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Who Would Be a Better President? I Say, Who Ran a Better Campaign?

11/03/2008 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With Election Day upon us, it seems like there couldn't possibly be a fresh argument to make for either candidate. But I think I have one.

The policy differences between Barack Obama and John McCain are clear and stark. It seems to me that, at this point, if a voter is choosing based on issues, it's a no-brainer which of the two is closer to his/her values. And for voters choosing based on personality (that is, who they want to have a beer with, or who has a certain skin color), not much can be done to change their minds.

But there is one valid factor that has not been discussed much, and that goes beyond issues of policy or philosophy. We have watched Obama and McCain run their campaigns for nearly two years. These are sprawling organizations with huge budgets and vast staffs. And they have had to act as almost shadow administrations, taking positions as issues arose in the world.

To me, watching how Obama and McCain ran their campaign operations provided the best insight into how competent each man would be in running a presidential administration. In a post-Katrina world, the American people certainly should be holding competency high on the list of criteria necessary to be president.

I think a question every voter needs to ask himself/herself before voting is: Which candidate has run the kind of campaign operation I would like to see the federal government emulate? I think the answer to this query has a clear and simple answer: Barack Obama.

I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion (any discussion, really) in any quarters (the campaigns and the media) of this simple fact. Obama's campaign has been run like a well-oiled machine (often to the frustration of his opponents), while McCain's campaign has been a circus. Consider these areas:

Continuity
The two leading figures in Obama's campaign, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, have been with Obama since his 2004 run for the U.S. Senate. Obama and his team settled on a message and a plan that they have stayed on for two years. You've heard it so many times, you can probably recite it along with me: change (ending the financial and foreign policy strategies of the last eight years and adopting new ones that work better for all Americans), inclusion (no red states or blue states, only the United States), and hope (inspiring rather than tearing down).

Obama identified a goal, came up with an effective plan to attain that goal, and followed it. Not a bad thing for an administration to do, no?

And what of McCain's campaign? The only continuity was the consistent lack of it. There were two staff shake-ups. The message veered from point to point with no overriding theme. As easy as it was to predict the three things I would write to describe Obama's vision, what can you say McCain has stuck with for his two years on the campaign trail? McCain started with the experience argument. When that didn't work, he shifted to national security. When the economic woes prevented that from getting traction, he belatedly moved to the economy, careening around for a couple of weeks before finally embracing a tax argument in time for the last debate (and the appearance of the overexposed Joe the Plumber).

In the end, McCain has relied on telling us what Obama is not, rather than what he is. When he scolded Obama in the third debate that he was not George W. Bush, the reason the argument didn't resonate with voters was not just because he voted with Bush 89 percent of the time since he has been in the Senate, but because he spent the whole primary season telling Republicans how much he agreed with the president.

During one of the debates, McCain argued he should be elected president because he would be a "steady hand" at "the tiller." But from watching two years of running their campaigns, Obama has proven to be the steadier hand.

Organization
If Obama wins, the big story will be the historic act of America electing an African American president. And it should be. But what may be lost is the impressive feat that Obama pulled off, namely that as a first-time candidate for the White House, he was able to put together and oversee a vastly better operation than either of his two well-connected insider rivals, Hillary Clinton and McCain.

Starting from scratch, Obama and his campaign built a large, powerful, active, engaged and effective organization that worked harder and better than anyone else's. It allowed him to dominate the Democratic caucuses and get out the vote for the Democratic primaries, and it looks like it will allow him to win in the general election in states in which nobody thought a Democrat could be successful.

After eight years of a government that is broken, it would be great to have an administration that works as well as the Obama campaign has.

And for those who say, "Well, he had so much money," I have two replies: First, how do you think he got all that money? Sure, people had to be excited about the message, but without a well-organized campaign, Obama would not have been able to turn that enthusiasm into millions of small donations. Second, even with a money advantage, Obama's campaign was leaner and meaner than McCain's. Of the 10 highest-paid campaign employees, seven of the 10 work for McCain, including the three highest earners. At a time of economic crisis, the ability to work efficiently is essential, and Obama has proven he can do it.

Sean Quinn at fivethirtyeight.com did an excellent job of discussing the strength of the Obama "ground game."

Big Decisions
As John Kerry pointed out on Meet the Press on Sunday, the candidates have had two major decisions to make during the general election campaign: Who should be their running mates, and how they should handle the financial crisis. On both, the candidates showed how they operate.

Regarding the vice presidential selections, Obama's vetting process was so thorough, Tim Kaine joked on The Daily Show about how in-depth it was (including his "high school girlfriend's middle name"). The result was the selection of Joe Biden, an experienced Senator with impeccable foreign policy credentials, the one area that was perceived to be a weakness for Obama.

And what did McCain do? When the right-wing elements of his party would not let him choose Joseph Lieberman, he responded by impetuously going with Sarah Palin. He reportedly made the decision after having had only one meeting and one phone conversation with her, and with no formal vetting process. And how did that work out for McCain? Palin has been roundly criticized, by individuals with a range of political orientations, for being unfit to be vice president. And while her selection energized the base and gave McCain a much-needed jolt of excitement in the campaign, the long-term results were far less positive. Her shocking lack of knowledge and depth of thought, as exposed in her disastrous interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric and her talking-points spewing performance in the debate, ultimately caused her to become a drag on the ticket, preventing many independents from supporting McCain. And she seemed to have an endless stream of skeletons in her Nieman-Marcus-stuffed closet, from ethics violations to the secessionist party her husband belonged to.

Palin's fall from grace was not outside the realm of prediction. A careful vetting process would have revealed the very problems that caused her to be a net negative on the ticket. McCain's impetuousness, along with his shocking lack of judgment, don't bode well for his ability to make decisions as president.

To be clear, I'm not talking about my judgment of Palin (if you want that, you can read this). I am saying that, objectively speaking, Palin's selection was impulsive and reckless, and, in the end, was damaging to McCain's campaign (judged by the polls, including a recent one by CBS News/The New York Times that Found that 59 percent of respondents found her not qualified to be vice president).

On the running mate issue, Obama conducted himself more as you would want a president to act. Just as he did when the economic crisis hit last month.

McCain, days after declaring that the "fundamentals of the economy" were "strong" (watch him say it here), was forced to change his tune as the crisis deepened. He responded by "suspending" his campaign to rush to Washington to "help" get a deal for a bailout package. (This was after he did a 180-degree turn on the bailout of AIG). He also tried to get the first debate postponed.

McCain's poll numbers took a nosedive after Americans watched his unsteady handling of the crisis. McCain's conduct was in stark contrast to the way Obama handled things. He took counsel from economic experts, stayed in touch with Congressional leaders, made his feelings known, and, most importantly, didn't try and disrupt the legislative process by thrusting himself into the middle of it. And most of all, he remained calm, steady and collected. As John Kerry pointed out on Meet the Press on Sunday, the four principals Obama laid out as being essential to any bailout legislation were contained in the final bill.

Tone
As you look back on the 2008 election, whose campaign would make you prouder to be an American? Obama certainly ran some tough ads challenging McCain's policies and voting record, but McCain took the campaign into the gutter, allowing McCarthy-esque attacks on Obama as a socialist, calling out Obama on his patriotism, and running the same kind of smear-filled robocalls that McCain himself was a victim of in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

McCain ominously asked in television ads, "Who is Barack Obama?", as if there were deep mysteries that had to be uncovered, instead of Obama being one of the most heavily vetted candidates in the history of elections. (You know that if Obama had tripped over an American flag as a third-grader, some right-wing investigator would have uncovered it by now.)

But keep in mind that Obama never asked, "Who is John McCain?", even though Obama really would have had more to say. The best McCain could do was talk about Obama sitting on the same charity boards as Bill Ayers or a meeting with a Palestinian Columbia professor (to whom McCain's organization had given half-a-million dollars). But Obama never struck back, allowing McCain to portray himself as he saw fit, unchallenged.

Anyone who has read Tim Dickinson's well-researched, scathing piece in Rolling Stone on McCain knows that he is not the man he portrays himself to be. Had Obama done many of the things that McCain did, McCain would have them plastered in ads in every swing state. But Obama never raised anything from McCain's past, even though I have no doubt that many undecided voters would be greatly affected if they read Dickinson's article. In six months, you have never heard Obama utter the name "Keating," and even when given a chance to say something bad about Palin during the third debate, he declined to do so (and McCain followed by eviscerating Biden).

At a time when the standing of the United States in the world has been battered by eight years of damaging conduct by the Bush administration, it is important for America to re-establish its international credibility. That is why looking at the way Obama and McCain conducted themselves during the campaign is so important. Obama offered an approach we can all be proud of, while McCain's descent into the gutter is all too reminiscent of Bush's behavior.

Top Staff
Compare Obama's inner circle to McCain's closest advisers. McCain has relied on a team of lobbyists. Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, accepted $2 million in fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with payments reportedly made to his company as recently as August, and the nation of Georgia paid the firm of McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randall Scheunemann, nearly $900,000. As the Washington Post pointed out, nearly every one of McCain's top advisers is a lobbyist, including Steve Schmidt, Mark McKinnon and Charles Black Jr. CNN confirmed that seven of the top officials in the McCain campaign were lobbyists.

Which might explain why the McCain campaign was run so poorly that it drew angry criticism from conservatives.

McCain's biggest misstep of all might have been allowing Phil Gramm, the former Texas Senator, to be the chief architect of his economic plan. Gramm was primarily responsible for knocking down the 65-year-old protections of the Glass-Steagall Act, which many analysts agree was at the heart of the recent credit crisis.

As a voter, is this how you want your White House run?

Obama has rejected money from lobbyists and surrounded himself with advisers who have distinguished themselves in their fields (people like former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and former National Security Advisor Tony Lake).

You may not agree with the politics of Obama's advisers, but they are unquestionably less tainted than the lobbyists with whom McCain surrounded himself.

And again, in a post-Katrina world, isn't competency important?

Vision
Obama took a 21st Century, post-partisan approach to the campaign, saying early on he would compete in traditional red states, a position that was roundly dismissed as wishful thinking by both the Clinton and McCain campaigns.

But Obama was proven correct. He is ahead in the polls in the Bush-won states of Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Iowa; he is essentially tied in the formerly red states of North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri and Florida; and he is close in the formerly bright red states of Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Georgia and Arizona. Meanwhile, McCain is trying to piece together an electoral college victory while defending states that were once thought to be safe for him, and through a quixotic, Hail Mary effort in Pennsylvania. As Nate Silver wrote on fivethirtyeight.com about McCain's hopes of competing in Pennsylvania (having a bit of fun with Hillary Clinton's old jibe at Obama), "hope is not a strategy."

If you put aside the issues and personalities and judge Obama and McCain based on their campaigns, there is a clear choice as to what kind of America you want for the next four years. And if you're looking for competence, organization, steadiness, vision, good judgment and behavior we can be proud of, the choice is obvious: Vote for Barack Obama.