Capitol Hill Caution

08/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mike Lux Co-Founder, Democracy Partners

Cross-posted at

As readers of OpenLeft know, I am one of those folks who personally doesn't like to criticize the Democratic Presidential nominee once the general election campaign gets underway. For me, as I have written, whatever faults they exhibit in the campaign almost never outweigh the risk of doing anything to damage their chances of winning. I believe in gritting my teeth and muttering curses to myself whenever they disappoint me, but not saying much critically in public and doing whatever I am asked to do to help the team win.

However, when the campaign is drifting seriously off course and threatening their chances to win, I make an exception on the no criticism rule. And I fear we're reaching that point. I think I know what the problem is, too. It's that Capitol Hill Caution has taken over the campaign.

It's no accident that the only two Democrats to win the Presidency since 1968 were governors who were from small states, far away from DC, unaffected by the Culture of Caution that tends to grip Democrats on Capitol Hill, and that those nominees most shaped by the Capitol Hill culture in that same period- Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Gore, Kerry- all ended up losing. Good legislators are consensus builders, good at crafting compromises, always aware of all the ideological and regional factions you need to get the votes. They tend to be more naturally cautious than a governor or mayor or general with executive experience, and more cautious than a candidate trying to win a national election ought to be.

My hope was that Obama would be more like JFK in that although he was a Senator, he was enough of an outsider and confident enough in himself that he was not infected by the Culture of Caution. Much of the time in the campaign he has shown that kind of confidence and strength. But I fear that, at least for the moment, the Capitol Hill Culture of Caution has taken hold of the campaign.

I'm not even talking about the much commented-on move to the center. While, as I have written, I don't think he needed to do this and in fact felt like a more open call for bold new thinking would have been a better general election strategy, I haven't minded the centrist shift as much as some others in progressive politics. It is, after all, a pretty predictable playbook move, one that most candidates in both parties have done for many years. And the Westen/Greenberg research I wrote about the other day showed that while Democrats could take clear stands on controversial issues and still win, it also showed that centrist-sounding inoculation language on those issues was necessary to win majorities on those issues.

What I'm talking about instead is the sense of overall caution that seems to have utterly infected the campaign. Instead of having the confidence to win the bigger argument on investing in alternative energy production and conservation, they make the shift on drilling. Instead of pushing back firmly and assertively on the race card accusation, they have the campaign's reply be "No, we're not playing the race card." Instead of having the confidence to really negotiate with McCain on debate formats, they fell into the we'll-just-do-what-candidates-have-always-done formats. Instead of having the confidence to lay out some of his good new ideas on foreign policy that are clearly different from the Bush doctrine in his widely watched Berlin speech, he stuck to cautious generalities. Instead of having the confidence to back up his strong and effective primary rhetoric on FISA and NAFTA, he cautiously moved towards the conventional wisdom.

I am haunted by this because of my past experience with Capitol Hill-shaped "wisdom" around elections -- being told by my brilliant young friend David Plouffe, who was running the DCCC in 1998, that the PFAW/ time to move on regarding impeachment campaign was a huge mistake, when in fact it was the theme that ended up turning the tide on congressional elections in our favor that year; being told by Gore's people in 2000 that if they just didn't respond to the NRA's attacks on the gun issue, the issue wouldn't have an impact; being told by Gephardt's top aides in 2002 that the only way to win the congressional elections that fall was to "take the war off the table" so that Democrats could get on with other issues; being told by Kerry's team in 2004 that if they just ignored the Swift Boaters, they wouldn't get any attention.

Caution kills when it comes to national elections, and the caution of my friends in Obamaland is hurting him. It's why despite the good coverage of the overseas trip and one gaffe after another by McCain, Obama is drifting down in the polls. And in an election where it is very likely we will lose some older blue collar white voters a Democrat would normally get, caution will kill us in the fall by dampening the enthusiasm Obama has sparked among young voters and new voters in the primary.

The Obama campaign's caution is allowing the McCain's campaign to define Obama and the terms of the debate -- and as Drew Westen points out here, they are doing much of it at the unconscious level. Obama needs to be direct about confronting the image of him that the McCain team is trying to create. Unfortunately, as the stories above suggest, the Democratic establishment has generally tended to be fearful about confronting their attackers directly. On impeachment, on war and national security, on Swift Boat attacks, on NRA attacks about guns, on immigration, on way too many issues, the establishment Democratic response has been to avoid the issues on which they are being attacked. But our recent history has proven again and again that avoidance of problematic attacks doesn't work -- you have to have the confidence to answer back and define the debate in your own terms.

I feel the tightness in my friends in Obamaland: they know that all the dynamics favor the Democrats, that McCain is a weak, uninspiring candidate running a weak, uninspired campaign. They know they should be winning this thing, and they are playing not to lose, which is the worst thing you can do in Presidential politics. The Obama team at the top hasn't been good at getting help or letting people in the door, because they feel sure that if they stay in control of the message, they will win. But, to my wonderful friends on the inside of the campaign, it's time to loosen the reins a little, not be so tight and careful and cautious, because you are in real danger with the course you are on.