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Joseph Romm Headshot

Obama and Biden Go Back to a Losing Message

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After watching Obama and Biden on the Sunday morning shows, it is clear they have the wrong message, one that typically loses American elections. If this is their TV message, McCain and Palin will win the national debates and likely go on to victory.

This is Obama's second big strategic message mistake -- the first was stopping independent groups from spending tens of millions of dollars earlier this summer educating the American public on how John McCain is just another flip-flopping, lying, Washington politician surrounded by lobbyists without the temperament to be president.

Obama's basic message is that John McCain is a good person who has same policy positions as George Bush. Biden's basic message is that Sarah Palin is a good and "smart, smart, smart, smart, smart" and "tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough" [I may have miscounted] woman who has the same policy positions is George Bush.

The message itself is flawed on multiple levels. In particular, because it simply isn't true, it gives the GOP a free pass to keep lying over and over again. Second, it is weak and wonkish (yes, I know that is redundant, but Obama apparently doesn't), and the public naturally prefers tough, tough, tough and attacking.

Neither McCain nor Palin are "good people" as most Americans use the term. They are serial liars who have invented phony positive stories about themselves and phony negative ones about Obama. See for instance "In His Big Speech, McCain's 10 Energy Lies Top Palin's 4 Energy Lies" and "Palin Repeats GOP's Big Energy Lie -- Plus Four Other Energy Lies, Too" and "Lies, Damn Lies, and the McCain Campaign."

But a core subtext of the Obama/Biden message is that everything McCain and Palin have been saying is true. Here Obama/Biden are making the two classic mistakes of Democratic campaigns:
  1. Thinking the traditional media will act as an honest broker of the truth
  2. Thinking that the voters who matter actually pay attention to the traditional media.
Wrong and wrong. What the GOP message machine figured out years ago is that
  • The traditional media points out "factual errors" at most once.
  • The media can be attacked as biased when it (rarely) does more than that.
  • The media hates to call people liars and frowns on politicians who use the word "lie."
  • The media in its quest for "balance" treats modest overstatements by one side (ours) as no worse than egregious lies by the other side (theirs).
  • Most important, for the key voters, the ones who don't follow politics closely, they don't get most of their information from places like Meet the Press.
Thus, one winning strategy in US national political campaigns, the Rovian approach, can be summarized as "lie, lie, and then lie some more." Lies of course are much more politically effective than the truth because lies can be crafted to fit a compelling narrative. So Sarah Palin -- one of the most successful politicians in the country at using lobbyists to transfer US taxpayer money to Alaskans through earmarks-- can become some sort of maverick opponent of lobbying and earmarks. And John McCain -- one of the strongest and most consistent opponents of clean energy for his entire career, someone who thinks "The truly clean technologies don't work", someone who actually mocks energy efficiency -- can become a champion of clean energy, even in the eyes of relatively informed people (see "No wonder the race is close: Even Apollo Alliance is suckered by McCain's lies and doubletalk").

Being weak and wonkish is an equally losing strategy. Worse, neither Obama or Biden are particularly sharp edged in delivering even their core message at least on TV, especially compared to McCain and Palin. The public backs those who attack, even if they disagree with the substance of the attack. Why? Because they are fundamentally electing somebody to defend them -- and if a politician can't defend himself or herself, how can they possible defend the public? A core theme in US popular culture -- especially TV and the movies --is tough people getting so fed up with the wimpiness of those around them that they take action into their own hands and save the day. That's what the public expects to see in real leaders, even if it is a fantasy.

Now it is true that Obama and Biden are tougher on the stump than they are talking to the media on television, but the debates are going to be in the latter format -- and the debates are where the public will make its final judgment on who is fit to lead the most powerful nation in the world. The weird disconnect is that what energized the Democratic base as much as anything else was Obama's convention speech, where he took the fight to McCain and even questioned his temperament. But the Sunday talk shows suggest Obama's tough message is slip-sliding away.

Right now, it doesn't look to me like anybody who understands how this game war is fought is coaching either Obama or Biden. In fact, the Democratic team doesn't have many good surrogates right now. Ironically, John Kerry of all people is the only one I've seen who constantly stays on the attack.

What exactly was Biden thinking on Meet the Press using the word "tough" seven (!) times to describe Palin and "smart" five (!) times to describe Palin and women like her? I'll deal with the with the right message for Palin in another post, but Biden (and Obama) will have utterly failed unless the public comes to see her accurately -- as someone who's views are well outside of the mainstream, who is a shill for Big Oil and an old style pork-barrel politician in bed with lobbyists.

And here is how Obama whiffs on a softball. George Stephanopoulos asked Obama to reply to McCain's claim:

My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increase will eliminate them.

Obama replied:

John McCain has been peddling this story about me increasing taxes. When every independent analysts have said my tax cuts provide three times the amount of tax relief to middle-class families then do John McCain's. What he wants to do is essentially to continue the Bush tax cuts to the very wealthiest Americans but he wants to double down with $200 billion in additional tax cuts to corporate America including Exxon Mobil. I said I want to provide tax cuts to 95% of the American people. Because I have a different economic theory than George Bush's and John McCain.

Paging Mike Dukakis. We've found your talking points. Seriously, this is it not a good answer. Any answer with the phrase "economic theory" is the equivalent of hitting the snooze button. This answer immediately sucks Obama into an arcane debate with Stephanopoulos. Fortunately, no voters who matter actually watch the show. But they will be watching the debates.

What is so hard about this?

George Bush has destroyed this economy with his tax cuts for the wealthy. George Bush's tax policies have cost millions of people their homes and shipped millions of jobs overseas. John McCain has the exact same job-destroying tax policies. This is worth repeating: John McCain has the exact same job-destroying tax policies as President Bush. Even worse, he wants to give billions more tax break to his Big Oil contributor. I have the exacat opposite plan of Bush and McCain. I provide tax cuts for the middle class, for 95% of the American people. George, I understand why McCain keeps lying about my middle class tax cuts, but why do you keep repeating it?

If you aren't attacking, you're losing.

Then Obama is given another softball, this time to go after Sarah Palin. His answer goes like:

Governor, Skilled politician, governor, Skilled politician, Skilled politician... McCain chose someone who may be even more aligned with George Bush or Dick Cheney.... Wanted to pick Joe Lieberman... Different policies blah, blah, blah....

That could almost be a campaign ad for the other side.

Why not hit her at least as hard as he does on the campaign trail? She claimed to oppose the Bridge to Nowhere, but in fact she supported it. When Congress killed the bridge to nowhere, she pocketed the money of the Americans tax payers anyway. She isn't a "skilled politician" in a positive sense, which is how any listener would take it. She is an old-fashioned porkbarrel politician, who hired a lobbyist for her town of 7000, to get her tiny town more than $20 million of US taxpayer money.

She is selling a lie, just like McCain. If the Obama campaign can't or won't explain that to the American people -- which would require constantly repeating the message in all venues, advertising, and surrogate appearances, then they stand a good chance of losing.