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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Shrewd Choice of “Debating” Partner

I don’t have a lot to say about the unusual “debate”–via back to back speeches at different locations–between the President of the United States and the former Vice President of the United States in Washington today. You can read them here and here, and judge for yourself, or check out the many assessments on the internet (e.g., this early one from Jacob Heilbrunn calling it a rout for Obama).
More interesting to me is the way Team Obama created this “event” in the first place, showing how smart tactics can promote smart strategy.
Remember where we were just yesterday on the “anti-terrorism” issues that were the centerpiece of the Obama-Cheney “debate.” The President was getting hit from every direction on his handling of detainee polices, investigations of interrogation practices, and increasingly, his Iraq and Afghanistan strategies. It seemed nearly everyone was calling him a wimp, a hypocrite, or both, from their varying perspectives. The U.S. Senate had dealt him an embarrassing bipartisan blow on funding for shutting down Gitmo.
It’s hard to imagine a better “reframer” of these issues than a “debate” with Dick Cheney, a deeply unpopular man who is determined to defend the very worst practices of the Bush administration, in a manner that reminds Americans–progressives and moderate independents alike–exactly why they voted for Barack Obama, even if they are disappointed with him on this or that issue. And aside from the specific issues in discussion, there is simply no downside for the White House or for Democrats in keeping Cheney front-and-center as the snarling voice and brooding face of the GOP.
If, in addition to everything else, the initial perception that Obama cleaned Cheney’s clock is broadly shared, you’d have to consider this a tactical and strategic ten-strike for the White House, at a time, and on a topic, where he needed one. The next “frame” (sorry for the bowling metaphor, but I couldn’t resist!) could produce different results, but it was a good day’s work for the President of the United States.

5 comments on “Shrewd Choice of “Debating” Partner

  1. Bernie Latham on

    Let me add, for a bit of fun but also to point to something quite serious and relevant here.
    Richard Hofstadter in “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” details the contrast in American mythology between the “intellectual” and the “practical man”. This is a very old dichotomy but it deeply marks the American psyche still.
    A particularly illuminating example can be found in the Walt Disney version of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Note the contrasting physicality of the two males, the easy fright to which Ichabod is susceptible, and the bookishness of Ichabod contrasted with the practical resourcefulness of Brom. Ichabod is, of course, chased out of town (presumably, he goes back east)and Brom gets the girl. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDrnPqQtpxw&feature=PlayList&p=5C1DB69D66041476&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=5

  2. Bernie Latham on

    Thanks kindly for the response.
    “Wooden”, yes. But calmly self-certain and fatherly (if stern) might be another way to understand Cheney’s presentation today. Few on the right presently can pull that off with credibility. Certainly not Jindal, nor Cantor, nor Limbaugh, nor even McCain. Gingrich probably gets closest but then he speaks and things kind of go to hell.
    We know this framing, of course, as the right has beat citizens over the head with it for decades. See Kristol’s blog today where he contrasts Obama as “a young Senator” to Cheney as “a grown up”, “a statesman”, “a chief executive”. Fatherly protector versus flighty, immature, feminine liberals. And today, as always, this comes packaged with the projection of dire, deadly threats in waiting. As Drew Westen and others have advised, this “activates peoples’ fear of mortality which inherently pushes them to the right.”
    We assumed we were done with this amoral, authoritarian character but whatever combination of personal pathologies and need to dominate others whirl about within him, it seems that the unique circumstances of the present time are going to keep him in our lives. But he’s not a stupid man and he knows how to play this game. We ought not to submisunderestimate him, I think.

  3. James Vega on

    Now that the preliminary media coverage is in, I unfortunatly suspect that you are right in thinking that Cheney succeeded in providing the Republicans with a far better spokesman than Limbaugh. His delivery was wooden but he staked out a “strong on defense” position that is significantly more popular than are the Republicans as a party.

  4. Bernie Latham on

    My take here is not so unambiguously positive.
    It seems to me that Cheney’s ascension into the spotlight is achieving a strategic positive for the Republicans at this point. My impression is that the ‘face’ of the party has changed significantly (and purposefully) over the last couple of months. I don’t think we’ll see Limbaugh challenging Obama to a debate again (or otherwise attempting to lift his profile past the red meat/radio sphere) and I suspect that is because the smarter people in the party hierarchy have grasped that the leadership vacuum that pushed Limbaugh forward could not continue without devastating consequences for the party’s future electoral chances. I don’t have figures on the frequency of media appearances by Fleischer, Perino, Rove and others from the Bush administration but my impression is that this frequency increased at the time Carville and Begala were working to elevate Limbaugh’s status.
    Or, to say this with brevity, I think the party biggies understood that the only Republicans on the horizon with the media manipulation skills and institutional connections to facilitate such manipulation is the Bush administration crowd. And that Cheney is one of the few people who might be able to pull off the “leader” role presently.

  5. James Vega on

    In asian martial arts, where there are specific techniques taught for dealing with multiple opponents, one fundamental set of instructions is a series of pivots and twists to insure that one never faces more then a single opponent at at time.
    The rule is “never battle ten opponents at once – battle opponents one by one ten times.
    Yesterday, Obama faced ten opponents. Today he faced one. fine footwork indeed.


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