9/01/2008

The Democrats' Missed Opportunity

During the speculation leading up to Barack Obama's vice presidential selection, a lot of attention was being paid to Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia. Kaine and Obama have a good personal relationship and a Kaine selection would have burnished Obama's outsider and change messages. Kaine was even whom I predicted would be joining Obama at the bottom of his ticket. However, one of the biggest problems with the Virginia governor was his relatively short tenure as governor and his lack of foreign policy credentials. The volatile situation in Georgia probably allowed Joe Biden to win Obama's favor at the expense of Kaine.

Republican strategist Karl Rove had an interview with Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer early last month and was dismissive of Kaine's credentials:

"With all due respect again to Governor Kaine, he's been a governor for three years. He's been able but undistinguished. I don't think people could really name a big, important thing that he’s done.

[Kaine] was mayor of the 105th largest city in America. And again, with all due respect to Richmond, Virginia, it's smaller than Chula Vista, California; Aurora, Colorado; Mesa, or Gilbert, Arizona; North Las Vegas, or Henderson, Nevada. It's not a big town."
Richmond's population as of 2007 was about 200,000. The population of Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin served as mayor, is only about 5% of Richmond's population, at about 9800. Kaine has served as the governor of the 12th largest state since January 2006. Palin has served as the governor of the 48th largest state since December 2006, so Kaine has about a year more of gubernatorial experience than Palin.

For Democrats to not be able to capitalize on this quote is astounding. The debate over Palin has largely centered around comparing her to Barack Obama in terms of experience. These criticisms were predictable, as I mentioned earlier, and have probably led to a stalemate. Unfortunately for Democrats, they forgot that one of the most potent weapons in politics is to use your opponents' words against them. That's far more damaging than making the case yourself.

Karl Rove's criticisms of Tim Kaine's tenure as mayor of the "105th largest city in America" is political manna. And there are probably other incriminating videos or statements from other Republicans, such as this one, downplaying Kaine for similar reasons. Barack Obama and/or his Democratic allies could then parlay these attacks as being "the same old politics" and "predictable partisanship and hypocrisy." This would undercut Palin's selection without attacking her directly. After all, it would be Rove who was attacking Palin, not sexist and hypocritical Democrats. But now Democrats run the risk of "being against small town America."

Talk about turning lemonade into lemons.

The Democrats may have the right message to win this election, but the Republicans are much better at the actual politics involved.

7 comment(s):

Phillip said...

hi Anthony, I agree that the opening for the Dems is there with this line of reasoning, but they are generally avoiding for three reasons:

1) It can jujitsu yet back around on them in that talk of "experience" presents problems for Obama himself, who is after all at the head of his ticket (yes, that attack on Obama is refutable but why play on that turf?)

2) I think there is tremendous caution being exercised about attacks by the campaign itself on Palin, or the choice of Palin (sure, surrogates are attacking it, but I'm not hearing O or B doing so). I think there is great worry that attacking Palin will backfire.

3) Most important, and the biggest rationale for reason #2, is that I think the Obama campaign (as well as many in the media) expect that Palin may self-destruct of her own accord, either via her inexperience and lack of depth on international issues becoming more glaring as the campaign progresses (perhaps some Quayle-ish gaffes in the offing) or via stuff that will surface because of insufficient vetting by the McCain camp, for example, Troopergate. By this reasoning, no need to go negative on Palin, she will do the Democrats' work for them.

This reasoning is a bit of a gamble for Democrats, though, as well. The whole "lowered expectations" game can work very effectively for Palin as it indeed worked for W in the debates last time around. She does not need to beat Biden in the debate, for example, merely to be less mediocre than many expect her to be. I fear that Democrats underestimate her at their peril.

Brett said...

I can already picture the ad. They could take a page from the "Mitt-sterpiece Theatre" ads that McCain created against Romney, and show alternating scenes of Rove decrying Kaine followed by a flip-flop, or other such things.

Anthony Palmer said...

I think Brett nailed it. I'm sure there's video of McCain blasting Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee, or some other candidate for a lack of experience or national security credentials. The debates during the primary season were full of juicy remarks that could make good attack ads against Palin. When McCain called Romney "the candidate of change," that was just begging to be exploited. Palin supports drilling in ANWR. She and her husband are union members. McCain claimed that the other candidates were not as credible on national security. Put the image of a pair of flip flops on the screen after each charge and that would be an effective, though tough, ad.

But Phillip is also right in that the Democrats may be waiting for Palin to crack either under the pressure of the media grind or through some gaffe of her own. We'll see.

From a strategist's perspective, however, the Democrats have truly bungled this. The Republicans did an excellent job with her media rollout--videos of her firing machine guns and all.

Thomas said...

There is also the fact that the vice-president is inherently going to learn on the job. Bill Clinton said recently and I believe this too, "Is anyone ever really ready to be president?"

Khaki Elephant said...

Wasn't it John Adams who said the American Vice Presidency is "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived"?

That said, while I expected Obama to pick Biden, Kaine would have proved a more electrifying running mate and added weight to the mantra of change.

I do think in this instance it would be hard to use Rove's words agains the Republicans since McCain has been critical of Rove in the past.

Anthony Palmer said...

While Biden will probably help Obama in the Midwest among blue collar voters (he'd have to fight for them with Palin), Kaine probably would have been a stronger choice overall. Had Obama picked Kaine, McCain never would have picked Palin. Then we'd be looking at an Obama-Kaine vs. McCain-Pawlenty race. Kaine could carry Virginia thus forcing McCain to flip Michigan or Minnesota.

As for the VP office being insignificant, I used to think that, but Dick Cheney has been the most powerful VP in history, I believe. And given McCain's health, I'm not so sure I'd be comfortable with the idea of the vice presidency as merely a ceremonial position. If you were an NFL coach, you wouldn't give the backup quarterback position to someone who only played quarterback in high school, right?

I can't wait for the debates. This election is going to be very close.

Brett said...

I'm actually glad he did pick Biden, and hope he helps keep the VP office strong. I've always figured it should be a kind of "liason" office between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch, with the VP out on the Senate floor constantly arguing and debating for the President's views (I'm a big fan of making at least the VP do Question Time British-style - look it up on Youtube or the like).

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