Jon Chait’s L.A. Times column yesterday suggested that Barack Obama needs to spend some time away from uplifting, positive campaign events, and go after John McCain with hammer and tongs. Indeed, said Chait, McCain’s stubborn resilience in the polls is probably attributable to the entire focus of the campaign on Obama, which enables the vulnerable Republican to feed doubts, however clumsily, about his opponent with little to lose:
A recent poll found that half the voters are focused on what kind of president Obama would make, while only a quarter are focused on McCain. Obama has attracted more media attention — and more criticism: A Center for Media and Public Affairs study found that, over the last six weeks, the major news networks have expressed proportionately more negative assessments of Obama than McCain.
McCain may be committing lots of blunders, but the blunders aren’t hurting him because the spotlight is on Obama. McCain is getting attention for his attacks on Obama, especially his frequent insinuations that Obama lacks patriotism.
Chait goes on to suggest that Obama may be making the same mistake as John Kerry made in 2004, eschewing negative campaigning on the theory that voters had already reached judgment on the Republican Party and its candidate.
I generally agree with Jon’s prescription, but have a somewhat different take on the Kerry precedent, and on the factors that may be leading Obama to resist a more sharply partisan campaign.
The relentlessly positive 2004 Democratic convention that Jon cites was less the product of a flawed grand strategy than of an overreaction to some focus groups that showed undecided voters harshly rejecting partisan appeals. (As Jon notes, and as Drew Westen emphasized in The Political Brain, such reports represent what voters would like to think about themselves, not how they actual react). The instructions to convention message staff to ruthlessly stamp out references to the GOP, or even to Bush, in everyone’s speeches, came down quite late. (As one of the unhappy enforcers of that edict in a rehearsal room, I subversively let a few partisan notes make it onto the teleprompter, but not enough to annoy, much less swat, a gnat.)
A somewhat different misjudgment–though it’s hard to say it really had an effect on the outcome–was made by Team Kerry in the homestretch of the campaign, reflecting the virtually universal belief of political scientists that late undecided voters (whose “wrong track” sentiments were extremely high) would break against the incumbent. That’s why last-minute polls showing a dead heat cheered the Kerry campaign, and also why they bought the early exit polls showing a victory in all the key states.
Having absorbed the lesson, I don’t think the Obama campaign is making the same mistake, but they have their own reasons for downplaying partisan attacks that connect the dots between McCain, Bush and the GOP. For one thing, Obama has always disparaged excessive partisanship and other examples of “politics as usual.” For another, he’s still hoping to win a small but significant slice of self-identified Republicans, not to mention winning genuine independents, who are often lukewarm towards partisan Kabuki Theater. And let’s don’t forget there are elements of Team Obama, with significant support in the netroots, who think it’s important that the candidate repudiate Democratic as well as Republican malefactors in Washington, and the Clinton as well as the Bush legacy.
This last consideration is reminiscent of the decision made by Al Gore in 2000 to detach himself from his own Democratic administration, and campaign against “the powerful,” as defined by a list of unpopular corporate actors. I’m sure it made sense at the time, particularly given Gore’s conviction that he had to separate himself from Bill Clinton. But it also tended to make voters think they were choosing between Al Gore and the pharmaceutical companies rather than Al Gore and George W. Bush. Eventually a lot of voters listened to the Bush’s campaign’s disingenuous claims that they, too, wanted a Patient’s Bill of Rights and a Rx drug benefit, and by failing to connect the dots between his shadowy enemies and his actual opponent, the reborn neo-populist Gore ironically succeeded in blurring the lines between the parties more than Bill Clinton ever had. (Yes, yes, I know he actually won, but I’m one of those who thought he could have won by a margin that would not have enabled Katherine Harris and the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the popular judgment). With Gore spending much of his time shadow-boxing unpopular corporate villains, Bush, the chosen vehicle of an unholy alliance of theocons and K Street greedheads, got away far more than he should have with projecting himself as a “reformer with results” who simply offered a different “change agenda.”
Barack Obama may be in danger of repeating Gore’s even more than Kerry’s mistakes. As Jon Chait suggests, John McCain’s entire candidacy is based on a dubious effort to maintain his brief 2000 “maverick” image after having shamelessly pandered to the conservative ascendency of his party, while actually championing one of its worst legacies, the Iraq War. He presents a big fat target for a negative but entirely fair and fact-filled campaign. Everything I know about the Obama campaign suggests that it’s not at all averse to the occasional, strategic, cut-and-parry attack on McCain. But Obama really does need to spend less time on broad-based indictments of “Washington” or “lobbyists” or “politics as usual,” and spend a lot more time talking about his actual opponent, the actual opposing party, and the actual incumbent that links them.