she may bolster McCain's tattered maverick image. She's also a pick who will leave no opening for a Bush association. If the key demographic battleground is white middle-income women, McCain's just made a daring play for them.

Pretty savvy, but R.I.P. "Ready to Lead on Day One."

Addendum: After more research, I see the angle. The story that she didn't abort her Down's Syndrome baby will energize Pro-Lifers. That's key. And her presence will soften McCain's "get off my lawn!" image. It also indicates that McCain's entire platform will be Drill, Drill, Drill.

It seems to me the move is smart in the extreme long-term in that, like a Bobby Jindal pick, Palin's new visibility may be the first step in reinventing the GOP not as the party of Angry Old White Guys, but as the party of socially conservative yet competent managers from all backgrounds, the sort of party envisioned by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in Grand New Party. McCain and Palin need to distance themselves from the Club for Growth crowd to really start moving their fossilized party in a new direction, but image-wise, this is a good start.

In the extreme short term, this is also smart. Obviously, this "shocking pick" has undercut the Obama DNC speech hype. But McCain also changes the RNC narrative. If it were a more conventional pick like Pawlenty, the story will be "how can McCain distance himself from the unpopular Republican Party?* Now in the days leading up to the convention, the media narrative will be: "who is Sarah Palin, and will she be able to step up and deliver?" The media will set the bar very low for her. All she has to do is not flub a pedestrian, unoffensive speech, and the media will give her a pass.

But what about the medium-term? Here, I think the McCain team is tactically smart, but strategically questionable. You have a Veep whose notable inexperience will call attention not only to the hypocrisy of McCain's "Ready to Lead" argument, but also to his age and health. Second, the more I read about Palin, the more I see the dangers of likely Quayle moments. In this gaffe-attentive environment, a few slip ups will look extremely damaging. In terms of helping McCain win the election, it's hard to see Palin really end up doing much to help. But then, it's hard to see anyone else really helping that ticket short of Colin Powell.

* Speaking of the RNC, I hope the Obama team spins the media to get them to try to hunt down GOP extremists on the convention floor as diligently as they tried to hunt down HRC dead-enders. There are bound to be some serious haters there; they just need a little nudge.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Can anyone here play this game?

Really liked the HRC intro video, liked the speech itself, and her performance reconfirmed that she would have been Obama's best running mate. Hillary's become a very persuasive speaker and performer over the course of the campaign, and would have been a terrific candidate if she were even remotely competent in running a campaign.

But the speech, however good the delivery, did not make a very compelling case for Barack Obama or make a strong case against McCain. In fact the structure is the same: I ran for president because of issue a/b/c/d/e. Obama believes in a/b/c/d/e. Since I'm out, you must support Obama. Bush did terrible things. McCain supports Bush. Therefore vote against McCain.
The law of transitivity may be unassailable logically, but let's throw some red meat out here too.

The only significant line is when she called out the idol worshipping of some of her supporters ("were you in it just for me?"). As noted below, some of the voters needed partisan reminders. But she did not speak to Obama's central problem for many, many Clinton supporters, a problem that she exacerbated: she never made a case about him being qualifed for President.

This is what you hear from Clinton supporters. Click on the comments section of any political news article and any blog. You see the same points. They know that they agree more with Obama, but don't believe he's ready to be commander-in-chief. Someone -- maybe not Clinton herself, but somebody -- needs to make the fucking case that the greatest presidents don't necessarily have a long resume. There's no relationship between a long pre-election resume and a successful presidency. Let's hope Bill take the ball and gets to the finish line on the experience issue. Look, if voters only vote based on agreement on the issues, the Democrats would never lose. So how many fucking elections will they lose before they understand that national elections are about much more than The Issues?

Can anyone play this game here? I've listened to about four hours of this convention so far, and Michelle's moving testimony aside, this is lackluster, aimless stuff. How hard is it to:

* Find a fucking character frame to attack McCain, and keep going. Notice how the GOP one or two character attacks on Obama that they repeat over and over? "Barack Obama is a celebrity who doesn't relate to you. That's why he will raise your taxes/take away your guns." "Barack Obama is a cocky ambitious neophyte who puts his ambition above our troops." I mean, if Dukakis had ran with Ann Richards' "George Bush was born on third base and thought he hit a triple" frame, maybe he would've won.

Here's one: John McCain loves being on the teevee playing pundit, but like pundits he's always wrong. (Hypothetical ad: ten different clips of John McCain on various talk shows saying something proven to be wrong on Iraq, Iran, North Korea, etc. "John McCain loves being a TV commentator. And like TV commentators, he's always wrong. John McCain. Wrong for the country.") Okay, maybe that's too complex, but whatever. You push one or two caricatures over and over and it'll stick. Maybe he's so confused or ambitious that he'll be the puppet of anybody, including the Bush flakies now running his campaign.

It's not enough to keep saying that McCain and Bush have the same policies. Find a character rationale to explain why he's not fit for the office. I have yet to hear one speaker get at McCain on a character level.

* Find someone to reframe the "qualifications" issue. Poll after poll show that this is among Obama key weaknesses. Of course, nobody can give a speech that will boost his resume. But why aren't people talking about Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Abe Lincoln, John Kennedy and pound it into people's heads that a long resume has no connection to being a good president.

* Destroy the "cultural elitism" meme. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy. Astonishingly, these presidents were elected even though they did not affect the kind of pork-grind munching, bruch-clearing persona that connects to "real Americans". To paraphrase Jon Stewart, don't we want presidents who are embarrassingly superior to ourselves?

Books have been written about how the GOP sold this crap to the country. Now the president folks want to barbeque some ribs with has turned out to be the worst president of the last hundred years, the Democrats have a huge opportunity to reframe this issue. You have a guy in Barack Obama who's an electrifying speaker, an extremely smart, sensible guy with a first-class temperament. Instead of spending all your time normalizing him, why haven't people started to push back on this right-wing bullshit? Hey, you want a president who is a smart achiever, not some fucking schmuck who fucking wears cowboy boots but failed at everything he's touched in his life. You know, like that douchebag in the Oval Office. Jon Stewart mocked this kind of idiocy relentlessly. The Democrats would do well to start mocking the GOP for their dress-up populism.

Maybe Barack Obama is the Theo Epstein of the Democratic Party, and this band of losers will finally find a winning formula. Based on what I've seen from this convention, I'm not that optimistic.

Addendum: I just saw James Carville on CNN, and he made a whole lotta of sense. 25 million jobs created under a Democratic president. Real income growth. Budget surplus. When are people going to talk about this? He said, when are the Democrats going talk about how John McCain wanted to put "social security money in subprime mortgages?" Yes! Great way to frame this issue. Hit a couple of these and stop with the fucking litany of traditional liberal goals, and please, please, please for the love of god please fucking stop with the fuzzy paeans to bi-partisanship.

Addendum 2: To put in something positive, I really liked Brian Schweitzer's theatrics. This is the dude I'll be supporting in 2012 if Barack doesn't make it (and I gotta admit, for the first time in this election, I'm not entirely confident about his chances). Watching Schweitzer, I finally understood why I like this guy. Because stylistically he's kind of a Republican in the sense that he can mock the opposition mercilessly and unapologetically. He doesn't need to preface his attacks with some high-minded "John McCain is an honorable man, and I admire his service, his suffering, his devotion to the country, his formerly Mavericky ways, his wonderful wife and children" garbage you get from some others. And he made some good points about energy, a key issue for me.

Addendum 3: Ezra Klein makes a good point about Hillary basically structuring this speech as a party first Democratic call to arms. Which makes this speech perhaps more effective than I initially gave it credit for -- that is, if Obama begins running a more party-oriented campaign as he should.

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.