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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

No Issues, Please

The headline from Jonathan Martin and Jim VandeHei of The Politico says it all: “McCain, Palin push biography, not issues.”

When John McCain’s campaign manager said last week that this presidential election “is not about issues,” it wasn’t a Freudian slip. It was an unvarnished preview of McCain’s new campaign plan.
In the past week, McCain — with new running mate Sarah Palin always close by his side — has transformed the Republican campaign narrative into what amounts to a running biography of this new political odd couple.
In the duo’s new stump speech and their first post-convention ad, the impression campaign strategists hope to leave is unmistakable. McCain is the war hero. Palin is the Every­mom. And together, they will rattle Washington.
Considering the big challenges the country faces — two wars and a wobbly economy, for starters — the focus on personal narratives might strike some as jarringly superficial for the times.

Well, you go to war with the candidates you’ve got, and the McCain-Palin ticket has no policy ideas other than those which are identified with the Bush-Cheney administration and/or the right wing of the Republican Party. I’m reminded of a comment that William F. Buckley once made about a photo-laden biography of his political nemesis, New York Mayor John Lindsay: “If I were commissioned to write a favorable biography of Lindsay, it would consist entirely of photographs.”
There’s a school of thought, particularly strong among Democrats, that says issues “don’t matter” in presidential elections; that it’s all about character, and narrative, and striking the right emotional chords. We are often told that Al Gore and John Kerry lost because they didn’t understand this “truth.”
I don’t buy it, especially this year. Sure, elections are not public policy seminars; many voters are unversed on policy, and/or don’t trust that politicians will do what they promise when in office; and the majority of voters have made up their minds on party ID grounds before any debate on issues occurs. But voters do have concrete concerns that are connected to specific needs, for themselves and their country, and specific grievances about the performance of those in power today. It need not be an exercise in sterile wonkery to point out, for example, that John McCain’s health care plan is a carbon-copy of Bush’s most recent proposal, that would undermine job-based health insurance, drive millions of Americans into expensive individual policies, and make it even harder than it already is for people with pre-existing conditions to get coverage. This argument can and should be made with passion and even anger. But it needs to be made, against the effort by Team McCain to get across the finish line without discussing or defending what the man might actually do as president. (The debates will be a high hurdle for this effort).
Bring on the passionate wonkery, the compelling talking points, the policy debates wrapped in narrative and the needs of “real people!” To a remarkable degree, the Republican ticket is ceding the whole vast ground of America’s future agenda to Democrats. Let’s use it.

5 comments on “No Issues, Please

  1. dragbunt on

    When republicans lie and misrepresent us, all we can do is speak to each lie – that puts us on the defensive and talking about specific issues that do not carry the weight that “country first” and patriotism does.
    I think we should attempt to redefine patriotism – it’s not just about fighting and dying for your country – it could mean making your country a better place for future americans. The man or woman who works two jobs to give their children more opportunities than they had is equally as heroic and patriotic as a kid who goes to war to fight for what he/she thinks their country believes in.
    I think Obama should give a speech that addresses the footprint or the legacy of our country – A speech that harkens to America’s past as a benevolent world leader – an indicate that we could be that again – It’s not that we care about what the French think of us – we should care about what future generations of americans think about us – we want our children to know that we saw policies that were wrong and we stopped doing them.
    So I’m thinking you play the Iraq card – most of the country believes that Iraq was a mistake – the architects of it can not own up to it – but that doesn’t mean we as a people can’t own up to it – Barack should spell out the mistake – point to that “mission accomplished” moment and say that it was the one thing Bush got right. We had indeed overthrown the evil Saddam – and we should have left – The republicans who continue to believe that the war in Iraq can still be won have somehow forgotten that their leader had already declared it over and won five years ago – They’ve kept calling an occupation a war because it’s good for business – That should be our theme – Everything the republicans do is “good for business.”
    “…they passed this bill and gave out that contract because it was… good for business.” Repeat and rinse several times and then finish with… “in fact for the last 8 years they’ve been giving us… THE BUSINESS!
    Point out that people were the ones that benefitted the least – and then jam “People first” down their republican throats.

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  2. Brian Gaerity on

    People are no more perfectly rational in their political decisions than they are in their economic ones. Issues, character, narrative and emotion all play a role, in infinite combination of importance, making it all but impossible to know what truly motivates an individual voter in any given election. Last week, issues took a back seat to biography and curiosity. I agree with Ed that issues are still a key variable in voter decision-making this year. But issues are being strongly challenged by character and narrative. McCain’s greatest strength is his biography; Obama’s advantage is issues. Going after McCain and Palin’s character won’t be as effective as attacking them on issues. Obama just doesn’t have the “character brand strength” that McCain does; his experience lacks a convincing and seamless arc, and, unfortunately, many voters find him “different.” But he’s savvy, smart and dead-on aligned with voters on the main issues of this election. I believe that if Obama can, as Ed said, recapture the narrative, as well as continue his success in mastering the fundamentals of voter turnout, then Obama can win. I’m optimistic. My guess is that McCain and Palin have hit their apex; I just don’t see how they go up from here. It’s highly doubtful that Obama will self-destruct, and he still has a lot of upside potential.

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  3. QuantumV1 on

    Good point: “Unless we are incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, we can do what you want and what I want, and in fact, we should.” But who said the voting public can walk and chew gum at the same time? Driving through Pennsylvania last month, I saw this message spray painted on the back of an 18-wheeler: “Shut up and drill.” Or today, this bumper sticker was stuck on the back of a pickup in my town: “Liberals s**k.” Last night, I spoke with a labor organizer who called to urge me to vote for a Democratic candidate running in a primary for state office. He was knocking on doors for Kerry in NH in 2004 and met another union member who told him he would never vote for Kerry because of what he heard from the swiftboaters. In other words, this union member was going to vote against his own interests! I hope you’re right that American voters can walk and chew gum at the same time. Too bad so many people seem to want to “keep it simple and stupid.” I believe that most Americans want to “Bring on the passionate wonkery, the compelling talking points, the policy debates wrapped in narrative and the needs of ‘real people!'” At least, I hope they do.

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  4. edkilgore on

    I strongly disagree. The McCain bump happened because the GOP oonvention shifted the playing ground from issues to those vague substitutes for issues, the “maverick” pose.
    We need to shift it back, and if we don’t, we’ll lose. As my post indicated, I believe it’s a false choice to suggest that we have to reject issue appeals in order to maintain what you call a “fighting image.” Fights can be over policy, you know. Unless we are incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, we can do what you want and what I want, and in fact, we should.
    Ed Kilgore

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  5. ThinkingGuy on

    “But voters do have concrete concerns that are connected to specific needs, for themselves and their country, and specific grievances about the performance of those in power today.”
    They do. And they voted AGAINST their own said issues in 2004 to give Bush the White house again. Why?
    BECAUSE IT IS ALL ABOUT THE FIGHTING IMAGE!
    Bring on the policy wonkery? Bring out the initiatives and numbers? You forgot to add one thing to your list..bring out the loss!
    Democrats, and out numbers, and figures, and ideas are not, not, NOT sexy enough to win elections against war heroes and beauty queens that lie and fight ugly. Policy will not work, because it has not worked. We went from 7 points up to for down..ine ONE WEEK. One week people! An eleven point drop in one week, why? Because the country dissaproves of Barack’s health plan? No! It is because of IMAGE…because of the MILF on the ticket.
    As long as we continue to actually believe the voting public has enough energy or intelligence to make a decision based on numbers and policies, (despite all eveidence to the contrary…2004, the low approval rating of the Democratic Congress), we will continue to be beaten badly, as we are well on our way to being this year.

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