09/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Yo Obama/Axelrod/Plouffe: Here's Some Good Advice on How to Kick Some Butt and Shape a Winning Narrative

Like lots of progressive Democrats, I've been pulling my hair out for the past month as John McCain and his new campaign operatives have successfully tagged Obama as an effete, elitist celebrity, with no core principles who would sell out his country to win an election, while they successfully painted McCain as an unassailable hero who has devoted his life to serving his country over his party or himself. During this time McCain has gone from trailing by 9 points to tied in national polls and from medium single digit deficits to tied or a point or two ahead in swing states like Ohio, Virginia and Colorado.

As Drew Westen wrote in The Huffington Post last week:

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.

Right now the McCain campaign is doing a better job than the Obama campaign in shaping the narratives in all four quadrants: He's effectively telling a story about himself as a hero who will sacrifice self for country and a story about Obama as an arrogant empty suit who will sacrifice country for electoral victory. Obama has fought back on the issues, but so far has failed to create a coherent and compelling narrative about himself or a worrisome narrative about McCain.

Yesterday a small online newsletter called The Democratic Strategist arrived in my inbox containing a Memo by James Vega, which offered a compelling narrative around which Obama can shape all four quadrants and turn McCain's narrative back on itself. The Memo is so good that I'm going to paraphrase and quote it at length, in the hopes that readers will forward it around the internet and that it spreads virally until it reaches the key strategists in the Obama campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and liberal 527 groups.

Like Westen,Vega points out that focusing on issues and policies is not enough in a presidential campaign.

There is a reason for this. One fundamental element of the Karl Rove approach is to focus the most visceral and aggressive attacks on the opposing candidate's character and personality rather than his policies. The recent Democratic attacks on McCain criticize, sometimes very bitterly, his positions and actions, but the Republican attacks on Obama are directly aimed at impugning his character.

At the same time, the DNC and other third party Democratic attacks on McCain's close financial ties to oil companies and other lobbyists and his subservience to the policies of the Bush administration seem somehow to be glancing blows that do less damage to his personal image than do his attacks on Obama.

Vega then divides his Memo into two parts: How Obama can respond to Rovian attacks on his character and how Democrats can attack McCain in Rovian style.


Vega points out that the heart of Rove's strategy is to paint opponents not just as wrong on the issues but to make it appear that "their errors all arise from deep, pathological defects in their basic values and character." Moreover, "attacks on a candidate's character must be psychologically plausible--they must be fine-tuned to exploit weaknesses the opposing candidate actually appears to reflect in his behavior. In this regard, Rove has always had an exceptionally sinister aptitude (one that is reminiscent of Hannibal Lector's perverse but penetrating form of psychological insight) for being able to recognize subtle human weaknesses and frailties." Vega observes that:

McCain is not, at first glance, an easy target for attacks on his character. His youthful military experience as a pilot and POW and his well-cultivated media reputation as an occasional "maverick" in the 80's and 90's present no obvious vulnerabilities. Current characterizations of him as old, ill-tempered, easily flustered and prone to blundering, while certainly true, are also essentially trivial.

Having said that, Vega then sees an opportunity to turn McCain's recent negative attacks on Obama's character, as orchestrated by new McCain top strategist and Rove protégé Steve Schmidt (known as "the bullet" for his assassin-like tactics), into the heart of a powerful and damaging attack on McCain's very character, having "provided compelling evidence of three genuinely disturbing proposition about his character, core values and integrity:"

1. That John McCain has become desperate to win this election and is willing to sacrifice his deepest principles and his personal honor in order to do it.

2. That the John McCain we see today is only a pale, diminished shadow of the man he once was in his early years.

3. That John McCain is allowing men he once despised and held in complete contempt to manipulate him and tell him what to do - to literally put words in his mouth and tell him what to say.

Vega argues that these three statements "fit together into a single coherent narrative of ambition overcoming integrity and moral character." It's not just that the John McCain of 2008 has flip flopped on the John McCain of 2000 on issues like tax cuts for the wealthy. It's that John McCain has flipped flopped on his fundamental moral values.

The essence of the narrative is that John McCain has sold his soul to the devil. What's most exciting about this approach is it takes the greatest strengths of McCain's recent campaign against Obama and turns it into a brilliant critique of McCain's own character.

Vega gives an example of a TV ad entitled "Character" which incorporates this narrative:

"John McCain says this election is about character - and he's right.

In the 2000 presidential race the Bush campaign - led by Karl Rove - viciously attacked John McCain's wife and child - they said his wife was a drug addict and that the child he and his wife adopted from an orphanage was actually his illegitimate Black daughter. On election night, his wife was in tears.

Back then, McCain was disgusted. He said there was "a special place in hell" for rumormongers like these people. He made a promise to his family and to his supporters that he would never run a dirty campaign like that. Never.

But early this year John McCain hired Charlie Condon, the very same man who was behind those vicious smears to run his South Carolina campaign. And then several weeks ago he brought Steven Schmidt - leading protégé of Karl Rove and master of the political hit job - on board to be his campaign manager and write the talking points for the new negative campaign against Barak Obama.

It's sad to watch, McCain's willingness to humiliate himself by hiring the same gang of people who horribly insulted him and his family. It shows that he has become so desperate to win this election that he is willing to sacrifice his principles and his personal honor in order to do it.

Let's face it. A real man would have said to those people - "Get the hell out of my office before I throw you out" the minute they walked in. A person would not have to be a tough guy like John Wayne to say that. A gentle, decent man of character would have told them the same thing.

But what did John McCain say about Bush's dirty politics gang?

He said: ' had to get over it ... it was a long time ago'

It's sad, genuinely sad
John McCain - he's no longer the man he used to be."

Vega points out that this is not a dishonest smear, but "a psychologically and morally reasonable judgment of McCain's character based directly on his decision to surrender his career and political destiny to men whose behavior and values he once considered revolting and intolerable."

For this precise reason, this judgment will resonate with many ordinary voters. They will have the following very simple, common sense reaction -- "I'd sure as hell never hire and take orders from the same people who viciously slandered my wife and my children. I may not be a famous politician or a big shot, but I have more character and personal integrity than that."

In some cases, it may be strategically better for this type of attack to be carried out less by Obama himself than by surrogates, his VP candidate, the DNC and 527s.


Vega also discusses how Obama can counter McCain's attack on Obama's character and turn them into positive and compelling narrative of his own. According to Vega:

At its heart, Karl Rove's approach for the last 20 years has been an essentially class-based attack on Democrats - one that portrays them as representing an out-of-touch, educated elite who have little in common with average Americans. In this strategy, individual Democrats are not simply wrong about specific issues; their errors all arise from deep, pathological defects in their basic values and character.

The Rovian strategy is subtly adjusted to exaggerate the flaws of each specific Democratic opponent. Gore could be caricatured "as somewhat pompous, self-important and egotistic." Kerry could be portrayed as "a long-winded, detached, emotionally remote New England Yankee."

The charicature that the Rove team developed for Obama was to portray him:

as a resident of the rarified world of the "Hollywood movie star liberals" - a pampered universe of exclusive health and exercise clubs, expensive hotel suites and fancy bottled water. The implication was that, like other Hollywood stars, Obama must be "self-infatuated and effete" or "vain and out of touch" or "effete, elite and equivocal" - in short, a weak and vain man without real character; a male fashion model living a movie stars' life and not the real life of ordinary Americans.

This class-based caricature of Obama is important for the McCain campaign because it provides a critical psychological, character-based foundation to support a very disparate set of accusations - that he does not really care about America's solders, that he lacks real patriotism, that he "plays the race card" and so on. Using this "typical Hollywood liberal" stereotype, it is not even necessary to explicitly contrast Obama with the "heartland virtues" of John McCain who the Rove team directly links with such traditional movie-hero figures as John Wayne.

Vega points out that "the kernel of truth which the attack exploits is the fact that Obama is most obviously an 'ordinary' or 'average' guy. So how to counter this attack? Vega argues that it would be "unconvincing and condescending" for Obama to try to present himself as "ordinary" or "average". But "ordinary people" don't need to believe that a candidate is exactly like them to win their respect and support.

On the contrary, individuals who excel and achieve success through hard work, perseverance and dedication are greatly admired by most Americans, so long as they continue to genuinely respect and care about ordinary voters if they enter political life. Average voters genuinely admire upward mobility and success if it is honestly and honorably achieved.

And in fact, Obama's life story provides a powerful core narrative that supports precisely this alternative way of understanding him. It is composed of three elements:

1. A far from easy or pampered early life and a youth marked by confusion, mistakes, bad choices and lack of direction. [I'm not sure if I agree with Vega about emphasizing the troubled youth angle. I would instead emphasize the boy brought up in modest circumstances by a single mother and hard working grandparents.]

2. A remarkable personal turn-around, built on the foundation of the incredibly hard work, perseverance and dedication that is required to get a law degree at a top university.

3. A decision to turn his back on the "easy life" of a...[Wall Street] attorney and to try instead to find a role of service to the community.

This is simply not the life story of a typical pampered Hollywood star or vacuous celebrity. On the contrary, it is a quintessentially American success story of youthful error followed by redemption and success through hard work and an ultimate decision to seek a way to contribute to society.

This begins to shape a compelling narrative from Obama's story that can connect to ordinary Americans. In the end, this brings us back to the story of "a skinny kid with a funny name" who rose to national prominence in a stirring keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. In that speech Obama connected his personal story to the hopes and dreams of all Americans for themselves and their children. It was the story of a child of a man who grew up herding goats and had the opportunity to come to study in America where he met and married a woman from Kansas whose father fought in Patton's army while her mother worked in a bomber factory. They dreamed that their child could go to "the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential." Obama then connected his parents' dreams to the American dream:

I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our Nation -- not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That is the true genius of America, a faith -- a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted.

If Obama can reconnect to this inspirational personal narrative and the belief in the basic goodness of America, then the McCain caricatures of a vacuous Hollywood celebrity will evaporate and be exposed as vicious un-American character assassinations perpetrated by a candidate who will say or do anything--even sell his soul to the very men who impugned the integrity of himself, his wife and his adopted child 8 years ago--if that's what it takes to win.

That's how the Obama campaign can reclaim control of the four quadrants: the story Obama is telling about himself, the story McCain is telling about himself, the story McCain is telling about Obama, and the story Obama is telling about McCain. That's how you use Rove's tactics to defeat Rove and his henchmen.