Thursday, August 07, 2008

Quarterbacking the Obama Campaign

THE CHATTER. It appears that the Democratic chattering classes are nervous about the Obama's response to last week's barrage of negative advertising from John McCain. It's hard to see why. Obama still has his small lead even though McCain got a short-lived bump in the tracking polls. But psychologist Drew Westen has an article in HuffPost about Obama's need to frame a narrative about McCain. New York Sen. Chuck Shumer is less intellectual but equally emphatic that Obama should "respond to John McCain's personal attacks with an equally personal slap." That also seems to be the opinion of a group of "Democratic strategists" interviewd by the Washington Post.

"Democrats are worried," said Tad Devine, a top strategist for Kerry. . . "We've been through two very tough elections at the national level, and it's very easy to lose confidence." Obama's latest ad may be his toughest yet, using words and images to link McCain to President Bush and concluding: "The original maverick? Or just more of the same?"

But Democratic strategists said that it is nothing like the character attacks by McCain, and that the response could be far nastier, perhaps raising McCain's ethical scrape in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal, mocking his family wealth and designer shoes, or highlighting his age. After McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm suggested that the United States has become "a nation of whiners," Democratic strategists said Obama should have immediately started an ad blitz.

THE OBAMA RESPONSE. The Obama campaign's response to Democratic carping is a great deal more dismissive than their response to McCain.

Consultants close to Obama say the Democrat has good reason not to risk his own campaign by following McCain's lead. Because McCain has accepted public financing for the general-election campaign, he must spend all his primary campaign money before the party conventions. Obama is focusing on turning out voters, while airing a mix of positive ads and responses . . . Because Obama opted out of public financing and the spending limits that come with it, he will be free to swamp McCain with television spots in the fall. If he needs to become more negative at that point, he can -- knowing that McCain would be hard pressed to reply. "This is a classic Washington story, anonymous quotes from armchair quarterbacks with no sense of our strategy, data or plan," [the Obama spokesman said].
In other words, the Obama campaign wants to husband their resources and keep their powder dry. Obama's plan is to let McCain attack for now and limit his responses to blunting little firestorms like the Republican "tiregauge" stunt. Then, they'll roll out their full campaign after the party conventions when they'll have a big financial advantage. From the perspective of this "armchair quarterback," it looks like a "landslide strategy" in that Obama is mostly trying to maintain his small lead now with the goal of increasing their lead substantially in September and October.

THE ARMCHAIR PERSPECTIVE. I can see the campaign's perspective. The Obama people have a lead and that lead might be bigger than the polls say because they have had a lot of success in registering new voters. They're working on introducing Obama to a national audience, registering even more new Democratic voters, and preparing the ground for the big fall push. Why should the Obama campaign be unduly distracted by McCain?

The Obama campaign could also argue that McCain pretty much shot his bolt last week. There wasn't much of an effort to follow up on last week's controversies, no striking new anti-Obama ads, no fresh attacks. The Republican consensus is that the McCain campaign needs to keep up the pressure on Obama. But the pressure seems to have eased.

But the armchair quarterbacks still have a point.

As armchair quarterbacks like Shumer point out, the Obama campaign is largely on the defensive. This hasn't been for the Obama campaign as it was for Kerry and Dukakis because Obama himself is an effective counter-puncher. His response to the GOP tire gauge stunt--"It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant."--was devastating.

At the same time, being on the defensive means that the Obama campaign has not been able to break through the media clutter to promote their own message about a "new kind of politics," "change," "hope," and "responsibility."

Perhaps the Obama campaign would be able to do better at promoting their own message if they could also find a way to keep McCain on the defensive. This doesn't mean that the Obama people have to carpet bomb McCain with attack ads. That would be the old politics. But the Obama campaign could stick with their political uplift message as the "major theme" of their campaign while also establishing a "minor theme" of criticizing McCain's ideas on the war in Iraq, cutting taxes on corporations, and privatizing social security. Being more specifically critical of McCain might open up some space for Obama's own message.

Another problem for the Obama campaign is their "surrogate deficit." The Obama campaign has a complex surrogate problem. On the one hand, Obama has fewer surrogates than McCain and the deficit shows in that there are fewer people definding him. McCain has campaign surrogates like Carly Fiorina, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and Mitt Romney. But the Bush administration and the conservative media are serving as surrogates for McCain as well. The Obama campaign has fewer of its own surrogates and John Kerry and Tom Daschle are relatively weak personalities compared to the McCain surrogates. Obama has also worked to prevent Democratic-allied groups from doing any advertising. Another problem is that the Obama campaign provides their surrogrates with talking points that sound great when they come from Obama but pretty bland when they're coming from Kerry and Daschle. The Obama people could use more aggressive surrogates and they need to give their surrogates more independence.

Finally, this armchair quarterback still thinks that Obama should nominate Hillary Clinton as his VP candidate. I know that the chances of her being nominated are miniscule and that she's hard to associate with the "new politics" and that Bill Clinton is a big problem. But Hillary still strikes me as the best person for the VP job.

In relation to the presidential campaign, there's a lot of roles Hillary could perform. Hillary is very disciplined and measured and could be a highly effective surrogate for Obama. Certainly, she could be Obama's best attack dog on McCain in the sense that Hillary could use her massive policy expertise to advocate Obama positions and her gravitas to dismiss Republican snark. Hillary could also be the lead surrogate in defending Obama against McCain's attacks and be much more effective at it than Obama's current surrogates.

Finally, Hillary would be a big asset in Obama's efforts to reach out to non-Obama democrats and independents. Obama's way of doing things was exciting enough with several constituencies that he beat her in the primaries. Adding Hillary to the ticket would make Obama more universally appealing to Democrats and independents.

Certainly, Obama needs to follow his instincts and not change his core campaign strategy to meed the concerns the Monday morning quarterbacking of Democratic politicians, unnamed strategists, and bloggers.

But perhaps adjusting at the margins wouldn't be a bad idea.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He will require a LOT of advice from various sources.