washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

J.P. Green

McCain Meltdown Unlikely

Despite all of the buzz about Senator John McCain’s explosive temper, Democrats would be wise not to bet on a McCain meltdown. Sure, he could lose his cool at some point, but accounts of his intemperate outbursts over the years indicate that he rarely goes ballistic in public forums.
McCain projects a very tightly-controlled persona in media interviews. One of his more impressive communication skills is to lower the volume in his one-on-one television interviews — almost to a whisper — conveying a sense that “this is a reasonable, level-headed man,” in stark contrast to reports of his temper tantrums with aides, congressional peers and his spouse. A lot of voters seem to be impressed by this, and it may be reflected in McCain’s relatively high ‘favorable’ scores in opinion polls — even though the content of what is being said, particularly in McCain’s case, is often disturbing. (Glenn Greenwald has a good post on the topic of McCain’s manipulation of the media here)
McCain is also reportedly adept at schmoozing the press, one reason for the ‘free ride’ many progressives see in the coverage of McCain’s campaign so far. The media interview is McCain’s strongest messaging skill, and his campaign will deploy it lavishly in the months ahead. Don’t be surprised by a series of faux interview, low-content ads showing McCain as a ‘down-to-earth’ guy.
The tightly-controlled persona loosens some in his speech-making, because political speeches require a little passion. Here McCain is good at projecting appealing personal qualities like humility. In his Washington Times article, reporter Stephen Dinan jokingly describes McCain’s current series of speaking engagements, said to be peppered with self-effacing comments meant to endear him to audiences, as the “imperfect public servant tour.”
But the tension is there in the debates. McCain is a white-knuckle debater and appears easily annoyed at times. Both Clinton and Obama have an edge over McCain when it comes to debating skills. But we have seen in recent presidential elections that “who won the debates” doesn’t necessarily decide the election. As Chicago Tribune reporter Jim Tankersly notes via the LA Times,

There’s also a reason Republicans think their party will prevail: In several recent presidential elections, issues took a back seat to personality. Voters want government to do more to fix the economy. They also want U.S. troops out of Iraq. The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, sides with a distinct minority on both counts…But on less tangible questions of leadership, strength and trustworthiness, polls show McCain beating Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic candidates.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that FDR had “second-class intellect, but a first class temperament.” Although it’s a bit of a stretch to characterize a President smart enough to win four terms as intellectually lagging, Holmes’ point about the importance of temperament in a politician is instructive. (See Geoffrey Ward’s “A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt” for an interesting book on the topic)
Democrats are in a good position with respect of the temperament of both leading presidential candidates. Clinton’s communication skills have improved significantly as a Senator. Obama seems to have temperamental maturity beyond his years, which should serve him well in face-ups with McCain, should Obama win the nomination. But it would be folly to let reports of McCain’s tantrums make Democrats overconfident. Better for Dems to assume they are dealing with a highly-skilled communicator and respond accordingly.


Dems : Avoid Ageist Attacks vs. McCain

A blogger with the handle ‘Campaign Tactician’ has a worrisome suggestion at TPM Cafe. It goes like this:

It’s time for some aikido. Attacking McCain’s Pop-Truth effectively doesn’t mean trying to change these perceptions. It means using these perceptions against him. It means giving the media a narrative that extends rather than defies their perceptions of him and letting them repeat it enough that it becomes assumed rather than debated.
I think we need to show him to be the Grandpa Simpson of American politics: An ornery, forgetful man flummoxed by modern America. In other words, a man quick to both confusion and anger.
…Start digging through YouTube and coverage of press events, I’m sure we’d find plenty more examples of where his maverick straight-talk can be read as the rantings of a grouchy, poorly informed old man. That goes doubly for the various flip-flops he’s made to gain the nomination. Paint them as “political expediency” and we won’t make any headway. Paint them as “makes stuff up so people will listen to him”, you’ve got Grandpa Simpson.

I like the Aikido metaphor and the notion of using an opponent’s supposed ‘strength’ against him/her. ‘Campaign Tactician’ makes some good points elsewhere in the post about MCain’s free ride in the MSM and leveraging his “poor understanding of world affairs.” But I call it a worrisome suggestion because the ageist language and mindset could piss off a lot of senior citizens, and they tend to vote in impressive percentages. Sherman Yellen puts it well in his HuffPo post:

I write this as a man in the prime of his life, and one who rejects John McCain not because he is a fellow septuagenarian but because he is an arrogant, ignorant, and dangerous politician. I take exception to the view that he is drifting into senility, or soon will, and that he will be a danger to the country because age will wither his brain and leave only a choleric warmonger to press a button that blows us all to smithereens. John McCain would be a danger to this country at 46; no, he would have been a danger at 25. What makes him a threat and a hazard to us all are his lifelong beliefs — militaristic beliefs he held as a young man, and ones he shares with a lesser man, George W. Bush, about how to deal with domestic problems and foreign policy…We must not judge him on his age but on who he is and what he stands for today.
If we demand that people regard Barack Obama as an individual beyond his race — and Hillary Clinton as a leader beyond her sex — then we must give McCain his due and not judge him by his 72 years. Age does not make John McCain a threat to this country’s future. John McCain’s beliefs do.

There’s no net gain to be had in dissing elderly voters, and Dems who want to win shouldn’t even flirt with ageist language. McCain’s judgment problems and character flaws are clear enough — without attacking him because of his age.


Friday Linkfest

HuffPo has an excerpt from “FREE RIDE: John McCain and the Media” by David Brock and Paul Waldman — it should be a strong candidate for the short-list of the better books about the ’08 presidential campaign.
The MSM takes another broadside in Paul Farhi’s “Off Target” at the American Journalism Review web page. Farhi documents MSM ineptitude in predicting political trends in the ’08 election — an instructive lesson for pundits who are tempted to prognosticate.
Bruce Drake has an encouraging update at CQ Politics: “Democrats Making Big Inroads In Party Identification,” showing a 3-point gain for Dems since ’04, with the GOP down 6-points — a trend both broad and deep.
Nick Timiraos has a WSJ article “North Carolina Can Change Race Dynamic” continuing the discussion Matt Compton launched in his March 26 post.
Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith have an article in The Nation, “How Green Is Your Collar?” that should be of interest to Dems who want to build bridges between the environmental movement and blue collar workers.
David Paul Kuhn’s Politico article “GOP looks to ‘McCain Democrats’” examines the formidable crossover appeal of the GOP’s likely nominee.


Obama’s Speech a Net Plus

After reading a couple dozen different takes on Obama’s Philadelphia speech (NYT’s Janny Scott has the latest installment here and WaPo has a handful of articles today linked here), I am now prepared to render the judgement that it did him more good than harm. Shucks, no need to commend my vision and candor — the glory goes to Obama.
What I have been wondering for the last week is how one large and pivotal constituency, the white working class, including it’s subgroup the “Reagan Democrats” received Obama’s heartfelt oration, or even if any such broad generalization, pro or con, could be made. I’ve seen no post-speech poll cross tabs that lay it out clearly, although the latest Gallup polls since Obama’s March 18 speech show Obama holding steady against McCain. My assessment is also anchored in the collective shrug from that key constituency, other than a few paragraphs in comments sections following articles. What we don’t hear/read about is a chorus of complaining workers exploded in man-on-the-street round-up articles, or otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong. Obama’s speech was excellent, as measured by clarity, persuasive power and delivery. It is exactly the sort of speech that generates future royalties for the speaker when reprinted in ‘Great Speeches’ anthologies, chapters on ‘The Explanatory Speech.’ But I’m not sure it was a great campaign speech in the sense of winning hearts and minds among undecideds in general or the blue collar constituency in particular.
The speech was necessary — he had to respond in some way to the fuss about Rev. Wright. And speechifying is most definitely Obama’s strong card as a candidate. It was a wise decision to address the problem this way instead of issuing a press statement and then being subjected to endless media interviews in which he is less skilled and in which he would be vulnerable to attacks from the press. Ditto for debates, in which Clinton is a little sharper. Now he can just say “Well, I’ve already discussed that thoroughly in my speech, and don’t really have much to add.” No one will blame him, because most voters of all races are more interested in how a candidate is going to help get their kids educated, protect their retirement assets, fix the health care mess and get us out of Iraq.
Although Obama’s speech may not have won many new hearts and minds, it did the job well enough, which was to counter-balance the negative buzz about some of Rev. Wright’s sermons and what Obama thought about them. For that, hats off to David Axelrod, or whoever was responsible for the strategy and speechwriting for jobs well-done, as well as to the candidate himself for masterful delivery.
As a practical matter, however, campaign speeches are probably best measured by their fallout. This one was a winner in that regard, with more positive than negative buzz, even if most of it comes from the choir. When was the last time anybody got so much good ink from a speech? All in all, yet another impressive example of Team Obama’s edge in strategy and tactics.


Can Dems Win Libertarian Votes?

The March issue of Campaign & Elections ezine, Politics has a freebie cover story by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch. “Tuned Out: Cultural Libertarians Are A Growing Force in America. But Just How Can you Reach Them?”
Much of the article is a plug for Republican/Libertarian Ron Paul as a prototype presidential candidate of the future, without even a mention of Paul’s disturbing flirtation with white supremacist groups/ideology. But the authors do shed some light on Paul’s popularity with Libertarians, if not racist groups.
There’s also a fair amount of dubious speculation about “long-tail marketing” being the wave of the future in politics, as well as the economy. The authors cite a study of public opinion polls indicating that “15 percent of the electorate can more or less be described as Libertarian,” which doesn’t tell us much about what they actually do at the ballot box.
The merit of the article, in terms of Democratic strategy, is that it illuminates a significant ideological minority that divides its voters between Democrats, Republicans and the Libertarian Party and sheds light on what they think about a host of issues in current context. The sidebar, “7 Ways to Win Our Vote” limns current Libertarian preferences regarding online gambling; internet tax proposals; eminent domain; Iraq; immigration; medical marijuana; and health insurance. Democrats have an edge with Libertarians on most of these issues and other issues concerning personal and lifestyle freedom. Republicans will do better with Libertarians who are more focused on taxes, shrinking government and expanding unfettered trade.
It’s unclear whether the Libertarian percentage of American voters will grow in the years ahead. No doubt, Democrats can bite off a healthy chunk of the Libertarian-leaning constituency with the right kind of candidates. My guess is Obama would have a better chance than Clinton to win Libertarian votes in this cycle, although neither one satisfies the inflexible standards of free-trade ideologues. One suspects that many, if not most self-described Libertarians are not all that rigid on all their issues, so there is likely not much benefit in tailoring a strategy to win their votes.


A Last Word on Spitzer

It’s nearly all been said about the Spitzer affair. But I vote we give the last word to Robert Scheer, who puts it this way in his aptly titled Alternet post “Spitzer’s Shame Is Wall Street’s Gain“:

Tell me again: Why should we get all worked up over the revelation that the New York governor paid for sex? Will it bring back to life the eight U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq that same day in a war that makes no sense and has cost this nation trillions in future debt?

On the GOP/Wall St. demonization of Spitzer, Scheer notes:

Will it save those millions of homes that hardworking folks all over the country are losing because of financial industry shenanigans that Eliot Spitzer, as much as anyone, attempted to halt?…It was Spitzer, as much as anyone, who sounded the alarm on the subprime mortgage crisis, the obscene payouts to CEOs who defrauded their shareholders and the other financial scandals that have brought the U.S. economy to its knees…..he best rule of thumb these days is that ordinary Americans should be mightily depressed over any news that Wall Street hustlers cheer.

And Scheer’s overarching point:

…George W. Bush and Dick Cheney remain in office despite having violated enormously more serious laws.


Keeping Blue Collars Blue

The L.A. Times has an insightful article, “Democrats Seek to Strengthen Grip on Blue-Collar Workers” by Janet Hook and Tom Hamburger. The article addresses the relative strengths and weaknesses of both Senators Obama and Clinton in campaigning for blue collar votes in the context of McCain’s candidacy, and reports on new Labor and Democratic’ initiatives to solidify working class votes. The concern, in a nutshell:

The AFL-CIO became concerned after polls and focus groups found considerable willingness among union members to consider supporting McCain, regardless of which Democrat won the nomination…Looking toward the general election, labor strategists were alarmed by polls and focus groups of undecided union members that showed McCain doing well in match-ups with either Democratic candidate, said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO. But those focus groups also found that union members knew very little about McCain’s economic positions, including those the labor federation opposes.

The authors also quote John Edwards’s former campaign head David Bonior on the problem of white working class political drift in November:

“That vote is up for grabs,” said David Bonior, campaign manager for John Edwards’ failed Democratic presidential bid. “We will have to work incredibly hard,” he said, to blunt McCain’s potential appeal to working-class voters, which is based on his status as a war hero and his reputation as a political moderate….Bonior argued that Obama has had trouble winning that constituency — a problem he shares with past Democratic candidates John F. Kerry, Al Gore and Michael S. Dukakis

The Oregon AFL-CIO web page has three good companion pieces to the LA Times article, featuring some useful information for addressing the McCain problem. For example:

First elected to the Senate in 1986, McCain has a lifetime AFL-CIO rating of 17 percent through 2006. During the first session of the 110th congress, McCain voted with the AFL-CIO only 3 times out of 34 votes taken…He’s voted with the President 88 percent of the time.

The web page also points out that McCain voted against: extending temporary unemployment benefits; raising the minimum wage; overtime rights protection; the Federal Childrens’ Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). He’s voted for legislation that exports American jobs, promotes privatization and would provide permanent tax cuts for the wealthy. There is more than enough in McCain’s track record to stop him from winning support from working families — if the Dems and unions do a good enough job in publicizing it in blue collar America.


Spitzer and Political Fallout

That chortling you hear off in the distance is the sound of Republicans gloating that a prominent Democratic Governor, who was a dogged fighter against corporate corruption, has been tainted by a sexual scandal. The GOP will trumpet their outrage until everyone is sick of hearing about it, demanding Spitzer’s resignation, while shrugging off the sexual scandals of Senators Craig and Vitter. Their strategy is clear — to prolong the controversy and hope the ill will generated will be extended to other Democratic candidates.
According to the latest New York Times coverage, it is still unclear what Governor Spitzer intends to do and when he intends to do it. In the best case scenarios, Governor Spitzer’s problems won’t have much effect on the ’08 elections. If he resigns with a minimum of fanfare, no Democratic candidate, from president to school board, will lose many votes because of it. There is some concern among NY Dems that it could have an adverse effect on their hopes to reverse the GOP’s one-vote majority in the NY state senate. Lt. Governor David Patterson, a strong Democrat, is ready to assume the governorship if Spitzer resigns. In terms of presidential politics, Spitzer’s problems will likely have more effect on ’12, or ’16, when he might have tested the presidential primaries.
If Spitzer does resign, the more alert members of the msm may ask the GOP why Vitter and Craig are still in office, pointing out the double standard in their highly selective outrage — Vitter, who was also implicated in a scandal with prostitutes, reportedly received a “loud standing ovation” from some of his GOP colleagues at a luncheon following his admission that he “sinned.”


Team McCain’s Inner Circle

Democratic oppo researchers should clip Maeve Reston’s La Times article “McCain’s team forged loyalty in collapse,” a revealing profile of the inner circle of Team McCain. Reston’s article focuses on “The Sedona Five,” key McCain insiders Rick Davis, Mark Salter, Charles Black, Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon, who shaped and implemented McCain’s nomination-winning strategy at a time when most pundits believed he was toast. Reston provides this succinct description of the group:

Davis, a calm and efficient lobbyist who impressed everyone with his budgeting skills, manned the northern Virginia headquarters. Salter, 53, who in his younger days spent four years as an Iowa spiker laying railroad tracks before becoming McCain’s speechwriter, was most often at McCain’s side.
Black, a lobbyist who initially signed on as debate coach, was drafted onto the Straight Talk Express bus by McCain as his tactician and, at 60, as the “wise elder of the group.” Schmidt, 37, a strategist who ran the 2004 Bush campaign war room, and McKinnon, a one-time songwriter who served as media strategist for President Bush’s White House campaigns, parachuted in from their respective bases in California and Austin.

Reston rolls out an illuminating account of McCain’s comeback and image-tweaking, as told from the inside. Her article also has some interesting detail about the McCain campaign’s ad-buying strategy and McCain’s trust of the ‘Sedonas,’ apparently well-placed.


GOP’s ‘Cybersquatter’ Edge

Lest anyone entertain delusions about the GOP taking more of a high road in campaign ’08, The New York Times has an instructive article by Kitty Bennett, “R.N.C. Snaps Up Domain Names“. Bennett explains:

At least 25 domain names related to Hillary Rodham Clinton have links to the Republican National Committee: the names were either registered by the R.N.C. last year or showed up on servers the committee uses…The party has also begun preemptively registering domains that could be used to attack John McCain, like mccainamigos.com, voteagainstmccain.com, flipflopmccain.com and hatemccain.com.

Bennett notes the GOP’s edge in ‘cybersquatter’ warfare:

The Democratic Party and the campaigns have shown little of the verve and creativity of the R.N.C. …The party has been focused more on the national convention, registering variations of denverdemconvention08.com in February, but so far apparently no domains related to Mr. McCain.
The election has “triggered an avalanche of cybersquatter activity,” according to NetNames, a domain name management service. Speculators have registered nearly 2,000 domain names related to presidential candidates as of last week. Names related to Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy made up over half of the registrations, followed by Mr. Obama with 635 and Mr. McCain with 269.

It would be a mistake to overstate the importance of hogging domain names as a political tactic, and it’s hard to see how it will affect many votes. But it does show that there is not much the Republicans won’t fund to help muzzle Dems’ messaging resources.
Although it’s a stretch to attribute all of the tactical lag to the Democrats superior moral ground, no one should be surprised that the GOP has a stronger proclivity for purely obstructionist tactics (some history here) and an edge in deploying them. The DNC might benefit by setting up an internet-savvy task force to anticipate such shenanigans and respond accordingly.