Thursday, September 04, 2008

Audacity Deficit

When did the presidential campaign become a contest for VP between Obama and Palin?

This is very bad news for Democrats up and down the ticket, because it indicates that the Democrats have once again (as usual?) misjudged the temper of the times and and played it safe, thereby losing control of the battle of perception. Joe Biden has failed to make a dent in the collective consciousness of the media, let alone the public, since his selection, which was more notable for its half-assed rollout than for the buzz it generated. Hillary's speech got her 26 million viewers, Bill got fewer than that, 24 million, the following night, and Biden did not increase on those numbers even as he was supposed to have been the headliner of the evening. Biden is simply out of sight, out of mind, which does not bode well given the importance of the VP in the recent administrations.

Bill and Al may have been the best, most audacious presidential ticket ever because Clinton took the unusual step of choosing someone who repeated and amplified all of his own strengths - Southern, young, intellectual, a believer in government, wonky, and a professional public servant. The Big Dog broke all the rules that had previously governed VP choices like geographical balance, ideological balance, and not being overshadowed by your running mate. It was a plus that he had a VP who was every bit as smart, sophisticated and driven as himself. It was a choice that spoke to Clinton's confidence in himself and in his party.

Neither Biden nor Palin are choices from positions of strength. However he came to his decision, McCain selected a running mate who provided strengths he does not possess. His most damaging vulnerabilities were within his own party and who he chose was dictated by the need to shore up that wall. To do this, he picked a person who appeals to much of the worst in the Republican Party. It was a strategically necessary pick for him as without a solid party behind him, McCain is guaranteed a loss. Palin gives him an opportunity to win.

What Palin brings to the table is a sharp contrast to McCain, not the least of which is gender, playing an obvious domestic (and domesticating) policy role to his claim to foreign policy expertise. Before any commenters wax rhapsodic about McCain's FP chops, read Pat Lang's Sic Semper Tyrannis. Perhaps what Palin does best is purely visual. McCain's age is transformed from crabby old fart to avuncular pater familias. The choice to shore up his weakness within the party by going for the culture warriors' vote ironically reinforces his myth of being a maverick (as opposed to being a loose cannon), increasing his appeal to moderate Republicans, Independents and undecideds. Circumstances may have compelled the choice, but it has paid off politically.

I am not as sure as BTD that Biden was the best Obama could have done for VP once he had ruled out Hillary, but it was probably the only option he allowed himself. The choice was, from any honest perspective, an admission of weakness. It tacitly confirmed the claims about his lack of seasoning at a national level or in national politics. He has never been at the head of an organization like the National Governors Association, which Bill Clinton headed in 86/87. He has not been a public figure involved in a particular cause besides his own campaigns, as Hillary has been for the Children's Defense Fund, her historic battles for women's rights, or her unending work to get health care for all, or Al Gore's life-long dedication to the environment. These are the kinds of experiences that matter because they require work with many kinds of interests, agencies, and organizations to make headway towards long-term goals.

To digress for a moment, I'm not talking about the shallow "experience" argument, as though occupying a job for X amount of time instantly gives you some kind of expertise in that area, or that there is some magic to having held executive vs. legislative positions. I apply this as rigorously to Palin as to Obama. It has to do with possessing a thoroughgoing knowledge of how national governance works, how to interact with complex and conflicting bureaucracies, and how to maintain a political philosophy in the midst of the practical demands for negotiation, compromise and pure power plays. On this basis, both Obama and Palin come up short though it is unproductive to try to compare them to each other. Measure them against their peers. Take Palin and look at her in comparison to other governors at comparable points in their careers, such as Bill Clinton, Ah-nold, Gregoire of Washington, Napolitano of Arizona, Pawlenty of Minnesota and, yes, Kaine of Virginia. How does Obama compare to a 1/2 term US senator like Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden? This should also be done of McCain and Biden himself, for that matter.

Biden is a sign of weakness because of who Obama passed over. Whether or not you would have wanted to see Hillary as VP, that choice would have been a measure of his confidence in working with a more senior politician with her own dedicated power base. There is no corollary for McCain to choose from on the Republican side because there is no one of that stature in his party. I mean, can you think of anyone? To have selected Hillary would have fallen somewhere on the "no guts, no glory" scale between JFK offering the post to LBJ (grudgingly, wanting a rejection, knowing it was the key to victory) and Bill asking Al (unafraid of the competition, respectful of Al's greater national statute, gambling on a powerful administrative team). Biden has mocked Obama in public, there is no synergy in the pairing, there is not enough contrast to produce creative counter balance, and Biden stands as repudiation of all the message of change.

The choice of Biden did nothing to secure party supporters who were not already on board, though it may have prevented some establishment types from jumping ship. McCain got a lot more political gains among Republicans with Palin than Obama did among Democrats with Biden. It was the exhortation of the Clintons that brought wavering Democrats home, and it was clear from the commentary of people who are not kool-aide drinkers that Obama's speech was judged by whether he could keep their momentum going for him. The panicked reaction to Palin on the Left shows not only their revolting classist and misogynist worldviews, but also the uncertainty that the base will show up in November. The message is not "we're better" but "they're worse", which does not exactly exude confidence.

The fallout of these choices on either side is that Obama is left in a contest with Palin, McCain side-steps direct fights and Biden is marginalized as the over-exposed face from the Sunday talking heads shows. This is not a comparison the Democrats should be trapped into making.

Obama in comparison to McCain stands up well. The message is more believeable when you're up against a DC insider who is like some barnacle encrusted piling of a dock to no where, rotted away by the incessant pounding of the political tides. McCain does not convey gravitas very well, and actually comes across as weird looking and mean even when he's not trying to pull a Dick Cheney. However, the Saddleback interviews should have put everyone on notice that the comparison wasn't a slam dunk. Now onto the scene comes Palin. Aside from being an accomplished presenter, what she brings to the table is something we haven't had in our Republicans of late, the ability to channel powerful resentments with an admixture of charm. She is in the Reagan mode (though no where near as polished and deadly) not like Nixon, DeLay, Gingrich, Buchanan, and the other angry white men on the Right. She is going right after Obama and doesn't bother with Biden (At a town-hall meeting in Virginia Beach, Biden called Palin a formidable politician and said he was impressed by her speech, which he said was stocked with "good, funny lines. . . . I'm glad they weren't about me. I was sitting there thinking, 'Whoa, zinger.' "), which is not a luxury the Democrats had vis-a-vis Cheney and which they now cannot avoid with Palin, having spent so much time building her up in the media. They should have listened to Hillary.

Palin has not been off the front page of the New York Times for a week and always with more coverage than Obama. Biden barely registers as present. All of this leaves McCain free to avoid the grumpy old fart role and be the wise old uncle. His age is being turned into an advantage and he is shielded from comparisons to his opponent.

This is the price that Democrats are paying for the political cowardice of the Obamacans. McCain would not have chosen Palin if Hillary has been on the ticket. I think the nod would have gone to Pawlenty in that case. Hillary would have spent her time rallying her people to give her the mandate to push for her objectives, most of all UHC, instead of trying to triage the festering wounds of the primaries. It would have been a massive FU to the press corps, but as Bob Somerby patiently explains, the Democrats will not treat that pack of jackals like the enemies they are.

The Democratic campaign has become a reflection of the lack of nerve that has dogged the Obama campaign since the start, substituting smears and dirty tricks for solid policies, going for fixes and backroom deals rather than reaching for the truly audacious possibilities.



Anonymous said...

Biden choice was pure cowardice on Obama's part. Obama does not have the strength personally and intellectually to select anyone who has a personality and obvious presence. He could have chosen Wes Clark, Napolitano (she does have a big mouth on her), one of Democratic generals, etc. I agree that BTD statement is absolutely wrong. Biden was probably the worst selection.

The primary debates showed Obama's mediocre intelligence. he is slow on his feet. Saddleback reinforced that impression. All you have to do to realize this weakness is to compare Obama to Bill, Hillary or Bernie Frank. He clearly cannot hold a candle to them.

I am less worried about Palin. She has spread way too many lies about her record not to be cut to size by a strong opposition from Obama and Biden can do it. There may be additional cats in her bag. I found her speech cheerleaderly, name calling and her background is not a real competition to Obama's. Furthermore, she is the focus of discussion two days after her sppearance, but in a week, more ads and a lot of give and take, Palin will be a marginal issue. A proper preparation for a debate will enable Biden to show her as the mean, extreme conservative, out of touch and light weight she actually is. Of course, Biden's moronic comment about her speech doesn't help, but then no one listens to him.

Personally, I don't think experience is important. When I used to hire people, way back, I always said that I don't look for years on the job and am looking for brain hours.

My opinion is a negligible minority. Most people look for some experience in a president. Obama has none. This is his achilles heel. McCain will hit him on that mercilessly. McCain's history, corrupt as it is, will be take by voters to experience.

Another thing in Obama that works for McCain is Obama's inability to compete equal footing. In the primaries, Obama was permitted to rig the caucuses and call the Clintons racist. If we had a solid Democratic party, his attempt to blame the Clintons as racists would have spelled his end.

In the GE, he has none of his favorite goonie tricks. This is already showing; he is not doing too well in a year a Democrat should have had an easy walk in the park.

cellocat said...

Fantastic post. It is amazing the number of ways in which the Democratic leadership and the Obama campaign has mistepped and misjudged. But they seem incapable of seeing it. Still at this point, if they were to make Hillary VP, it would cause a significant move toward voting the Democratic ticket, I think. Not everyone would come back, but some would, maybe enough to win it for them. What a twisted, weird situation in which we find ourselves!

Anonymous said...

Bingo, as usual. BTD at TalkLeft has made this point before, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that putting a proven vote-getter like HRC on the ticket excites the Party and gives us a jolt of adrenaline for the GE. Not doing that suggests a few things. Mr. O could be too dumb to realize that, but that doesn't work because he's a smart guy. Another possibility is that he believes his own press clippings and thinks he can do it on his own, which effectively is what he's going to have to do now with a tired hack like Biden on the ticket. Or the possibility is that Obama shares on some deeper level the weird animus/fear that many of his supporters feel for HRC and doubts her loyalty and commitment. Personally I think it's a strange combination of the last two. It's strange because if he really has the ego to think he can do it himself, he ought to have the self-confidence not to feel threatened by anyone and to feel that he can successfully handle/manipulate anyone, even a very popular VP pick. If you think you're The Shit, the thought never crosses your mind that anyone or anything is too much for you. At bottom, I believe that Obama lost his nerve and played it safe with this one because he was afraid at a fairly deep level. Which doesn't exactly inspire my confidence, although a scaredycat centrist like him is still preferable to a bellicose plutocrat like McCain.

Susan petry said...

agree with your basic premise that the Obama v Palin is the new narrative.

she magnifies Obama's weaknesses rather than diminishes them.

if McCain wins the GE, IMO, it will be because of her. she will be much more visible as the "new" face of the GOP to swing voters, much more so than the cranky old fart at the top of the ticket.

the panicked reaction of the left, in particular women, was crucial in solidifying her support with the base. huge mistake.

Sara said...

I just want to say that this is consistently the best blog on politics and the Democrats. I've been reading it for the past several months and it's a relief to see someone who gets it right! I really believe the Biden pick and the Western strategy is going to amount to a loss for the Dems this GE. Obama's campaign is truly arrogant about their prospects and about voters who didn't vote in the primaries for him, or are unsure about voting for him. McCain is a flat, boring speaker, but he IS good in debates, and I believe the opposite is true about Obama. I think the debates will seal the deal for whoever comes out on top.

A G said...

Great post, Anglachel. Two points:

The message is not "we're better" but "they're worse", which does not exactly exude confidence.

That has always been the case. Obama started his campaign with a video in which he smeared Hillary Clinton and all the work she'd done. The very platform of change is a comparitive, and never an absolute. The comparitive in advertising is always a 'tactical' message, very strong but short lived, i.e. you cannot build a brand on comparitive claims, but you can get, say, a Christmas-spike. A true brand building strategy always has absolute benefits for the consumer - but those benefits are much harder to convey with any urgency.

Two, Sarah Palin also has a 'cause' of her own - she stands for energy. You hear her speak on energy, she's almost - almost - as clear, lucid, and her arguments as sound as Hillary on healthcare. Of course, except for 'hope' and 'change', I don't really know anything that Barack stands for.

kcwin said...

A lot of good points above. IMHO, BO's poor choice of VP stemmed directly from his arrogance (he does believe in his own press) and resentment towards Hillary (hence, his "don't call us, we'll call you" attitude towards her and Bill). It just looks more and more like he is campaigning for a job he's not ready for.
McCain scored a direct hit with the Palin missile. She was indeed the first person to call Obama out so publicly without being called a racist, because she could play the victim cum opponent fighting back. She was chosen for this task, and the Obama fanatics aided her on this mission with their irrational preemptive strikes. Her task was to say with a charming smile that Emperor Obama had no clothes on.

hg said...

Right on, Anglachel: the Democrats have indeed trapped themselves in the worst possible bind. Palin is deliberately pitting herself against Obama, and the Obots' panicky reactions are all too telling. The latest thing from them is their wailing on how Palin is being horribly insulting community organizers.

But here's the thing: It's one thing if Obama pointed to his community organizing work as simply evidence of his social compassion and commitment to the working classes. But he doesn't refer to his community organizing work as just a part of his campaign resume polisher--it is cited as one of THE key leadership positions he's ever had. In his entire life. That's what Sarah Palin is pointing out: virtually the sum total of this guy's actual leadership experience is 2 years of community organizing--a job that thousands of college kids do before heading off to grad school and that community activists toil away at for years. It's certainly nothing to sneer at, but also not the strongest thing to cite on your resume for the most powerful job in the world. But once again, the Democrats have employed a failed strategy and on the day after Election Day, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

marirebel said...

Is what Palin does best just "purely visual." Why are women's strengths so often found in the category of the "gazed at?" I think Palin adds energy, charm and humor to an otherwise dull and dry party.

In reverse order, Joe Biden does the same thing for Obama that Palin does for McCain--he adds an older more experienced face to a younger, relatively inexperienced ticket. Are the visuals the best thing Joe brings to the table?

Is Biden, who is nearly McCain's age, a "crabby old fart" too? I hear reporters love McCain because of his lively wit (which admittedly I have rarely seen). Does being joined with Obama grant Biden pater familias status, or does that only come when you are joined with a younger woman?

What makes a person bat-shit crazy? Is it being conservative and religious? Is it being beholden to corporations to the extreme detriment of ordinary folks? Is it voting to eviscerate portions of the bill of rights which have served us so well?

Just wondering about how people are defined, and considering the dynamics of "othering."

Christopher Corbell said...

Excellent analysis!

I do feel that Palin reinforces some of McCain's signature strengths though - in particular with her reputation for ethics reform, and in her tangible record of taking on her own party elders and working with Democrats and Independents. The fact that they both have this strength may, regardless of ideology, be a very strong appeal to Independents and moderates from both parties - especially if the RNC starts hitting Obama more on his relation to (never opposition to) the corrupt Chicago political establishment, and the doublespeak, backroom deal-making and rule-bending that characterized his own campaign.

I don't know why the Republicans haven't hit Obama on things like getting delegates not awarded from the DNC RBC, evidence of voter fraud with ACORN etc., the forcing of fellow Democrats off the ballot in 96, his moving of DNC operations to Chicago in a brazen power-grab before his nomination was confirmed - signs that he puts personal power above democratic process and makes him look more like Cheney in his character than either McCain or Palin. Perhaps this is coming; for now they're enjoying the free (if rabid and desperate) attention on the Republican VP, which I think they've rightly calculated will only be good for her and their ticket.

Pan Metron