10 sep. 2008

What Obama Needs to Do in the Final Sixty Days

Avoiding President Palin
Democrats around the country have been growing increasingly anxious over the last week, and for good reason. If there was a clear message from Denver, it was reflected in the remarks of virtually every commentator on television after Obama's magnificent speech: "Wow, Obama can throw a punch." He needed to indict the Bush administration and the Republican Party for what they have done to the country, and he needed to show that he can be powerful, not just eloquent and inspiring. If there was another message, it was the power of narrative. Over and over we heard comments like, "Wow, what a great story"--referring both to the stories Michele and Barack Obama told about themselves and the stories Bo and Joe Biden told about Obama's vice presidential nominee, which drew a visible tear from the eyes of Michele--which itself addressed the story Republicans were trying to tell about her, that she is a cold, hard, angry black woman (the same story they told about Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, with the racial twist to make it more incendiary).
It was not just the "liberal media elite" who responded to a week in which Democrats finally told a sustained, coherent, narrative about how the Bush administration and the Republican Party had pillaged our economy and left the country increasingly alone and unsafe in the world (although they left out some crucial details Americans should have heard about, like the extraordinary rendition of innocent people to torture chambers in the Middle East), about how McCain represents the same failed ideology of the Bush years, and about who Barack Obama really is and how he intends to lead. By the end of the convention, Obama had opened up an 8-point lead in the Gallup Polls, a stark contrast to the two-point deficit with which he began the convention after three months of failing to offer any narrative at all and doggedly refusing to go after McCain while McCain was using him as a punching bag, hitting him with one narrative after another (Obama is a celebrity, an elitist, an uppity guy who is too big for his breeches, a tax and spend liberal, someone who doesn't put country first, someone who doesn't share "our" values, not one of "us").
But the political panorama can change rapidly, and this one did the moment the convention ended and the Obama campaign decided to resume shooting scenes from its sequel to the Kerry campaign, "President Palin's Revenge" (which itself was a bad remake of "Dukakis, Tanks but No Tanks"). They already had all the footage they needed from the summer: no real narrative about their candidate, no narrative about their opponent, refusal to answer attacks, weak performances in televised interviews, poor use of surrogates on television (if they were even present), changing positions in ways that undercut the candidate's narrative of authenticity, and an disquietingly poor performance on Rick Warren's pseudo-debate with McCain. This was stock Democratic footage.
So after a week of Republicans mocking the Democrats, deriding everyone who isn't one of them (especially the dark-skinned, exotic Obama) as un-American, anti-life, elitist, hostile to "small town values," and narcissistic or subversive (putting himself, something, or some group--perhaps black people?--other than "Country First"), McCain has now opened a 4-point lead in the Gallup Polls among registered voters. That's not even factoring in McCain's advantage among "likely voters," which is higher; or the percent of voters who accurately guess the race of the person on the other end of the phone when the pollster calls and adjust their response if she sounds black, or the additional percent who would vote for a black man in public (as they did in Democratic caucuses) but whose unconscious (and increasingly conscious) prejudices emerge when they vote in private, often taking forms such as, "I just don't know Obama," "Something about him makes me uneasy," "I'm not sure I can trust him," "I think he's really a Muslim," or "He must have stuck with that Reverend Wright all those years for a reason."
Fortunately these numbers are volatile, and the Obama campaign seems to have decided that it's time to run an offense again at least part of the time (with a new ad debuting yesterday in swing states attacking McCain's "maverick" status). With all the factors going for Democrats this year (their generic lead over Republicans after 8 years of mismanagement and malfeasance remains in the double digits) and the more charismatic candidate, the polls should shift back again, at least to parity.
But McCain shouldn't have gotten a 10-point bump from his uncivil convention, and this election shouldn't be close. What happened in one short week was both completely predictable and completely avoidable. Just hours after a Democratic Convention that reignited Democratic enthusiasm and started to swing those swing voters who just weren't sure about Obama, the Obama campaign had forgotten everything it should have learned from its success of Denver--most importantly that you never drop your gloves, and that you never let the other side control the narratives--and had returned to the same failed strategies that gave us Presidents Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry, strategies Democratic consultants have passed from generation to generation like a family heirloom laced with hemlock.