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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

Messaging the Meltdown for Seniors

The meltdown of top financial institutions has left millions of American workers in doubt about the security of their retirement assets, and it’s a particularly urgent concern for those nearing retirement age. The crisis presents an opportunity for the Obama campaign to make significant inroads into a major demographic group that has trended toward McCain thus far and who are now feeling the big hurt — seniors.
Amazingly, the GOP nominee has cooperated in trashing his own credibility on the topic. Here’s John McCain breaking bad on golden parachutes:

Speaking to NBC’s Matt Lauer about the current crisis on Wall Street, the Republican nominee said executives have “treated it like a casino and need to be held accountable and stop walking away with these fat-cat packages.”

Ridiculous as it sounds, coming from one of the Fat Cats’ most reliable Senate bellhops, lots of people will buy it. Why? Because it fills a void. Working people do want more accountability and more fairness in retirement pensions. To those who are not familiar with his track record on social security, pension reform and banking regulation, it sounds plausible, and it fits in well enough with the McCain campaign’s ‘Maverick’ meme, bogus though it is.
But it can only work if Senator Obama and the Democrats let it go unchallenged. Let all Democrats hasten to point out at every opportunity that McCain’s trusted business and economic advisor/sidekick/mouthpiece, Carly Fiorina floated away from her unproductive tenure at the helm of Hewlett-Packard with a golden parachute worth a cool $42 million.
One way to do the the soundbite for speeches, ads, debates and interviews:

John McCain recently called for more accountability for corporate executives with “fat cat packages.” You can bet he didn’t get that idea from his top business advisor Carly Fiorina, who left Hewlett-Packard with a $42 million dollar golden parachute. Now millions of American workers are seeing their retirement saving slashed.

Or, on Social Security reform:

John McCain was one of the champions of putting your social security assets in the private sector. Imagine the shape millions of working families would be in now if he got his way. We need better judgment in the white house.

It appears the Obama is on the right track. Here’s what he said yesterday in New Mexico:

“In the next 47 days, you can fire the whole trickle-down, on-your-own, look-the-other-way crowd in Washington who has led us down this disastrous path,” he thundered. “Don’t just get rid of one guy. Get rid of this administration. Get rid of this philosophy. Get rid of the do-nothing approach to our economic problem and put somebody in there who’s going to fight for you.”

When we say “It’s the economy, stupid,” we’re basically talking about four key concerns — jobs, pay, retirement and health security, and now we can add housing — all of which have been put at risk for millions by GOP-driven deregulation and the current meltdown. Democrats have been given a timely opportunity to demonstrate leadership and the superiority of their track record and policies as champions of genuine economic security. Making the most of it with seniors will serve us well.

Rebutting the ‘Divided Government’ Case for McCain

George Will’s column, “McCain’s Closing Argument,” appearing today in WaPo and zillions of other newspapers, urges the GOP nominee to make the old ‘virtues of bipartisan government’ argument as his trump card. It’s a clever strategy, and would be more effective if Will had not gone public with it and instead coached McCain to roll it out in the final presidential debate, catching Senator Obama off guard.
McCain will make the argument. He has to, although not only in the debates. He may roll it out even sooner, hoping to get a meme going. The danger for Democrats is that it is an argument that has some appeal for moderates. Will knows Obama will now have a response ready, which will include a couple of key points.
One counter-argument is that there are not two, but three branches of government, including the judiciary, which was conveniently not mentioned by Will. In fact, the ‘virtues of divided government’ argument is misleading for that reason. The only way we could ever have an evenly divided government is for the Supreme Court to have an even number of members, instead of nine.
After eight years of Republican judicial appointments, the U.S. Supreme Court and federal judgeships are already drifting too far to the right. Four or eight more years of GOP domination of the judiciary could be disastrous for women, unions, working people, consumers, the environment and civil liberties.
But it’s not just the judiciary. Eight years of Republican control has also transformed all of the federal departments and agencies into rubber stamps for the worst policies of corporate management, serving the super-wealthy and privileged at the expense of working people. Senator Obama can respond to good effect “What would America look like after 16 years of Republican control of the executive and judicial branches of government?”, with the current meltdown as exhibit “A.”
As the nation’s most widely-read columnist, Will’s real goal in promoting the ‘virtues of divided government’ argument is to generate buzz among the electorate in living rooms and at water-coolers across the nation. No doubt the buzz is already rolling. Democratic candidates, campaigns and ad-makers should be ready with the rebuttal.

Today’s GOP: The Real Bridge to Nowhere

In response to my Wednesday post on messaging decisions, a chap/chapette with the handle ‘cvh1789’ offers an interesting soundbite idea (first suggested by frequent TNR commenter roidubouloi):

An intelligent comment I read at the New Republic website suggests a particular line of attack: describe the Republican Party as “the bridge to nowhere.” That would work for Palin and McCain.

Here’s an excerpt of the riff from roidubouloi:

The Republican party didn’t just try to build the bridge to nowhere at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, the Republican party is the bridge to nowhere. It cannot protect us from our enemies. It cannot protect us from falling behind in global competition. It cannot protect us from the storms and natural disasters the result from climate change. It is not just the party of the past, it is the party of no place, no program, no values.”

I like it. Stir in the notion that today’s GOP is “not your father’s Republican Party” and we get a nifty little bumper sticker:

Today’s GOP: The Real ‘Bridge to Nowhere

Or a speech/interview/ad zinger:

The Clinton administration gave us peace, prosperity and a bridge to the future. McCain and Palin are offering us a bridge to nowhere.

It may not be as catchy as ‘where’s the beef?’, but “bridge to nowhere” is a familiar phrase that resonates with voters. And it makes the point that the Republicans have no vision or program, other than wielding power.

Can Issues Trump Persona?

Lynn Forester de Rothschild’s opinion piece, “Democrats Need to Shake The ‘Elitist’ Tag” in yesterday’s Wall St. Journal had a couple of insightful nuggets, including,

If Barack Obama loses the presidential election, it may well be the result of a public perception that he is detached and elitist — a politician whose expressions of empathy for hard-working Americans stem more from abstract solidarity than a real connection to the lives of millions of citizens….
While Obama supporters attempt to dismiss the charges about their candidate’s perceived hauteur, they confuse privilege and elitism. Elitism is a state of mind, a view of the world that cannot be measured simply by one’s net worth, position or number of houses. Throughout American history, there have been extremely wealthy figures who have devoted themselves to genuinely nonelitist principles. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt is probably the best-known example.) At the same time, many from modest backgrounds, like Harry Truman’s foil, Thomas Dewey, personified elitism.

De Rothschild likens Obama to Adlai Stevenson, explaining,

…while Stevenson’s stylish, articulate, high-brow manner thrilled the nation’s intellectuals, he could never connect with large numbers of working-class Democrats who found him aloof and aristocratic…The “new politics” Democrats have found their new, improved Stevenson in Mr. Obama…It is ironic that the candidate who comes from a more privileged background — John McCain — can genuinely point to at least one crucial moment in his life when elitism went by the boards.

The author goes on to overstate her case with more debatable broad-brush generalizations about both the Democratic Party and Senator Obama. But in these excerpts she does suggest a concern that merits consideration. For three election cycles now, Dems have nominated brilliant policy wonks, highly able, accomplished men of exceptional integrity and compassion, who have trouble getting traction in the white working/middle class. The three nominees have often been out-manuevered by two upper-class, make that ruling-class Republicans who were somehow able to project a persona that resonates better with the middle class. Quite bizarre, when you think about it.
Even more ironic, Senator Obama, who lived with his grandparents for seven formative years, has more real-life experience living in the white middle-class than Bush, McCain and several other recent GOP presidential candidates put together. That he doesn’t try to affect a folksy persona in his interviews and speeches speaks well of his integrity and seriousness of purpose. How much it helps him will be determined on Nov. 4.
McCain, for all of his character flaws, is very comfortable and relaxed enough to affect a ‘regular guy’ persona. One of his strengths as a candidate is that he is a naturally-gifted actor, who can do crocodile tears about bipartisanship or project a self-effacing persona on Saturday Night Live with equal panache. And to give McCain and Bush due credit, they both have a good ear — they can talk the talk of the middle class, though neither has ever walked the walk. No doubt McCain’s ‘Hanoi Hilton’ experience gives him additional leverage.
Candidate character and persona are always important, in some elections more than others. And yes, there are millions of “low information voters” who vote based on such criteria. But I agree with Ed’s Tuesday post, “No Issues, Please“, that issues still trump such considerations with millions of voters. In this election cycle in particular, Dems have a very strong advantage in this regard, and that has to come across loud and clear over the next seven weeks. If you had to boil the republican’s grand strategy down into one word, “confusion” would do as well as any. It’s up to us to insure that they don’t prevail.

Messaging, Registration and Turnout Decisions Key to Election

The trickiest decisions to be made in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign involve the optimum allocation of candidate time, energy and money. The campaigns have to decide how much emphasis and resources they will put into four key messaging tools: speeches; ads; debates and interviews. Among the considerations:
In 2000 Al Gore delivered the best speech of his career to date, when he accepted the Democratic nomination. He looked terrific and it was well-filmed. I remember thinking “Boy, they can make great ads with clips from this speech.” But we never saw any of it again. Speeches are obviously Obama’s strong card, and he will be making plenty of them over the next 7 weeks. But it would be a shame to leave it at that. The Obama campaign should repackage his speeches into a “greatest hits” anthology and buy a fat block of TV time to show them and the huge cheering crowds to the nation, not just stump audiences thither and yon. We Dems haven’t had a speaker this good since JFK. We shouldn’t pay any attention to the McCain campaign’s snarky references to our candidate’s oratory. People want to be inspired, and Obama can deliver the goods. If we don’t make the fullest use of Obama’s speaking skills, we will flunk.
What I have seen of the new Obama ads is encouraging. On the whole, they are pretty sharp and punchy. TV is still king, but other media are critical as well, especially the internet and radio. A new and important consideration this cycle is recycling or producing ads on the internet, going viral with YouTube etc. Plus the always difficult choices to be made about money and TV markets well in advance of broadcast.
There will only be three presidential debates (see details and formats here) plus one veep debate, and both tickets will put in a lot of prep time. Here Obama should focus on soundbite-sized responses to questions, and avoid the temptation to explain things to smithereens. As PA Gov. Ed. Rendell put it, “We’ve got to start smacking back in short understandable bites.” McCain already knows this. Dems might consult with John Stewart and Bill Maher for some punchy zingers. It’s a shame ‘where’s the beef’ has already been done, since it fits the GOP ticket so perfectly. No question should elicit a long, rambling answer. If the question is off point or softball, Obama should practice seizing the opportunity to respond along the lines of “Well, the more important question/point is…”
Media interviews are free ads, as well as potential minefields. McCain may have an edge here, since he gets more free rides from MSM reporters, and his proclivity for shorter answers serves him well. Obama might try floating more zingers in his interviews. A good one-liner can become a devastating meme. A ‘Where’s the beef’ type zinger could be used here as well. Despite an occasional gaffe, Biden may be the best interview in both parties, as evidenced by his record number of MTP appearances. Using his skills more extensively than has been the case for veep nominees thus far could help the ticket.
Apart from messaging, both presidential campaigns will be at full bore in taking advantage of early voting opportunities and in registering their key constituencies before the voter registration deadlines. About half the states will close registration by October 7th, less than a month away. The key decision here is targeting the most likely swing states, and the calculations change almost daily. But the turnout mobilization has to happen everywhere. The “Movement” aspect of the Obama campaign may well provide a decisive edge in turnout — and for victory in a close election.

McCain’s Character Flaws Fair Game

Dry wit Sarah Vowell’s cultural commentary is always worth a read. But on Saturday she hit on a couple of political messaging angles Dem ad-makers should think about. Here’s a clip from Vowell’s op-ed in the New York Times:

During a gubernatorial debate in 2006, Governor Palin claimed that if her daughter, then 16, were impregnated as the result of being raped, Ms. Palin would hope that the girl would “choose life,” which is a polite way of saying she would expect a tenth-grader to give birth to her rapist’s baby.
Here’s a not-so-polite fact about the United States: According to Amnesty International, a woman is raped here every six minutes.
Like his running mate, Senator McCain has been a true-blue opponent of abortion rights during his political career. Unlike his running mate, he supports the right to terminate a pregnancy in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. So does President Bush. During a Republican primary debate in 2000, Senator McCain denounced Mr. Bush for being in favor of the exception but not having the guts to push for putting it in writing in the official Republican Party platform that year.
This year, Senator McCain himself didn’t bother to stand up to the right wing of his party to insist that the rape and incest exception be written into the Republican Party platform. Just as he failed to stand up to the right wing of his party in choosing his running mate. His first choice was reported to be Senator Joseph Lieberman, a man who stood up to the Democratic Party to the extent that he isn’t even a Democrat anymore.

Some promising memes brewing here. First. McCain dumps his ‘principles’ whenever he smells an opportunity for more power (see Vega’s Aug. 6 post at TDS for more on this angle). Second, he backs down from political bullies. Third, If anything should happen to 72-76 year-old McCain during his term, President Palin — it’s difficult to even think the words — will appoint Supreme Court justices who favor her extremist positions on outlawing abortions, and perhaps her troubling ideas about book-banning.
As our recent staff post reported, healthy majorities of single women of all races are already tilting toward Obama. Some well-targeted ads (women watch more TV and surf more net than men) could help awaken more single women to the disturbing prospect of the McCain-Palin policies on abortion, and just might cut a little slice out of McCain’s big lead lead among white married women.
And Dems concerned about how the Catholic vote factors into the Palin effect, and anyone struggling with abortion as a personal and political issue, may find helpful our veep nominee’s comments on Meet the Press. As Biden explained,

It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths–Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others–who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They’re intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life–I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.

The entire transcript and netcast of Biden’s Sunday appearance on MTP are highly recommended for illuminating the stark contrast in the gravitas of the Dem and GOP veep nominees — and, more importantly, for what it says about the presidential nominees who selected them.

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!

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.

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.

The Biden Choice, Women and the South

As our staff post reported yesterday, the latest New York Times/CBS poll indicates the selection of the vice presidential running mate is an important factor in the ballot decision of 25 percent of voters.
Any choice Obama made would disappoint some important constituency. And it may well be that the net number of votes gained and lost as a result of different choices wouldn’t vary all that much regardless.
The selection of Joe Biden as Obama’s running mate is nonetheless a solid choice that should help with some pivotal constituencies, including Catholics, the white working class, seniors and those concerned about Obama’s foreign policy experience. Biden’s home state, DE, doesn’t add any electoral votes. But his Scranton roots should help Obama shore up central PA and perhaps NJ, all of which Obama had a good chance of winning anyway.
Biden also gives Obama a savvy running mate, who can help Obama target McCain’s weak and strong spots more effectively. As the Senate’s top foreign policy expert, Biden will be in position to provide helpful counsel to Obama on a daily basis. Biden also has a gift for quotable sound bites and an ability to explain policy in simple terms without talking down to voters. I wouldn’t worry too much about gaffes, despite his “clean and articulate” blunder in the primary season. Biden is too smart not to have learned from it. The ’88 plagiarism controversy? I think most voters know that top politicians use speechwriters, and they sometimes screw up. Besides McCain’s “cross in the sand” story’s similarities to Solzhenitsyn’s account makes it unlikely McCain’s campaign will make too much of it.
The selection of Biden may hurt some with women, southerners and Virginians in particular. Kaine would have helped more with Virginia, and perhaps the south. As Ed noted yesterday, however, Obama has some strengths in VA that could provide a margin of victory, especially if Webb, Kaine and Warner campaign energetically for Obama. As for the south as a whole, Biden’s selection won’t help much, except possibly in FL, where Biden may help elevate seniors’ comfort level with Obama. It may be that Biden as veep may chill Obama’s southern strategy altogether. Obama can win without any southern states, but only if he wins just about all of the other swing states. As I noted in my 8/19 post, no Democrat has ever been elected without winning some southern states, and Obama has to win 72 percent of electoral votes outside the south if he is shut out in the region.
Perhaps the toughest problem posed by the Biden choice is winning the votes of women who are disappointed that a woman was not selected. As Ed pointed out yesterday, the NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll indicated that “among self-described Hillary Clinton supporters, 52% say they now support Obama, while 21% support McCain and 27% are undecided.” Worse, when that poll was taken, there was still hope that Obama would pick a woman running mate.
The Dem ticket’s strong pro-choice advocacy will help with women. Dems should miss no opportunity to point out that McCain supports criminalizing abortion. Few women, even some of those who have doubts about abortion, want women who have abortions to be subjected to criminal penalties.
The important question facing the Obama campaign now is, what can be done to win more support from women and southerners. Obama’s GA and NC campaigns may be crippled by the Biden selection. Perhaps the only hope in these states is that the African American and youth voter registration surges are big enough to justify continued investment of campaign resources. If Sam Nunn and Jimmy Carter campaign vigorously for Obama in GA, it might help with some white and conservative voters.
One thing that might help with both the south and women is to name his cabinet before the election, and make sure that women and southerners get a healthy share of the top posts. Paul Waldman suggested naming his cabinet at the same time as his veep pick. But Obama could still release cabinet nominees slowly between now and the election to good effect. It would give him a half-dozen or so days when he could dominate the news in a positive way, and it could make McCain look disorganized in comparison. Imagine the splash, for example, if Nunn and/or Clinton were Obama cabinet nominees going into November 4. The Democratic party is loaded with impressive women and southern office-holders. Obama can benefit by leveraging this resource before the election, and it would show a bold, innovative spirit that would inspire confidence in the electorate..