February 24, 2008

Lock Step

Another thrashing of the Clinton campaign by Frank Rich in today's Times. Like many an Obama supporter, Rich has always given the curious impression not of being motivated by love for Obama or Obama's ideas (assuming there are any, and assuming he'd divulge them if there were) but by pointed distaste for Clinton. It's a thin form of evangelism, but it's fair enough, I suppose, given that Rich's catalog of Clinton missteps is accurate and material. It has been a terrible campaign. I myself have found Obama's tremendous appeal elusive (save during one or two speeches), but there's no getting around the fact that his opposition has seemed determined to misplay nearly every opportunity. And there's been no getting around the fact that Obama's campaign, by contrast, has been a model of consistency, efficiency, and clarity (in its lack of clarity, if you will).

If nothing else good comes out of this lengthy exercise, let's hope the career of Mark Penn will be consigned to corporate image buffing from here on out. He and his brand of politics are well past their shelf life; there are a few Democrats who get tingly at the thought that they have their very own Karl Rove, but they're pretty few in number by now. Even Rove himself is stale meat. Grind them up and feed them to the dogs; voters on both sides are clearly fed up.

The trouble, of course, isn't Penn himself. It's Penn's boss. It's that Clinton didn't fire Penn four months ago, and then two months ago, and then one month ago — at any of the junctures, that is, at which the ineffectiveness of his strategy began to glare more brightly. To have done so might have suggested the kind of keen political sensibility she's trumpeted (and appears to have demonstrated, in all fairness, in the senate). Not to have done so has left her looking imprudent at best, boneheaded and befuddled at worst — an echo, as Rich suggests, of Bush in her refusal to bow to reality.

Misstep after misstep, badly played hand after badly played hand — it does, in fact, add up to a counterargument to the campaign's self-declared strengths: experience; wisdom; sober judgment. None of those have been on display. In fact, we've seen the lack of them all. The end was telegraphed, I suppose, in the tableau of Clinton's concession speech in Iowa, when she stood before a gallery of aging political history that included Wesley Clark and Madeline Albright — fine characters all, but, to anyone watching with contemporary eyes, very much yesterday's fine characters. They were soon ushered off, but the political mindset that put them there in the first place stayed on. Every step the campaign has taken since then has been a teetering one, as likely to break as to make something. It has been anything but a demonstration of sound, sober, confident leadership. It has been anything but presidential.

And it's helped the opposition. If part of Obama's strategy has been to flood the electorate with inchoate uplift, another part has been for the candidate himself to remain uplifted — above the fray, that is; dignified, collected. Given the Clinton campaign's performance, this hasn't been a stretch. All they've had to do is sit back and let the opposition flop around. They look judicious. They look solid as a rock.

So if there's anything to be gleaned from the running of the campaigns themselves, Obama looks judicious, temperate, persistent and smart, whereas Clinton looks disorganized, unsound, and reckless. It's certainly possible to take this as one indication of leadership potential.

On the other hand, no one ever ran a tighter, more focused, more disciplined campaign than George Bush.

February 16, 2008


This week, The New Yorker's George Packer joins the chorus of concern over the nature of the public's engagement with the Obama campaign. Packer represents a faction of the liberal community (of which I'd consider myself also a member) that you might call cautious or pragmatic progressivism. Or you might just call them rationalists. Like others, including Paul Krugman and Stanley Fish of the New York Times, Packer is attracted to and impressed by the energy of the Obama campaign, and fairly bowled over by its ability to rope in usually jaded segments of the electorate like youth and independents. But he's disturbed by the occasional slipperiness of the campaign's rhetoric, by the often uncritical and undemanding attachment of voters to that rhetoric (witness the overuse of content-free words like "change"), and by the heavy investment not in a specific set of ideas or policy goals but in a single man. Packer calls it near-messianic, and he's right; Obama supporters can have a drank-the-kool-aid, frothing-at-the-mouth intensity that suggests brownshirts marching through the streets of Milan with tire irons in hand. They can wax particularly vitriolic toward Hillary Clinton and her supporters — nearly as much so, as Stanley Fish discovered, as the wack-job Republicans that have dogged the Clintons for sixteen years now. What's weird about this, of course, is that there's little daylight between Obama's and Clinton's actual policy positions or voting records; the venom is all personality based, or, rather, perceived personality based. (It's not as if they know Clinton, after all — what it really seems to come down to is that she doesn't move them to tears when she speaks on TV.)

As Obama's numbers have improved, the hordes of his supporters have seemed to grow more intransigent, which is to say less and less tolerant of an alternative. Packer notes one Obama fan who claims he might well defect to a third party ("maybe a Bloomberg-Hegel ticket" — because, hey, that's totally rational as a substitute for Obama; and man would it ever punish Washington!) if Obama can't secure the nomination. It's only one man, but these grumblings have been spreading since Tsunami Tuesday, or whatever they're calling it; Michelle Obama herself suggested she might not vote for Clinton should the latter become the nominee.

Now there's commitment to an agenda for you. There's common purpose. There's bringing people together.

This strikes me as exactly the kind of my-way-or-the-highway politics voters drawn to Obama claim they want to "change." It's personal, it's irrational, and it's uncompromising — all curious, given the politics-of-unity rhetoric of their candidate. If Obama Democrats can't make common cause with Clinton Democrats, whose governance aims they would appear to share almost exactly, how are they to make common cause with Republicans who share almost none of those aims?

There's no concrete answer to this so far, not from the candidate and not from Obama nation.