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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Changing the Subject

Last night I listened with dismay to a panel of TV pundits as they pummeled Barack Obama for “letting himself” get drawn into a debate with John McCain over Iraq policy. “It’s the economy, stupid!” they chortled, as though the phrase represented some sort an enduring truth rather than an ephemeral (and actually misleading) bit of Carvellian legend from the 1992 Clinton campaign. One pundit seemed beside herself with frustration that Obama didn’t just “wrap himself around a gas pump” and make gas prices the centerpiece of his general election campaign.
To the extent that John McCain is trying to make the general election almost excusively “about” national security, for Obama to take this sage advice essentially would mean conceding that cluster of issues to the Republican. It would also mean discounting Obama’s advantage on Iraq policy, and reduce his credibility as a potential president ready to grapple with all the country’s challenges.
That’s why I was happy to read E.J. Dionne’s column this morning, which reminded Democrats of the electoral consequences of succumbing to their ancient habit of changing the subject from national security to domestic issues. He did so in the context of an argument for Joe Biden as Veep (another thing entirely), but the bigger issue is how Obama himself frames his campaign message and agenda, with or without help from any particular running-mate.
The idea that Clinton’s 1992 campaign provides the template for 2008 doesn’t make a lot of sense to begin with. The 1990s were a historical anomaly in that international issues in general were virtually occluded, thanks to the end of the Cold War and a brief period of unquestioned U.S. global hegemony. And besides, if there is any one crucial lesson of the Clinton 1992 and 1996 victories, it’s that Democrats need not concede large areas of public policy (e.g., crime, welfare, fiscal discipline, government reform) to the opposition. There are distinctly progressive approaches to “Republic issues” that can blunt or even reverse long-standing GOP advantages and make “Democratic issues” even more salient. That’s true of national security as well (cf. James Vega’s TDS series on progressive messaging and military strategy).
There’s no significant risk that Barack Obama will fail to spend a lot of time talking about the economy in the general election campaign. But he also has a compelling case to make for a progressive foreign policy and national security posture, beyond opposition to the war in Iraq, and if only because voters continue to exhibit doubts about the Democratic Party on these issues, he needs to make it.
A word to political pundits: It really is time, folks, to retire the “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” line. It wasn’t entirely true even in 1992, and endlessly intoning it with dripping contempt for a more comprehensive message is, well, kind of stupid.

2 comments on “Changing the Subject

  1. Tiparillo on

    Its especially strange since yesterday Obama hit McCain hard on the very topic of the economy.
    Besides, once Obama shows that he is not naive and unprepared on foreign policy – as McCain and the GOP is trying to portray him – what else does McCain have to run on?

  2. tfisher on

    Ed Kilgore knocked that one out of the park–I hope someone from the Obama campaign reads this.
    One more point: “The Economy, Stupid” was more about message discipline than policy. Then-Governor Clinton was (still is) a brilliant-but-wonky political thinker with a natural talent for politics. However he also had a problem (still does) with disciplining himself to stay on message. In a large sense, the famous sign was really directed at Bill Clinton, not the public.


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