Commentary Magazine


Top Ten Political Lessons in 2008

1. Sheer talent beats everything else, including front-runner status. At the outset of the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton was the prohibitive favorite. She had a large lead in money, organization, endorsements, and the polls. All Barack Obama had was loads of talent and a story to tell. Starting January 20, he’ll be referred to as Mr. President and she’ll be referred to as Madam Secretary.

2. It’s better to flip-flop than be viewed as a liberal. Barack Obama’s legislative record was among the most liberal of any Presidential candidate in history. Once he secured the Democratic nomination, he chose to shed many of his past positions and tack to the center in a hurry rather than leaving himself open to the charge that he was an orthodox liberal. His campaign was based on reassuring the public that he was not ideological, and (fairly or not) it worked.

3. The object of a charge needs to fit the charge itself. Senator McCain attempted to portray Obama as radical, untested, and untrustworthy. But the more the public was exposed to Obama, the less that charge stuck. Obama came across as unflappable, self-possessed, and non-radical. He successfully resisted rather than reinforced the frame that was being placed on him by the McCain campaign.

4. The power of rhetoric is important, and can even be decisive, in American politics. Barack Obama altered the trajectory of his campaign with his address to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa. That allowed him to win Iowa, which in turn allowed him to win the Democratic nomination. The appeal of his speeches is what gave wings to the Obama campaign.

5. Timing can make all the difference. If the tapes of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons had come out in early January instead of March, it almost certainly would have cost Obama the Iowa caucus. And without that victory, he would not be President-elect.

6. Whenever a Clinton is around, expect a psychodrama. We saw it during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and we saw a different version during Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was plagued by extraordinary infighting and internal divisions. They were never resolved, and it helped sink her candidacy.

7. A powerful biography and a tactical campaign are not enough. John McCain has one of the most inspiring stories in American political history. But he was never able to provide a compelling narrative or articulate a governing philosophy. And his campaign never got beyond day-to-day tactics. This created a lack of focus and sometimes contradictory messages, which contrasted poorly with Obama’s campaign, which was disciplined, strategic, and extraordinarily efficient.

8. If your party controls the presidency and the economy collapses six weeks before the election, you lose. John McCain, while always the underdog, had crept up to tie Barack Obama in the polls in early September. Then the financial and credit crisis hit, and McCain never recovered. Barack Obama looked steadier than McCain in reaction to it, and a close race broke wide open.

9. If you’re a Republican who is used to favorable press treatment, don’t expect it to continue if you win the GOP nomination. John McCain used to refer to the media as “my base.” But once he won the nomination and ran as a (more or less) conservative, and ran an aggressive campaign against the Democratic nominee, the press turned on McCain with fury. They painted him as old, unprincipled, inauthentic, and mean. It turns out McCain was a whole lot less appealing to the MSM when he was attacking a liberal than when he was attacking conservatives and highlighting his differences with President Bush.  We have never seen the press act so much like a love-struck adolescent. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin admitted (after the election) that there was an extraordinary pro-Obama press bias, which was obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

10. Star power matters — but so does a basic command of the issues. Sarah Palin delivered a terrific speech at the convention and she has real political talent. But her interviews with Charles Gibson and especially Katie Couric were quite damaging. It’s true that the media, for a variety of reasons, took an instant dislike to Palin and took every opportunity to portray her in the worst way possible. But her major wounds were self-inflicted. She looked unsure and at times out of her depth in the Gibson and Couric interviews. While she inspired the GOP base and showed real talent, she has a lot of repair work to do.

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