Commentary Magazine


Topic: Obama campaign strategy

From Hope and Change to Pipe Hitting

Last month, Noam Scheiber of The New Republic, in an article titled “From Hope to Hardball,” welcomed us to…

the Obama campaign, version 2.0. If, as Mario Cuomo once said, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, then running for reelection may be something akin to grunting at regular intervals. In 2008, Obamaland prided itself on rejecting such brass-knuckle politicking, much of it perfected by Bill Clinton. “We don’t do war rooms,” was a Team Obama mantra, as one veteran of the campaign and the administration recalls. These days, by contrast, there are dozens of operatives raring to pounce on the slightest Republican misstep.

The outsized war-room capabilities are hardly the only Clintonite technique the Obama apparatus has adopted. President Obama has rewarded his mega-donors with frequent trips to the White House. And, just as Clinton did in 1995 and 1996, Team Obama has lashed a moderate GOP front-runner to right-wingers in Congress and portrayed him as a mortal threat to the welfare state.

Far from a badge of dishonor, though, the new ruthlessness is actually a sign of maturity.

Now (as Alana points out) comes New York’s John Heilemann, who informs us that Team Obama will “maul [Romney] for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues…”

“Thus, to a very real degree,” Heilemann reports , “2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear.” The months ahead, we’re told, “will provide a bracing revelation about what he truly is: not a savior, not a saint, not a man above the fray, but a brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler determined to do what is necessary to stay in power – in other words, a politician.”

Except that this isn’t what the politician in 2008 promised he would be like. Not by a country mile.

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Last month, Noam Scheiber of The New Republic, in an article titled “From Hope to Hardball,” welcomed us to…

the Obama campaign, version 2.0. If, as Mario Cuomo once said, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, then running for reelection may be something akin to grunting at regular intervals. In 2008, Obamaland prided itself on rejecting such brass-knuckle politicking, much of it perfected by Bill Clinton. “We don’t do war rooms,” was a Team Obama mantra, as one veteran of the campaign and the administration recalls. These days, by contrast, there are dozens of operatives raring to pounce on the slightest Republican misstep.

The outsized war-room capabilities are hardly the only Clintonite technique the Obama apparatus has adopted. President Obama has rewarded his mega-donors with frequent trips to the White House. And, just as Clinton did in 1995 and 1996, Team Obama has lashed a moderate GOP front-runner to right-wingers in Congress and portrayed him as a mortal threat to the welfare state.

Far from a badge of dishonor, though, the new ruthlessness is actually a sign of maturity.

Now (as Alana points out) comes New York’s John Heilemann, who informs us that Team Obama will “maul [Romney] for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues…”

“Thus, to a very real degree,” Heilemann reports , “2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear.” The months ahead, we’re told, “will provide a bracing revelation about what he truly is: not a savior, not a saint, not a man above the fray, but a brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler determined to do what is necessary to stay in power – in other words, a politician.”

Except that this isn’t what the politician in 2008 promised he would be like. Not by a country mile.

Just for old time’s sake, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the man who once personified hope and change.

Obama would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” And the man from Hyde Park would “cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past.”

“I believe the American people are tired of fear and tired of distractions and tired of diversions,” Obama told us at the Jefferson-Jackson speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on November 10, 2007. “We can make this election not about fear but about the future. And that won’t just be a Democratic victory; that will be an American victory.”

“If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from,” Obama said in accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party on August 28, 2008.

His election, he told Americans, was a sign we had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” On the day of his inauguration he came to proclaim “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

“The time has come to set aside childish things,” he told us on the day he took the oath of office.

Now journalists sympathetic to Obama are telling us that “the new ruthlessness” is a sign of maturity. Fear is the emotion that needs to be tapped into. Reason and elevated discourse are out; pipe-hitting is in.

Some people might argue that Obama is simply being a politician, that we all knew his promises in 2008 were misleading, a mirage, a hoax. But more than a few people took Obama at his word. It was the major part of his appeal. And if they didn’t believe he would eliminate all the divisions in our society, they did believe the core of his campaign – which was that Obama would prove to be an unusually unifying, dignified, and irenic figure in American politics – should be taken seriously.

Now I guess we’re all in on the joke. We’ve learned that for Obama, hope and fear are interchangeable. Mauling and disfiguring an opponent is fine if it’s necessary. One election you appeal to the best instincts of Americans; the next election you use brass knuckles and pick axes. No matter. The guiding ethic for Obama & Company is “Just win, baby.”

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that it won’t work out quite that easily or quite that way. That Obama, in so completely demolishing his image from four years ago, will do considerable damage to himself and his reputation. And that history and his fellow citizens will eventually judge him to be not simply a loser of an election, but as a cynical fraud.

It didn’t have to end this way. But I rather believe it will.

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Desperation in Obama’s Super PAC Attack

Contrary to what some credulous news reports have indicated, the Obama campaign does not seem tremendously confident about beating Mitt Romney next fall. Case in point: a relaxed and confident campaign doesn’t attack its opponent for an ad proposal – one that never even went beyond the consideration phase – cooked up by an unrelated outside group. Or at least if it does, it uses surrogates and outsiders to make the point.

But the Obama campaign has been scraping bottom to find angles to attack Mitt Romney on. So it’s not a surprise that campaign manager Jim Messina blasted Romney today for responding too “tepidly” to reports that a conservative super PAC was considering an ad blitz targeting Jeremiah Wright:

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina doesn’t seem to think the Romney’s camp’s reaction is strong enough.

“The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself. It also reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics,” Messina responded. “Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party.”

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Contrary to what some credulous news reports have indicated, the Obama campaign does not seem tremendously confident about beating Mitt Romney next fall. Case in point: a relaxed and confident campaign doesn’t attack its opponent for an ad proposal – one that never even went beyond the consideration phase – cooked up by an unrelated outside group. Or at least if it does, it uses surrogates and outsiders to make the point.

But the Obama campaign has been scraping bottom to find angles to attack Mitt Romney on. So it’s not a surprise that campaign manager Jim Messina blasted Romney today for responding too “tepidly” to reports that a conservative super PAC was considering an ad blitz targeting Jeremiah Wright:

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina doesn’t seem to think the Romney’s camp’s reaction is strong enough.

“The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself. It also reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics,” Messina responded. “Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party.”

For the record, here’s Romney’s “tepid” response to Guy Benson, which sounds pretty unambiguous to me:

“I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they’ve described. I would like to see this campaign focus on the economy, on getting people back to work, on seeing rising incomes and growing prosperity — particularly for those in the middle class of America.  And I think what we’ve seen so far from the Obama campaign is a campaign of character assassination. I hope that isn’t the course of this campaign. So in regards to that PAC, I repudiate what they’re thinking about … It’s interesting that we’re talking about some Republican PAC that wants to go after the president [on Wright]; I hope people also are looking at what he’s doing, and saying ‘why is he running an attack campaign? Why isn’t he talking about his record?’”

Romney is right. Republicans are far better off targeting Obama’s record, rather than his 20-year relationship with Jeremiah Wright. As toxic and offensive as Wright’s sermons and political commentary are, if that line of attack was ineffective in 2008, it’s not going to be effective four years later.

That said, it’s amazing that the story of Obama’s vehemently anti-American, anti-Israel pastor is now so off-limits that a conservative super PAC can’t even consider broaching it without sending the media into a frenzy.

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Obama’s Mysterious Campaign Strategy

One of the things that have puzzled political commentators is why President Obama is running the campaign he is. Rather than tacking to the center, as Bill Clinton did, Mr. Obama is running a campaign that is based on stoking class resentments and raising taxes on the rich. Rather than laying out a second-term agenda, he’s hyper-focusing on issues like contraception, the GOP’s so-called “war on women,” and inserting himself into the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy and Trayvon Martin tragedy. Rather than invoking the unifying language of 2008, the president is using incendiary language, accusing Republicans of targeting children with autism and Down syndrome, of being members of the “flat earth society,” and embracing a budget that demonstrates their “Social Darwinism.” For good measure, the GOP favors “dirtier” air and water.

Assuming there is a rationale behind this strategy, what might it be?

The answer might be found in demographics.

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One of the things that have puzzled political commentators is why President Obama is running the campaign he is. Rather than tacking to the center, as Bill Clinton did, Mr. Obama is running a campaign that is based on stoking class resentments and raising taxes on the rich. Rather than laying out a second-term agenda, he’s hyper-focusing on issues like contraception, the GOP’s so-called “war on women,” and inserting himself into the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy and Trayvon Martin tragedy. Rather than invoking the unifying language of 2008, the president is using incendiary language, accusing Republicans of targeting children with autism and Down syndrome, of being members of the “flat earth society,” and embracing a budget that demonstrates their “Social Darwinism.” For good measure, the GOP favors “dirtier” air and water.

Assuming there is a rationale behind this strategy, what might it be?

The answer might be found in demographics.

As National Journal’s Ron Brownstein reminds us, in 2008 Obama won the presidency by carrying 80 percent of minorities (who comprised 26 percent of all voters); 52 percent of college-educated white women; 42 percent of college educated white men; 41 percent of non-college white women; and 39 percent of white men without a college degree.

Analyzing recent polls, Brownstein concludes, “Obama is largely holding the minority and college-educated white women who comprise two pillars of the modern Democratic base (along with young people.) But he is facing erosion among blue-collar white men and struggling to maintain even his modest 2008 support among the two swing quadrants in the white electorate: the college-plus white men and non-college white women.”

Given his inability and unwillingness to run on his record, the Obama strategy appears to rest on achieving three things: (1) energizing the turnout of his base (minorities, young voters and liberals); (2) winning the support of college-educated white women (who tend to be socially liberal); and (3) preventing a collapse among non-college educated whites (by irradiating Governor Romney rather than winning their affection).

To put it another way: Obama has essentially given up on appealing to working-class white men (his approval rating is in the low 30s or below in most polls), which explains why he’s refusing to borrow a page from Bill Clinton’s re-election playbook. Mr. Obama is gambling his re-election on winning close to eight out of 10 minority voters while assuming they will comprise a higher percentage of the vote in 2012 than they did in 2008 (say, 28 percent v. 26 percent of all votes); and improving just a bit on the 52 percent of college-educated white women he won in 2008. If he can achieve that, Obama believes he can offset his decreasing support among white men and non-college white women.

Will it work? I doubt it. My guess is that the president will have a hard time replicating his 2008 popularity with minorities; that Governor Romney will be able to sufficiently repair relations with college-educated white women (which were damaged during the primary); and that in the course of the election, Mr. Obama’s liberalism and invective will further alienate those who are already moving away from him.

Because of his extraordinary ineptness at governing, the president has limited options when it comes to the 2012 campaign. He’s decided to go with the most ruthless, partisan, and divisive alternative open to him. Mr. Obama will lose the election, in my judgment. And in the process, as we’ve already seen, he’ll stain his reputation and lose a good deal of his honor.

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Will Voters Believe Romney’s an Extreme Right-Winger?

The Obama campaign did everything they could to exploit Mitt Romney’s reputation as an unprincipled flip-flopper during the GOP primary, but now the campaign seems to be conceding that this won’t be an effective attack during the general election. According to Politico, the new strategy is to portray Romney as an extreme conservative, taking advantage of the stances he took to bolster his conservative bona fides during the primary:

Last week, senior administration officials surprised reporters in a White House background briefing by correcting a questioner who suggested that Obama thought Romney had his “finger in the wind.”

The rebuke: Romney’s core is now filled in. With craven right-wing craziness.

The backgrounder, in turn, spawned a New York Times story, which allowed Plouffe to trial-balloon a new line of attack, comparing Romney to the archetypal GOP extremist loser: “Whether it’s tax policy, whether it’s his approach to abortion, gay rights, immigration, he’s the most conservative nominee that they’ve had going back to [1964 Republican candidate Barry] Goldwater.”

The problem is that Obama needs to bring out similar numbers of enthusiastic progressive voters as he did in 2008. Portraying Romney as a squishy flip-flopper is far less likely to scare liberal voters to the polls than portraying Romney as an extreme right-winger. The campaign also hopes that the message will help peel away independent voters, women and Hispanic voters.

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The Obama campaign did everything they could to exploit Mitt Romney’s reputation as an unprincipled flip-flopper during the GOP primary, but now the campaign seems to be conceding that this won’t be an effective attack during the general election. According to Politico, the new strategy is to portray Romney as an extreme conservative, taking advantage of the stances he took to bolster his conservative bona fides during the primary:

Last week, senior administration officials surprised reporters in a White House background briefing by correcting a questioner who suggested that Obama thought Romney had his “finger in the wind.”

The rebuke: Romney’s core is now filled in. With craven right-wing craziness.

The backgrounder, in turn, spawned a New York Times story, which allowed Plouffe to trial-balloon a new line of attack, comparing Romney to the archetypal GOP extremist loser: “Whether it’s tax policy, whether it’s his approach to abortion, gay rights, immigration, he’s the most conservative nominee that they’ve had going back to [1964 Republican candidate Barry] Goldwater.”

The problem is that Obama needs to bring out similar numbers of enthusiastic progressive voters as he did in 2008. Portraying Romney as a squishy flip-flopper is far less likely to scare liberal voters to the polls than portraying Romney as an extreme right-winger. The campaign also hopes that the message will help peel away independent voters, women and Hispanic voters.

Of course, that’s only going to happen if swing voters actually believe it. The conservative movement’s reluctance to embrace Romney as the nominee for the past year isn’t going to be forgotten quickly. He may have called himself a “severely conservative” governor, but his actual record in Massachusetts is far from it. And his temperament and style just don’t fit with the conventional image of a raving right-winger.

Which brings up another obstacle the Obama campaign will face with this strategy. Democrats rely heavily on liberal-leaning media and pop culture to get out their messages. Saturday Night Live and late night talk shows are the big reason why Sarah Palin was seen as a right-wing wacko in 2008, while Joe Biden was seen as a lovable dunce. They play a huge role in defining candidates. And Romney-the-Tea-Party-Extremist just doesn’t ring true on TV the way Romney-the-Robot-Phony does.

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