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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: August 2008

Avoiding the McCain-Palin Trap

I have to admit some significant disagreement with how most Democrats (including the Obama campaign) are reacting to the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running-mate. Many are simply deriding Palin as a lightweight or someone obviously unqualifed to be commander-in-chief–another Dan Quayle. Others watched the event in Dayton and found the whole thing laughable.
To be sure, I’m a poor judge of the visual side of campaign events. But what I saw in Dayton was (1) the “maverick” GOP presidential candidate introducing his “maverick” running mate, although Palin, even more than McCain, is actually a conservative ideologue whose selection thrilled both cultural and economic factions of the Right; (2) a direct appeal by Palin to HRC supporters to consummate Hillary’s campaign by shattering the splintered “glass ceiling;” (3) a compelling personal story of a woman who (a) has one son with Down’s Syndrome, (b) another who is being deployed to Iraq on September 11; (c) is married to a Native American (at least technically) union worker and athlete; and (d) has bravely defied her party and oil companies in Alaska.
If I’m wrong and other Democrats are right, then Palin’s obvious and laughable lack of gravitas and preparation for the vice presidency under a 72-year-old president will become apparent soon enough. But if I’m right and others are wrong, then focusing criticism of the choice of Palin on her qualifications could be a very large mistake, particularly in terms of women who might otherwise have little reason to support her, but who are sensitive to gender-based double standards. Credentials aside, Palin is very vulnerable because, like McCain, she’s mainly “above party” because she dissents from Republican orthodoxy in Alaska from the Right. Both cultural and economic wingnuts love her passionately. And as I said in my last post, she crucially reinforces McCain’s phony “maverick” image with her own phony maverick image.
Ignoring all that in favor of mocking her for what many Democrats are privately calling her “obvious” lack of credentials for the White House is a big and unnecessary gamble, and quite possibly a trap. We should all take pains to avoid it.

The Logic, and Risk, of Sarah Palin

John McCain’s surprise pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin makes a whole lot of sense in a whole lot of ways. Most of the talk right now is about her supposed appeal to disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, or undecided women voters generally. But the more fundamental reality is this: She is absolutely the only available veep who simultaneously pleases hard-core conservatives while offering reinforcement of McCain’s “maverick” image. And that happens to be, as I’ve said about a million times, the central gamble of the McCain candidacy.
Palin’s a heroine to the Cultural Right for one simple reason: she recently carried a pregnancy to term despite knowing that the child would likely suffer from Down’s Syndrome. In combination with her unambivalent anti-choice (and anti-gay-marriage) views, this makes her the ideal female candidate for the Christian Right (her own religious views are a bit hazy; she’s usually described as a “non-denominational Protestant”).
Economic conservatives like her too, partly because of her advocacy for oil drilling everywhere, especially in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and partly because she’s the bitter enemy of an Alaska GOP establishment long considered (strange as it may seem) dangerously liberal by most conservatives.
And that gets to the other central advantage she offers McCain: already, on Fox News, the spinners are endlessly talking about her as an “above party” reformer. Never mind that she represents the central thrust of an attempted hard-right takeover of the Alaska GOP: all that matters is that she’s criticized other Republicans. (She’s also gone after oil companies, even as she supports policies that would increase their already-bloated profits–much like McCain).
So even aside from the gender issue, Palin represents a veep who reinforces McCain’s message, except in one crucial respect: she has zero national security experience.
And that’s quite a gamble for a 72-year-old (as of today) presidential candidate who’s tried to make national security the central differentiator between himself and Obama.
The one immediate problem for Palin is that she’s been involved in a bit of a scandal involving her efforts to get a state trooper fired for (allegedly) abusing her sister during a brief marriage. That’s probably why at least one Fox spinner said she’s be able to attract attention to the issue of “violence against women” (not coincidentally, Joe Biden was the author of the Violence Against Women Act).
So: for all the gabbing we are going to hear about McCain’s “unconventional” veep choice, she really represents a doubling-down of his duplicitous effort to champion very conservative policies while posing as an independent “maverick.”

The Successful Spectacle

While we don’t know what kind of “bounce” Obama will get from the Democratic Convention, I think it’s safe to say that last night’s Invesco Field spectacle met every reasonable, if very high, expectation.
As I trudged endlessly through well over a mile of lines to get up to the metal detecters barring entry to Invesco Field (turns out it took two hours to traverse the 200 yards from my hotel), and then had to abandon my occupied nosebleed seat for one in the far high corner of the stadium, I feared that the magnitude of the event might be overwhelming its planners. But despite all the carping from Republicans about the “imperial” staging, it worked. The renowned Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales adjudged the massive show as perfect for the little screen:

This was Barack Obama’s big night, and it was the nation’s big night, too — one of those times that watching the screen you may have felt a connection to all the other millions of viewers watching in all the other millions of homes. It seemed that something great was beginning, and to paraphrase the name of an ancient TV news program, we were there.

Obama’s acceptance speech posed a crucial choice for his campaign: would he aim for the history books, or for a more conventional impact on the presidential campaign? He clearly chose the latter, and while the speech wasn’t as mesmerizing or tightly thematic as some of his past efforts, it was a very, very good campaign speech, likely the best delivered in an acceptance speech setting in decades. He systematically addressed every Republican attack line against his candidacy, but without sounding defensive, and obviously created some serious and immediate problems for John McCain. At National Review’s Corner blog, Jay Nordlinger said Obama’s line, “I’ve got news for you, John McCain–we all put our country first,” was “very, very effective–and pretty much sidelined McCain’s slogan.” Neutralizing your opponent’s slogan on the eve of his convention is a pretty big deal.
Yes, there was predictably some grumbling from various quarters about the alleged contradiction between Obama’s line-drawing and McCain-bashing passages, and the speech’s post-partisan coda. But look, folks, this has been Obama’s line of argument from the very beginning of his campaign: a corrupt GOP establishment beholden to narrow corporate and ideological interests is the primary obstacle to the task of addressing big national challenges that most regular people in and beyond the two major parties would like to see addressed. This speech was a pretty faithful, and unusually pointed, presentation of that argument. And it aimed right at the rotten center of McCain’s politically crucial claim that he, not Obama, represents “change” and a decent shot at the end of the long era of partisan gridlock.

Needed: More Testimony from Military Leaders

This was a great convention — the best I’ve ever seen. I was a tad worried about some of the innovative format ideas. But, in the end. they all worked together to create a highly positive overall impression of a candidate, campaign and political party who have their stuff together.
My one quibble about Mile High last night: The 20 or so generals and admirals who lined up for Obama was a jaw-dropper. But It seems a waste to bring them all together like that and have America hear from only one of them. One of McCain’s strong cards is a widely-held perception that he and the GOP are more qualified to protect our national security, and his campaign will hit hard on that meme going forward. These military leaders could do a lot more to increase confidence in our nominee’s national security creds. I do hope somebody has the good sense to videotape a bunch of them saying why they support Obama.
Other than that, boffo!

Too Much Applause!

Well, the rehearsals are finally over, and my main preoccupation now is figuring out how to navigate the 200 yards between my hotel and Invesco Field. It could take an hour or so given the security issues, unless I can pull a white rabbit out of my hat.
You may or may not have noticed that the speaker schedule on previous nights has changed some at the last minute, and/or that the program ran a little long. That’s because convention planners systematically underestimated the amount of applause speakers would receive. In face, speechwriters were frantically cutting speech texts this morning to account for unusually long applause delays.
If you have to have a big problem at a political event, the one you would choose is excessive audience enthusiasm. Let’s hope it’s communicable to a much broader audience.

Big Night

From a less objective vantage point here in Denver, I agree with J.P. Green’s assessment that the convention message operation is now fully on track. Bill Clinton fully addressed all the carping concerns expressed in the media (and by the McCain campaign) about the commitment of the Clinton’s to Obama’s cause, and also did an excellent job connecting the dots among Bush, McCain, and the conservative ideology of the Republican Party. The contextualizing of Biden’s speech–the video, Beau Biden’s intro, the “surprise” appearance of Obama–was perhaps even more effective than the speech itself. And in addition to the speeches Green touted, I thought John Kerry went after McCain quite well, particularly in the line about McCain needing to debate himself before debating Obama.
But it’s all a lead in to the Big Show tonight at Invesco Field. There are obviously some logistical challenges to this kind of event. In the Red Rehearsal Room yesterday, our speech trainer Steve Allen cleverly created a reverb effect to give speakers a taste of the acoustics of a football stadium. But I gather they’re going to have some sort of best-money-can-buy Grateful-Dead-style sound system, so it may not be that big a problem.
The biggest obsession for convention-goers yesterday was securing tickets for Invesco, which are very hard to come by. You can only imagine the hysteria that would have ensued had Obama delivered his acceptance speech in the much smaller Pepsi Center.

Wednesday Night in Denver: A Great Set-Up

The Denver doings Wednesday night were surprisingly impressive. I was expecting a pretty slow night, if not a yawner, hoping for maybe a good Biden speech. Instead I was glued to the tube throughout, watching one powerful presentation after another, with few slow spots. Some of the shorter presentations were exceptional — Tammy Duckworth and Admiral John D. Hutson especially. Hutson, a self-described lifelong Republican until he recently joined the Democratic Party, was not an exciting speaker stylisticly. But his content was laser-sharp — his five word riff “Arrogance Abroad, Incompetence at Home” is about as good a short meme as we’re going to get for the Bush-McCain continuum.
Bill Clinton was polished, eloquent and delivered the requisite endorsement of Obama with panache. The Biden package — video bio, son’s intro, and speech — was very well-done and his speech was heartfelt and fierce. It’s hard to imagine Romney holding up well in comparison. The lesser-known Pawlenty may be a little harder for Biden to target. Obama’s surprise visit, joining Biden onstage after his speech, was a huge hit with the delegates and a nice capper for the evening.
C-SPAN proved a good way to go. You don’t have to listen to any lame commentary telling you what you see and you get to experience the spectacle unfiltered. Also the colors seem more vivid than the PBS broadcast.
Kudos to the program organizers for producing a tight, mediagenic convention program for Wednesday night. All in all, an excellent set-up for the big day.

Beginning to Close the Deal

Well, it’s hard to imagine much more Hillary Clinton could have done last night to explicitly and implicitly ask her supporters to actively support Barack Obama. Sure, maybe she coulld have gone after John McCain at more length, but she had to do a lot of complicated things in this speech–most importantly, thanking her fans and telling them to vote for McCain or sit out the election would be a betrayal of their own efforts and values.
Aside from HRC’s speech, the most notable thing that happened last night was the slow but steady introduction of some red meat for the ravening Democratic delegates in the convention’s rhetorical diet–most obviously in the speeches of Brian Schweitzer, Ted Strickland and–to a lesser extent–Mark Warner.
But my favorite speech of the night, because she had rehearsed with us in the Red Room, was that of Lilly Ledbetter, the Alabaman whose lawsuit against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company has become the contemporary symbol of the fight for gender pay equity. If you heard Lilly, you heard not only one of the purest Southern Appalachina accents around, but a strong personal story about the stubborness of sexism, and the need for leadership–executive, legislative and judicial–to overcome it. In a way, Lilly Ledbetter’s endorsement of Barack Obama should have been as compelling to women mourning Hillary Clinton’s loss as HRC’s own endorsement.
Check out Matt Yglesias’ reaction to Lilly’s speech, and be sure to read his quote from National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg deriding that same speech. And if you found Lilly’s speech powerfukl rather than ridiculous, you might not want to consider voting for Jonah’s candidate, John McCain. (UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

The Clinton Factor

One of the time-honored traditions of national political conventions is the struggle between convention manangers, who wish to promote the image of a relentlessly united and enthusiastic party, and the news media in search of controversy.
Inevitably, the struggle in Denver revolves around the Clintons, Hillary tonight and Bill tomorrow night.
To read some of the news accounts, HRC’s speech will represent a moment of high drama and political peril. Will Hillaryites stage some sort of protest? Will the ongoing negotiations on the precise staging of the roll-call vote tomorrow break down and break into public?
If you’re in Denver, and want to get on television, the most direct route is to pose as an angry HRC supporter who’s mulling over a vote for John McCain.
The reality is that HRC will almost certainly deliver a rousing unity speech, to an appreciative audience, and will personally offer the motion on Wednesday to make Obama’s nomination unanimous. Yes, Bill’s speech on Wednesday will be watched (just as his last two convention speeches were) for signs that he’s “upstaging” the nominee, though this year the nominee will be exceptionally difficult to upstage.
And in the end, all the talk about Obama/Clinton discord could actually increase the perception of unity, when the discord fails to materialize.

Will There Be Blood ?

Paul Begala and Chris Bowers lead the charge today, calling for a more attack-focused Democratic convention. At OpenLeft, Bowers asks,

…Other than Pelosi’s less than convincing “John McCain is wrong” call and response, do we have any plans to attack John McCain during this convention? I haven’t heard any of it so far. It would be a massive waste of an opportunity if we don’t really open up on him in this election. For example, the Carter video could have shown Bush and McCain sharing cake when Hurricane Katrina struck. But we decided to take a pass.

A sentiment amplified by Desmoinesdem in the comments following Bowers’ post:

I also feel like we need to build a strong narrative against McCain this week. The Obama campaign has issued a tough statement here and run a state-specific negative ad there, but they are not building a concise case against McCain comparable to McCain’s case against Obama (shallow celebrity politician who’s not ready to lead).

Writing at HuffPo, Begala adds,

This is a no-brainer. The political press is abuzz with overblown stories of a Clinton-Obama rift. There are some hard feelings, but less than you’d think, given the closeness of the primaries. But I have a seven-point plan for uniting the Obama and Clinton wings of the party:
Attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, attack.
…If the Democrats do not spend the remaining days of their convention — hell, the remaining days of the campaign — in an all-out assault on the ruinous Bush-McCain policies, they will lose.
I was for Hillary in the primaries, but when she endorsed Sen. Obama, I proudly sent him a check for the legal maximum. On the memo line of the check I wrote, “FOR NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING ONLY.” No matter what minor difference Hillary and Barack had, they pale in comparison to the corruption, incompetence, dishonesty and criminality of the Bush-McCain Republicans.
Democrats need to attack as if the future, the country and the planet depend on it. Because they do.

Begala and Bowers echo a concern shared by many Dems, including myself — that the Dem Convention may squander too much precious air time on “getting to know the candidates” and all that. Begala is also concerned by reports that Dem keynoter Mark Warner will avoid attacking the GOP ticket because he needs Republican votes to win his Senate seat:

To be fair, Warner is running for the Senate in a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson. Tearing into war hero McCain while running in a state full of military families could prove problematic for a guy whose reputation as governor was made on bipartisanship.
Democrats should not have put Warner in this bind. They should have chosen as their keynoter someone who, like Pelosi, can give voice to the anger and anxiety of hundreds of millions of Americans. Someone who will show McCain to be the Bush clone that he is.

Michelle Obama did an outstanding and necessary job last night. But Bowers and Begala are right that it’s time to engage the adversaries with the most withering attacks Dems can mount. Here’s hoping the Dems will draw some blood tonight, and that Warner will realize he needs to show some mettle to this audience if he wants to be perceived as a potential president. Certainly Senator Clinton has never been a wallflower about attacking the opposition. Dem leaders should not have to be reminded that this is the largest television audience they will get between now and November 4. We can be sure that the GOP convention will waste little time before they go on an all-out offensive against our ticket.