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Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm

Posted: September 11, 2008 02:02 PM

Can Obama Win With Half a Messaging Strategy and Half a Ticket?


No strategic counterpunch and a self-emasculating VP makes Obama's job twice as hard. If his team understood messaging, he'd be doing much better against "Me-too" McCain, the make-believe maverick.

Winning presidential campaigns have four strategic messages and two messengers. Obama's glass is half empty. Let's start with "Political Strategy 101" -- well, it should be "101" but for Democrats starting with Al Gore, it apparently has been a graduate level elective that they skipped. As psychologist and Political Brain author Drew Westen explained in Huffington Post last month:

There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of "issues" but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this "message grid" win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

I'd actually put it a little differently. You need a story about yourself and a story about your opponent. And you need a counterpunch to your opponent's stories about himself and about you. Ideally, the stories can be boiled down to a catchy slogan ("it's the economy, stupid") or one or two words "compassionate conservative") that make use of the memorable figures of speech from the 25-century-old art of persuasion (aka rhetoric). Same for the counterpunch ("He was for it before he was against it.").


The word "story" here is roughly equivalent to two other popular terms -- "narrative" or "frame." It is also equivalent to rhetoric's "extended metaphor," which I argue is the most important figure of speech in my not-yet-bestselling unpublished manuscript, Politics, Religion, and the English Language.

Good candidates will pound away with a strong positive extended metaphor of why you should vote for them and with an equally strong negative extended metaphor of why you should not vote for their opponents. Winning two-term candidates, like President George W. Bush with the help of Karl Rove, will have a counter-punch to their opponent's positive and negative extended metaphors. The counterpunches always use the same figure of speech -- dramatic irony, wherein someone's words unintentionally mean something quite different from (and often opposite to) what they intended.

The goal is to find a powerful dramatic irony in their opponents' words or deeds that blow up the opposition's own extended metaphor. That always makes a great story, since it is satisfying sport for people to be hoist with their own petard or for people to be uncovered as a hypocrite.

Think Michael Dukakis in an army tank, or President Bush on the aircraft carrier with the "Mission Accomplished" banner in the background, or the Swift Boat ads run against John Kerry. Dramatic irony is the key to understanding both popular culture and politics -- but that is another post.

What Karl Rove and his disciples now running the McCain campaign figured out is that since the media doesn't really police the truth in a meaningful fashion, you can pretty much take whatever your opponent says out of context and turn that into a defining dramatic irony. Or just make stuff up entirely. The Rovian dramatic irony is almost always linked to the same extended metaphor -- the Democrat is an out of touch, intellectual elitist who is "not one of us." After seeing so many many Democratic candidates fall into this trap so easily, it is a very easy sell to the public and media, as the Rovians are proving once again. Rove's candidates, on the other hand, are always a plain spoken man (or woman) of the people.

The other point of having the four stories or frames or extended metaphors is that it makes responding to attacks very easy. If you've been rebranding McCain as the make-believe maverick then whenever he launches a phony attack, you can just point out this is more proof he is the make-believe maverick pushing the old politics, whereas you remain the one-and-only candidate of real change

Back to the four stories Obama needs.

1. He has (most of) the story about himself: "Change" or "Change we can believe in" -- although, as McCain has shown, it is not really a full frame or extended metaphor because it doesn't really connect Obama's background and values with his policies, as an ideal story would do. Thus it can be twisted into "the wrong kind of change."

2. Obama's best story is about McCain: McCain=Bush, McCain is more of the same. None of these is rhetorically memorable, though at least there are a lot of visuals and facts linking McCain and Bush. This story is, of course, mostly policy-oriented and not a character attack -- and it is certainly true that Obama is winning the policy war but losing the character war.

3. Obama, however, has no counterpunch to McCain's story (or McCain's attack on Obama). Now in part that's because McCain reversed his story from "experience" to "change/maverick." And in part it's because Obama mistakenly muzzled the 527s who would have branded McCain as the out-of-touch old-politics lobbyist-loving flip-flopper he is

It must also be said that Obama didn't have much of a response to the "experience" frame in the first place because Obama insists on calling McCain a war hero, a man of honor, blah, blah, blah. Not exactly how Rovians winners deal with the Kerry team losers. Indeed, by not forcing McCain to defend the experience frame, by buying into his McCain's frame, it was that much easier for McCain to pivot to a new message.

As I've said, Obama should be rebranding McCain as a make-believe maverick. To get in even more alliteration, I might call him "Me-too McCain" since that covers his disingenuous copying of Obama's change message and his dangerous copying of Bush's policies.

Also, Obama should have gone after McCain as an out of touch elitist -- in fact, he still can. The Obama team let Phil Gramm's "nation of whiners" and "mental recession" lines die in the ether, and seems to have dropped the blockbuster gaff of McCain forgetting how many houses he owns. Yet these fit right in with the make-believe maverick meme. I can assure you, a Rovian winning candidate would still be using those dramatic-irony gaffes regularly. Indeed, Palin continues to talk about Obama's "bitter" comment, and that is from even further back in the campaign.

4. The main reason for Obama to continue pushing the extended metaphor of McCain as an out of touch elitist, aside from the fact that it's true and powerful, is to inoculate himself against the McCain-Palin-Rove onslaught that has begun to frame him as the out of touch elitist in the campaign.

Right now, Obama is diving directly into the "too clever" and "not one of us" extended metaphor that overcame Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry. I suspect that this will be the McCain team's central frame for winning the debates even if he loses them on policy points, since that was how Bush bested Kerry strategically in the debates even though the polls seemed to indicate that, at a tactical level, Kerry won them all. But that is a long story I will come back to closer to the debates.

For now, in passing, I will just note that Sarah Palin is using almost verbatim the exact same attack that Bush used to prove Kerry is not one of us. Palin is attacking Obama's language, that he says one thing to working-class people in the heartland and another thing to his supporters in San Francisco.

I mention McCain's VP mainly to segue into Joe Biden aka "the man who wasn't there." Only lipstickgate spared us from the lead story being Biden saying, Hillary "might have been a better pick than me." The mere utterance of that self-emasculating sentiment makes it true. Needless to say, the McCain campaign immediately said:

"Barack Obama's most important decision of this election, and Biden -- the candidate he selects -- suggests, himself, that he wasn't the right man for the job, and that Hillary Clinton would have been a better choice. Biden certainly has a credible viewpoint on this."

The Biden comment suggests he is speaking from a position of great personal weakness and that he feels completely overshadowed by Palin, which could be a disaster for the VP debate. Taking nothing away from Hillary, whose credentials and experience speak for themselves -- indeed, if Obama loses it will be clear that not choosing Hillary was a mistake -- the choice of Hillary would also have allowed McCain to pivot to being the real change candidate anyway, and opened up Obama to a slew of different attacks. Though it is as certain as death and taxes that Hillary never would have said Joe Biden "might have been a better pick than me."

In any case, the Rovians always find stuff or make stuff up. If the Obama team doesn't understand political messaging, it doesn't really matter who their VP is or what how they are attacked.

Josh Marshall wondered today, "Did Biden forget to mention to Obama that he was retiring from public life in September?" Exactly. If Biden is feeling like the fifth wheel -- fourth wheel? -- he should keep it to himself, buck up, and find a damn message.

To read more from Joseph Romm, go here.