In the presidential race of 2004 we had the Two Americas. In this year's race we have the Two Obamas: the one who has drawn repeated comparisons to JFK, RFK, and MLK, and the one who has drawn comparisons to Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry. Whether Obama will win the general election depends on whether he and his campaign make sure that the right Obama shows up for the remainder of the campaign.
Obama was losing this time last year to Hillary Clinton until he changed course at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa in November and started inspiring voters again in a way that only a once-in-a-generation leader can do. He lost much of the second half of the primary season as his negatives rose consistently in response to her sustained blows as he refused even to put his hands up to block them. From the time he became the presumptive nominee until the last two weeks, Democrats have been growing increasingly alarmed that they were poised to lose another unloseable election, as his campaign was once again turning Obama the charismatic leader into Obama the rambling, dispassionate, conflict-avoidant, traditional Democratic presidential candidate.
The Kerry Playbook: How to Suck the Life Out of a Candidate in Ten Easy Steps
It is time, once and for all, for Democrats to burn the Kerry playbook. For those who have done their best to forget, here are some of its key features. It is the same playbook used to guide one losing Democratic campaign after another for decades:
- Be nice. Be positive. It's okay to take an occasional swipe, but don't remind the public regularly why they should be concerned about keeping the incumbent or his party in the White House no matter how incompetent, deceitful, or criminal their actions (e.g., don't talk about Abu Ghraib because the other side might accuse you of "nor supporting our troops").
- If you get attacked, don't attack back. If you absolutely have to respond, start with a weak rejoinder, preferably one without any hint of masculinity, like "If that were the case, I would find it very disappointing." Show as little emotion as you can when responding to attacks. Never express outrage at attacks on your character or patriotism or strike back at your opponent for making them or colluding with those who do.
- Assume people know who your candidate is because you do and they've heard about him for months. Wait until the convention to start defining your candidate in richer detail, after he's already been branded by the other side and it's difficult to change people's minds. Don't inoculate in advance against the ideas you know will appear in early August attack books that are likely to morph into television ads around the time of the Democratic Convention or in October, particularly if their content is predictable and potentially toxic.
- If there are elements of your candidate's life story that worry you, don't talk about them. Cross your fingers and close your eyes really tight, and hope Karl Rove won't notice them.
- If the other side starts to define your candidate in ways that might be damaging, hold your fire, and if you have to say anything, start with, "the American people are smarter than that." If you have to take corrective measures, do so only after your polling data have shown definitively that the damage has been done.
- If the other side predictably defines you as elite (as they have done against every Democrat for 40 years), don't respond, especially if your opponent is from a much more privileged background than you are. Find a way to mention any elite universities you've attended or slip them into images in your biographical ads.
- Don't make any sustained effort to brand your opponent, even as he is branding you. That would be negative, and focus group participants don't like negativity. Let your opponent define both of you.
- To prepare for debates and similar television performances, focus on facts, figures, and briefing books. Spend little or no time on nonverbal cues, like making eye contact with the audience, and be sure not to have anyone prep the candidate who has expertise in nonverbal communication.
- When asked in debates and similar forums about wedge issues such as abortion or guns, appear as if you've heard the question for the first time, or be ready with dispassionate responses, and make little effort to connect with voters in the center who could hear your values and resonate with them if you spoke about them with conviction. Do not describe the slippery slopes on the other side the way Republicans always do against Democrats (e.g., that your opponent believes that if your sixteen-year-old daughter were raped, the government, not you and your daughter, should decide whether she should carry the baby to term).
- If anti-incumbent sentiment is high and your opponent's party is unpopular, make the election a referendum about your candidate (the challenger) rather than the incumbent and his party.
Is this a parody of the Kerry campaign? I wish it were. It's a synopsis.
The Kerry campaign was determined to run a positive campaign against one of the most corrupt, incompetent, destructive administrations in the history of the country, which has only become more corrupt, incompetent, and destructive in the ensuing four years. It never told a story of who George W. Bush was and why people shouldn't re-elect him that would be emotionally compelling and memorable or capitalize on and amplify voters' pre-existing sentiments. (Bush was below 50 percent approval in the days running up to the election, a very dangerous position for an incumbent.) Kerry's operatives were furious when anyone said anything negative about Bush at the Democratic Convention, convinced that the American people didn't want any more negativity (a mistake that will not be repeated this year in Denver).
When the Bush campaign began branding Kerry as a flip-flopper the day he became the presumptive nominee, the Kerry campaign let it fester, not wanting to "dignify" the attack. When they branded him as elite, un-American ("French"), and outside the mainstream, he never mentioned Bush's privileged pedigree (George Walker Bush: Andover, Yale, Harvard M.B.A., son of George Herbert Walker Bush). They never discussed his failure to fight when called to duty in Vietnam (because it might offend members of the National Guard), and his media consultants emphasized Kerry's elite alma mater (Yale) in their first and primary biographical piece of the general election.
When the swift boat attacks began to surface along with a book detailing their charges in early August, the Kerry team let it fester, not wanting to "dignify" the attack. Once it responded to the ads weeks later, they had done irreparable damage, and the election was over. The swift boat attacks played on an element of John Kerry's life that worried the campaign from the start but that they readily could have cast (I believe accurately) as one more instance of his courage: his testimony before the Senate upon returning to Vietnam, describing, among other things, atrocities committed by Americans. He could have given a speech before, say, a VFW audience early in the campaign describing why he had felt compelled to testify when he returned from the war, displaying courage and conviction by speaking to a potentially unfriendly audience. He could have talked about the courage it took to stand up before the United States Senate as a young man to tell them how they were destroying the lives of the soldiers they were sending into a war in which they couldn't tell children from combatants. His campaign could have framed his testimony before the Senate as illustrating the same courage under fire that he had shown as a soldier in Vietnam (a great master narrative for his campaign that would have underscored his own history and contrasted him with the Wizard of Terror in the Oval Office, who had never shown an ounce of demonstrable courage in his lifetime). But instead, guided by advisers and pollsters driven by the same fearfulness that makes Americans wary of Democrats on national security, Kerry was silent about that part of his biography. Instead of inoculating against the charge that he had betrayed his fellow soldiers, the Kerry campaign crossed its fingers and hoped for the best. The best did not come.
What Obama Needs to Accomplish in His Speech in Denver
When I started writing this piece two weeks ago, like many Democrats, I felt like I was watching a bad sequel to the election of 2004. Just as the Kerry campaign let the flip-flopper charge fester, the Obama campaign let the Internet smears designed to paint him as foreign, Muslim, dangerous, and "other" persist for over a year before even mentioning them publicly. Once McCain had secured the presumptive nomination, not only did the Obama campaign fail to begin branding him, but it implored progressive donors not to fund any independent expenditure organizations (527s) that could have done it for them, essentially unilaterally disarming the left just as Rove protégés were beginning to nest in the McCain campaign. As the newly infested McCain campaign began attacking Obama relentlessly, he and his entire campaign team waited to respond until they saw severe damage in the polls.
In recent days we have seen a dramatic course correction, and with every objective indicator on his side (a terrible economy, the most unpopular incumbent in the history of polling, an unpopular war, and a poor campaigner as an opponent), hopefully Obama will regain the momentum in Denver and begin to pull out of reach of John McCain. The only disasters that could come out of the convention would be if the Hillary roll call stunt spirals out of control and leads to a narrative about the convention that re-ignites old passions or if the Convention goes as planned, Obama wins, and Democrats conclude that the strategies that almost cost him the election were the ones that delivered it to him.
None of this is to deny the aspects of the Obama campaign that have indeed been spectacular. Its "ground game," it ability to organize people, and its use of new media have been brilliantly orchestrated and should serve as models for future campaigns.
But the campaign's failure to brand either its own candidate or its opponent, its reluctance until recently to fight back when hit hard (if even simply to say, "There you go again--that's the same politics of division that has gotten us where we are"), and its tone-deafness to narratives and nonverbal communication, reflected in its inability to self-correct after more than 20 tries when its candidate couldn't apply his natural skills as an orator to debates and similar formats (exemplified yet again in his recent performance relative to McCain's at Rick Warren's forum), illustrate how destructive Democratic strategic dogma can be even with the best of candidates.
So what does Obama need to accomplish at the convention? The same five things he needs to accomplish every week from now until the election.
First, he needs to tell Americans his story in a way that allows them to identify with him, and to make clear that he understands their stories, their pain, and their aspirations for their families. He needs to drive home the story he has told intermittently since he began running for president: That he grew up with his white mother and grandparents, whose Kansas values, along with his subsequent life experiences, shaped who he is and the values he teaches his own daughters; that in no country but America could a man with his history and his story be where he is today, and that he counts his blessings every day for being an American; that he understands the trials and tribulations of the millions of women who are raising children on their own because he saw what that was like for his mother; that he understands the toll it takes on men who want to nothing more than to feel the pride of providing for their families to see their jobs shipped overseas or their income no longer keeping pace with the rising cost of gas and groceries; that he understands the importance of fatherhood because he never had a father and had to try to invent one, and that he will do everything in his power to reverse the breakdown of the family in our inner cities; that he understands both the pain of prejudice and the extent to which we have overcome it as a society because he has seen and experienced both; and that he understands what happens when people begin to despair and lose hope because he has seen that despair with his own eyes.
Second, he needs to explain to the American people how we have gotten to this place in history, where American prestige and power are at low ebb, where our economy and infrastructure are in tatters, and where our dependence on foreign oil is not only economically devastating but a serious danger to our national security. He needs to offer an indictment of the Republican Party and the Bush presidency, and to make clear that the economic insecurity of middle class families, the spiraling cost of gas and health care, and the indifference to future generations that has produced our current energy crisis is not an accident but is a direct result of a radical ideology that has proven dangerous, reckless, and now discredited. He needs to compare American economic power and our world leadership during the 1990s under a strong Democratic administration with what has followed in eight short years of Republican rule. He needs to make clear to the American people that he understands their anxiety and anger as they struggle to pay for health care for their families and to put groceries on the table, as they watch their hard-earned money transferred to big oil companies that are getting tax breaks at the expense of the people they are gouging at the pump, and as they watch their biggest asset--the equity in their homes (if they can still afford to pay the mortgage)--plummet because of a get-rich-quick scheme designed for the few and now paid for by the many. He needs to tell a compelling story about why we are where we are and what he is going to do to help a realistically worried nation get back on its feet again and restore American productivity at home and prestige and security abroad.
Third, he needs to explain why John McCain is not the right man for the times. He has to build a compelling case--a sustained and compelling emotional argument--for why John McCain should not be President. The Obama campaign has a wide choice of narratives they could offer about McCain, some of which they have floated at times but none of which they have repeated over and over in the way that leads a story to "stick." None would require them to utter a word of untruth; in fact, they could tell most of these stories using nothing but McCain's own words, as Joe Biden did in his first address as Obama's running mate: that McCain is Bush's third term, that he is a man who has stood on every side of every issue except for the one about which he has stood strong (that he wants to be president), that he is a Washington insider who is part of the problem and not the solution, that he's the Man from Hopelessness, that his ideas and epithets (e.g., "tax and spend liberal") are old and tired, that he is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans, that he is filled with 20th century solutions to 21st century problems (like invading sovereign states when the states that harbor terrorists tend to be failed states, or offering up free market rhetoric in an era of globalization in which it's just not quite that simple).
Of all the stories Obama could tell, three are probably the most compelling. The first is that a vote for McCain is a vote for continuing the failed policies of George W. Bush, policies that have weakened us economically and threatened our national security in a world whose greatest dangers lie in international terrorism (which require coordination with other nations, not condescension toward our allies, refusal to speak to our enemies, and saber rattling when we have no sabers left to rattle). The second is that McCain is not the straight-talking maverick who many admired in 2000 but a man whose ambition has gotten the best of him, who learned the wrong lessons from watching himself swift-boated by George W. Bush and Karl Rove--a man who is so desperate to be President that he will say whatever he has to say to convince conservatives he is one of them, say whatever he has to say to convince moderates that he isn't really the person he is telling the far right, and convince himself that if he has to take the low road to the presidency, that's just politics. The third is that McCain is out of touch with the American people; that he has no idea of the suffering his party and their policies have inflicted on working Americans; that a man who can't remember how many houses he has, whose wife says the only way to get around Arizona is by private jet, and whose closest economic advisor thinks people who lose their jobs or can't keep up with the bills through no fault of their own are just whiners clearly doesn't understand what middle class families are experiencing.
The fourth thing Obama needs to do in Denver is to address head-on the stories told by the other side that have eroded positive feelings toward him among a large swath of the electorate and that have kept so many people undecided in a race that should be all but over. In particular, he needs to address the stories that he is just an empty celebrity, that he is an elitist, and that he is not really American, patriotic, or "one of us." He needs to do what he should have done the day McCain launched his celebrity ad, to fire back with something as simple as, "John McCain makes fun of the fact that people are coming out all over this country to hear what I have to say and to talk with me about their lives, their concerns, and their dreams. But he doesn't seem to get that there's a reason no one's listening to him: because they've been hearing the same party line for 8 years, and they've seen where it's taken us. If John McCain wants to draw some crowds of his own, perhaps he should stop filtering out everyone who isn't already his supporter and try listening to people who may not agree with all his solutions." He needs to turn the charge of elitism back on the man who has to ask his staff how many homes he has. And he needs to attack McCain and his allies directly for questioning his patriotism and to redefine turning American against American as un-American. He needs to ask McCain just what he is implying about Obama when he runs ads that call himself "the American President Americans have been waiting for." What kind of President is saying Obama would be if not an American President? And what is he implying (which Joe Lieberman actually made explicit) in his campaign theme that he, unlike Obama, will put "country first." He needs to turn the attack back on the attacker. And he needs to confront the issue of race head-on, not run from it, and signal to working class and rural whites that the most offensive and elitist thing he has heard in this election is that people like them won't vote for him because he's black and that they're too ignorant and bigoted to judge him on the content of his character. He needs to acknowledge that what they need from him most is to know that he shares their values and that he understands people like them--the same thing black voters often wonder when a white politician comes to town--and he needs to let them know that he will come to their neck of the woods to talk with them and let them get to know him.
And finally, he needs to recognize that an accidental but toxic byproduct of his effort to make this campaign a positive one about his own vision for America and McCain's effort to make it a negative one about Obama's differentness and dangerousness is that he has allowed this election to be a referendum on him, just as Kerry did. This election should be a referendum on the Bush-McCain years and whether we can afford any more of them.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 election.
Coda: For those readers who are in Denver for the Democratic Convention, Victoria Hopper and Jamie McGurk have organized an extraordinary mini-convention at the Starz Theater across from the Convention, called the Starz Green Room, to run during the days of the Convention. The Starz program is a wonderful combination of speakers, panels, and films that address not only issues of policy but issues of message like those detailed in this piece. I will be presenting there, as will many others from whom we all have much to learn on the left, from pollsters like Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake, and Geoff Garin, to some of the most brilliant strategic minds on the left like Paul Begala and James Carville, to luminaries such as John Podesta, Arianna Huffington, David Sirota, and actor/activists Josh Brolin and Ben Affleck.
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