Showing posts with label john kerry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label john kerry. Show all posts

10/03/2007

A Lack of Democratic Leadership

I found this interesting piece in the Politico by David Paul Kuhn about the fears of nervous Democrats who wonder how they'll manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2008 presidential race. Kuhn's piece includes a lot of damning quotes and examples of recent Democratic flops (see Dukakis, Michael, for example), but doesn't really address the issue of why Democrats even end up in these situations to begin with. However, looking at the current "top tier" of the Democratic field, it's easy for me to understand why.

Exhibit A: Consider this piece by the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson. In his commentary, Robinson assails the (three leading) Democrats for not showing straight talk or leadership on the Iraq issue. Perhaps the most important quote in his piece is this:

"The Republican candidates' view of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East is dangerously apocalyptic, but at least it's a vision. What's yours?"
That just about covers it. I can only imagine how frustrated and dejected the antiwar left felt at the recent debate at Dartmouth in which neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards could guarantee that the troops would be out of Iraq by 2013. Obviously, these three candidates didn't want to say anything that would jeopardize their chances with moderate and swing voters in November, but the problem is that by showing such timidity and political calculation, they risk losing their base and not making it to November at all.

Richardson, Biden, and Dodd have all expressed firm positions on Iraq, but they are starved for media attention because they are generally considered second-tier candidates. And on top of that, instead of giving their Iraq policy differences a bit more airtime, the media choose to focus on garbage, such as Clinton's "cackle". (Yes, the way a candidate laughs is considered more newsworthy than a substantial difference of opinion regarding our Iraq policy.) Anyway, I don't think it's a coincidence that the three best qualified candidates for president on the Democratic side of the ledger happen to be the three who have expressed the clearest positions on Iraq, but I digress...

Barack Obama had the "judgment" to be against the war from the start, but he doesn't seem to have any plans that deal with the fact that we're there now. He identifies "bad" options and "worse" options, but doesn't really say which options he'd like to pursue. And the fact that he couldn't make any guarantees about withdrawing all U.S. troops by 2013 only serves to muddy his Iraq "purity" just a bit.

John Edwards wants to get 50,000 troops out immediately, though it's unclear where they will be sent or how long it will take to accomplish this. He doesn't believe in keeping troops in Iraq to battle Al Qaeda because he considers that a way of "continuing the war in Iraq." But he also won't pledge to take all the troops out by 2013, so it's hard to understand what role the remaining troops would even have there. And what does he plan to do about the foreign terrorists who are obviously in Iraq now if he doesn't want to "continue the war" there?

Good luck to anyone who endeavors to figure out what Hillary Clinton's position is. She voted for the war, "takes responsibility for her war vote," voted against funding for the surge, blames George Bush for mismanaging the war, says we must get out responsibly, and then voted to designate the Iranian military a "terrorist organization." In other words, she's everywhere.

Remember Robinson's words. At least the Republicans have a vision.

Exhibit B: Consider this piece by Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer. Horowitz's piece talks about anxiety in the Obama camp stemming from the fact that he's not closing the gap with Hillary Clinton. His supporters and donors are uneasy while his campaign staffers and aides try to allay their concerns by reminding them that "early polls don't mean anything" and that "Obama is well positioned in the early states--the states that matter." Okay, that's all well and good, but it illustrates a major problem that Gore '00 and Kerry '04 had: When your current strategy is not working, change it! You would think that most Democrats who criticized Bush for not changing his failing strategy in Iraq would be able to pick up on this. But for some reason, Obama is continuing down his path of optimism, limited engagement, and subtlety. And Clinton is only widening her lead.

Al Gore should have easily trounced George Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly the superior candidate. He had a lot more relevant experience and the advantages of incumbency during a period of unprecedented economic growth. However, he pursued a strategy of running away from the politician who was his greatest weapon. Instead of the focus being on the good things about the '90s, the campaign focus switched to "earth tones, multiple Al Gores, and woodenness." After a hugely successful national convention speech, his lead in the polls began to evaporate. But even though the polls tightened up, Gore did not really change his strategy. (The changes he did make were more in his own personal style, which only intensified the "multiple Al Gore" charges.) The point is, he did not do what he obviously should have done and let the commander in chief become the campaigner in chief. As a result, Gore lost.

The 2004 election was even more winnable. John Kerry had a long record of public service and was a decorated war veteran. By this time, a large segment of the public had soured on the war and was growing tired of George Bush's perceived incompetence (which was later validated in his second term after Katrina and Harriet Miers). Kerry should have mopped the floor with Bush when it came to foreign policy and he could have even towed the traditional Democratic line on social programs without penalty. Instead, Kerry tried too hard to be as likable as Bush was. So rather than engage Bush in a discussion about an end game in Iraq (something that would have played to his strengths), we ended up with an obviously out-of-place John Kerry in hunting gear that became emblematic of his campaign. He was an out-of-touch panderer. And worse yet, Kerry did not seem to make any real changes in his political strategy to change the subject! Bush's 2004 reelection campaign could basically be summed up as "You might not like my positions on the issues, but at least you know where I stand. And in these dangerous times, it's important for a leader to be firm and to know where he stands." As a result, Bush earned "political capital."

Now Obama '08 seems to be traveling down the same woeful path of Kerry '04 and Gore '00. Is Obama really a fighter? Can he be counted on to change his approach when things are obviously not working? Is he really that averse to going on political offense, or has he boxed himself into a corner because of his own rhetoric about "the politics of hope?" (And just for the record, the only reason why I'm singling out Obama here is because he is the best positioned to overtake Hillary Clinton.)

As for Clinton, she doesn't really have to change her strategy to overtake a candidate in a superior position simply because she is the dominant candidate right now. However, Clinton's cautiousness (such as her refusal to engage in "hypotheticals" or to "put anything on the proverbial table when it comes to Social Security") gets at what Bush was able to win against in 2004. You have to be bold if you want to be president. It seems like Clinton is trying to say as little as possible and win the nomination and the presidency on a lack of specificity.

2008 is a very winnable election for the Democrats, but if they do not stop pursuing strategies that aren't working (Obama's subtlety), don't evoke leadership (Clinton's "hypotheticals"), and have little vision (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards on Iraq), then the Republicans may end up turning 2008 into 1988 and win the White House for a third consecutive time. Should that happen, the Democrats will be absolutely devastated.

However, if that happens, the Democrats will have no one but themselves to blame. In politics, you can never beat something with nothing.

7/18/2007

Edwards and Romney: A Study in Caricatures

John Edwards is in a lot of trouble.

The $400 haircut fiasco has become for him what "I voted for it before I voted against it" became for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign. Fairly or not, this caricature is sticking to Edwards and I'm not so sure he is able to successfully play it off.

The problem with caricatures is that they interfere with a politician's actual message. Obviously, a $400 haircut is not really worth talking about, especially since wealthy people and politicians often spend far more than that on their private jets, aged wines, fine dining, and hired help at their homes. A caricature requires less thought to process and internalize than an actual policy position. How many people actually know what Joe Biden's position on the Iraq War is? I'm willing to bet that far more people know that "he's the guy who says stupid things" or that "he's the gaffe machine" than know of his idea of partitioning Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions.

Democrats in particular have fared the worst when they fall prey to a caricature. It seems that Democrats and Republicans respond to them differently. Democrats try to compensate for the perceived flaw, thus coming across as unprincipled or scripted because it seems awkward. They may then be labeled as an opportunist or a political weathervane. Think about Al Gore's presidential run in 2000. People criticized him for being stiff. How did he "solve" the problem? By being overly aggressive and getting in George Bush's face at a debate. His overcorrection led to unfair (but effective) charges of there being "multiple Al Gores," thus creating yet another caricature that provided a convenient foil for the "plainspoken" Bush. When Gore actually found the "right" balance in the final debate, it was too late because this "new" Al Gore was just like the "old" one in that nobody knew who the "real" Gore was.

In 2004, John Kerry was caricatured, among other things, as an elitist who had nothing in common with "the average American." To compensate for this, he donned hunting gear and participated in a hunting trip/photo op in Ohio in the weeks before Election Day. This was absolutely disastrous for him because he obviously seemed out of his element, thus reinforcing the charges that "he cannot relate to what average people do because he's an elitist." At the same time, the photo op reeked of political opportunism and pandering, thus reinforcing yet another caricature of him--that he would say or do anything if he thought it would get him elected.

Republicans, on the other hand, seem to handle caricatures a bit more effectively. When their warts are exposed, they shine a lantern on them and play it off as "authenticity." George Bush was derided as "a lightweight" or "a buffoon" in the 2000 campaign. But rather than attempting to compensate for it by staging photo ops in libraries or using advanced vocabulary in his speeches, he turned it into an opportunity to appear humble and average--just like the average voter. How many times have you heard Bush and his handlers respond to claims of ineloquence by saying "that's just how he is"? They made no apologies for it and moved on. In the end, what separates Bush from Gore and Kerry in this regard is that with Bush, the caricature became a part of his identity, but it actually became Gore and Kerry's identity.

It appears that John Edwards is falling into the same trap. And what makes this trap even more lethal is the fact that the expensive haircut story contradicts the main pillar of his campaign--his crusade against poverty. So when he rails against the "two Americas" on the campaign trail, voters may have a hard time discerning whether Edwards is authentically talking about "his" campaign issue (poverty) or if he is trying to awkwardly compensate for being branded as a "rich kid who gets expensive haircuts."

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney is being blasted as a flip flopper. But you'll notice that this label is not sticking to him as easily as the "rich kid" label is sticking to John Edwards. Instead of denying his obvious "conversions" on issues social conservatives hold dear (e.g., abortion, gay rights), he is actually embracing these new positions. He is not apologizing for holding views that are in line with those of the GOP base. And it is working because he is now buoyed by strong poll performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. There may be derisive remarks about "flip flop Mitt," but there are a lot of other remarks about "how Mitt is clearly running to the right."

However, even though he is responding to the flip flop caricature effectively, I believe he is doing a far less sufficient job of responding to the panderer caricature. It is no secret that Romney is trying to appeal to the millions of evangelicals that form the religious right. It is also no secret that many voters are uncomfortable with the fact that he is a Mormon. Romney recently created an ad comparing America's children to being trapped in a sea of filth and smut. One would think this ad would go over well because it appeals directly to the people he's trying to reach--religious voters. However, his overtures appear awkward and this latest ad is no exception. Voters may forgive Romney for his flip-flopping on conservative issues, but they may not forgive him for appearing like a fraud. Perhaps it would be wiser for Romney to address his Mormonism head on, rather than let it percolate beneath the surface every time he makes overtures to evangelical Christians without addressing the very issue that makes these Christians skeptical of him to begin with.

Hillary Clinton seems to understand this, as she is now bringing Bill Clinton along on the campaign trail. She is caricatured as "living in Bill's shadow." So what does she do? Rather than feed into the caricature by campaigning solo and letting these doubts linger, she lets him warm up the crowd for her. And even if she is not as charismatic as he is, at least she's able to show that she can stand on her own two feet even in his presence.

Rudy Giuliani seems to get it too. He knows he is not going to be seen as the champion of family values. So he doesn't showcase his wife when he's on the trail. What's the point of trying to show that your marriage and family life are really healthy when people already accept the fact that it's not? So Giuliani doesn't showcase his wife in his campaign ads. He's not running as the "family values" candidate either. Why should he? There's no benefit for him to do that.

John Edwards really needs to be careful because he has little margin for error now, especially in light of recent polls showing him in a statistical tie for third with Bill Richardson in New Hampshire. Once the candidate becomes the caricature, you're doomed.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.