It's 2008, and I'm wondering: is Karl Rove the only person in the United States who knows how to win an election? Criticize his tactics however you like. Lambaste him, like John Kerry did last night. Call him names. But he's won the last two presidential elections for, first, a sub-par candidate, and then, an unpopular incumbent. And today, with 82% of Americans saying their country's headed in the wrong direction, he's got John McCain running dead even (and rising) with you.
Something is wrong here, and Karl Rove isn't it.
I imagine you and your staff get accosted daily by those offering advice about what you should say, and how you should conduct your campaign. I see only a sliver of such material, and it already seems an avalanche (though Paul Begala had some pretty good advice right here on HuffPo just the other day). You might ask, as others have, why an actor (or an athlete, or an accountant) would have better ideas than your experts. Well, it's probably got something to do with the fact that those experts have lost two "un-losable" elections in a row already.
Please, Senator Obama, have a look at what the Republicans have effectively done to Al Gore, to John Kerry, and now to you, and recognize how it differs from what Democrats are currently attempting to do to John McCain. Republicans have assigned one clear label, like a company creating a brand, which captures and encapsulates all the legitimate and illegitimate criticisms of the Democratic candidate. The criticisms are then fused to the label through repetition. Eventually, the only criticism that needs to be leveled is the label itself. By then, listeners automatically assign the laundry list of unattractive attributes on their own. And then they hammer that label home. Relentlessly. Mercilessly. Even, some might say, to an imbecilic degree.
Then they win the election, so the crown of imbecility might reside elsewhere.
Labeling is a simple concept. It assigns one theme -- communicable in one or two words, if possible -- that summarizes the shortcomings of the candidate, and indicates how those shortcomings will negatively impact the lives of voters. Most amazing of all, the Republicans have effectively used the same label now three times in a row: Elitist. I don't see the same technique being used to any effect from the Democratic side. In fact, I don't see it being attempted.
What I've noticed so far have been scattered and uncoordinated laundry lists of accusations against John McCain. Literal-minded criticisms. I don't know why it needs to be pointed out after the elections of 2000 and 2004, but those laundry lists don't win elections. They're a bore to listen to. No one cares. Or, they might care, but they're busy people, with stressful lives. They haven't got the time, or the energy, to put together all the particulars. The packaging of the message has been so poor they've literally fled to the political party that offers them less.
The argument against John McCain and the Republican party is so basic, and so obvious, that it might seem that it only needs to be stated in flat terms. I beg you to do more than that, to adopt some of those "Rovian" techniques, to effectively eviscerate John McCain, and to win this election. We are a nation in need of great leadership. If it's offered in digestible fashion, people will accept it. If it's not, they won't.
The questions posed to you in every newspaper across the country have become similar: "What do you mean by 'change'?"; "What kind of changes do you intend to make?"; "How will you change things?"; and, "How will those changes help me?" The answer I pray I'll hear tonight, and for the remaining weeks of the campaign, will include a label for John McCain and his Republican brand that's recognizable, irrefutable, that will stick, and that will forever after render every McCain utterance suspect to scrutiny, and to doubt. Secrecy and Deception. Use the label. Explain how all our problems -- economic, environmental, military, judicial, and political -- stem from secrecy and deception, perpetrated by the U.S. government upon its citizens for the past eight years, and how John McCain has supported, and will continue, and further enhance, those secretive and deceptive practices, and policies. And then explain how your antidote -- openness and honesty with the American people, and a government overseen by the American people -- will alleviate them.
I don't know why this hasn't been done already. I don't know why a label wasn't already prepared to stick on whichever candidate the Republicans nominated. So, though I'd think there's a speech already written for tonight, in case that's been overlooked as well, here is some suggested text:
My fellow Americans: We've been sinking for eight years into an ever-deepening age of secrecy and deception. Eight years ago, a vice-president decided our nation's energy policy behind closed doors with oil company executives. And now, gas prices for consumers have skyrocketed, while oil company profits have set records. Eight years ago, a corporation-loving president decided that markets should be unregulated, and that those markets would always balance themselves for the benefit of all. And now, mortgage companies have collapsed under the weight of their own unchecked greed, and record numbers of families are facing foreclosure. Seven years ago, a terrible attack on our nation occurred, and an entire administration used falsehoods about that attack to start a war they'd long been eager to fight, that has exhausted our magnificent military, and that has made no one safer. Beginning eight years ago, our entire nation's judicial system has been secretly, and illegally, staffed with people chosen for their one-sided partisan beliefs, insuring that even our courts are unjust. When citizens have gathered to demonstrate in protest against any of the actions of this administration, they've been rounded up in KGB-like fashion and arrested. This is not the United States I grew up in, and it's not the one I intend to lead.
Over the past eight years, your government has passed a set of laws that lessens the quality of the air you breathe, and they've called it "The Clear Skies Initiative." They've lowered the quality of your children's education, and called it "No Child Left Behind." They've taken away the very civil liberties that make the United States the most unique nation on Earth, and called a "Patriot Act." Every title is misleading, saying the opposite of what it intends. Every one is a deception, perpetrated on the citizens of this great nation by their own government. Each program's title is just as backward as the thinking that went into creating it. For eight years, we have had an administration that's kept its citizens working for it, and for its corporate partners, instead of the other way around. It's backward, it's deceptive, and come November, it's going to be over.
What do I intend to change? I'm going to level with the American people. I'm going to put your government back to work for you -- which is the way it's supposed to be. There will be no secret meetings with industry heads to decide policies that affect this nation's citizens. You're going to have a government you can see, a government you can affect, and a government you can trust. A government that once again provides for you, instead of merely pretending to. A government that offers protection from corporate greed, instead of protecting greedy corporations.
And now a new Republican candidate has presented himself. A man who's equally skilled at deception. He presents beliefs that are the opposite of what he claimed to believe just a short time ago. He wants you to believe he's got your best interests at heart. In fact, he calls you his "friends" in every speech he gives. But for the past eight years he has supported 90% of the deceptive and secretive policies that have brought us to where we are now. 90% of the deceptive and secretive policies that have taken your government away from you, and handed it over to corporate interests at your expense. And he intends to continue, and to increase, the trend. Quite simply, this man is not to be trusted. He will speak the opposite of what he intends, just as his Republican "friends" have for the past eight years. He will hide his real intentions, he will refuse to let you see your own government at work, and he will not respond to your demands. If he's anything like the man he's devoted the last eight years to defending and protecting, he'll even refuse to allow any court or judge to hold anyone in his administration accountable for any crimes. That's not the America I grew up in, and it's not the one I intend to lead.
It's time to break free from the politicians, and the party, who say one thing while doing another. Who hide behind executive privilege and show taxpayers only doors that have been closed in their faces. John McCain represents the politics, and the party, of deception and secrecy. He wants to keep you locked away and locked out, just as George Bush and Dick Chaney have done for the past eight years. It's time to say, "No more." It's time to open the doors of government, to welcome this nation's citizens back in, and for us all to walk back out, together, into the light of day. That's what I promise to do. And, in doing so, and with your help, we will rebuild our economy, in honest fashion, and with sensible regulation. We will deal honestly, and firmly, with both our allies and our enemies, so that the world will know we mean what we say. We will strike a balance between sensible energy policies, and the development of newer and cleaner forms of fuel. Between taxes that citizens can afford to pay, and government services that citizens deserve to receive. Between the many faiths we all hold dear, and the science that allows us to live and to practice them. When these balances have been restored, openly, honestly, and transparently, Americans, and America, will be proud once again.
Please, Senator Obama, please. Please say something like that.