Politics & Policy

How to Save Barack

Avoiding a crushed presidential campaign.

When a somewhat racy music video of a woman with the hots for a presidential candidate causes the biggest stir in about two months, as in the case of Barack Obama recently, it’s a sign that a campaign has hit a plateau.

Polls over the last month have consistently shown Senator Obama a strong second, but still considerably behind frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Illinois Democrat performed fine in both debates so far, but nothing he said or did those evenings changed the dynamics of the race. Jerome Armstrong, the former Dean campaign staffer who is one of the most influential voices among liberal bloggers, concluded, “Obama’s running a well-funded, traditional presidential campaign that’s safely pointed toward finishing a strong second based on his personal appeal. I can see Obama getting a lot of points in the game, but never the lead.”

So how does Obama get out of his current nice-but-not-enough blahs? How does he overtake Hillary?

The Washington Post conducted a usefully detailed poll on how Democratic-primary voters feel about their three leading candidates, Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards. They found voters felt that Hillary was the strongest leader, the most experienced, the most trusted to handle a crisis, and the one with the best chance of winning.

So what’s left? Well, Obama ranked just behind Hillary on “understands the problems of people like you,” was ranked the “most inspiring,” and led solidly on “most honest and trustworthy.” Those areas represent Hillary Clinton’s soft underbelly, and that is where Obama is going to have to heighten the contrast.

Obama has to do this while not appearing to go negative. And it’s not clear that he can count on any other Democratic candidate to do any real damage to the frontrunner. Edwards has hit Clinton pretty consistently since he entered the race, with limited results. Some of the other candidates, like Bill Richardson, actually defend Hillary (a.k.a auditioning for veep). The ones who truly go after her, like Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, are too far out on the fringe to make an effective attack.

And the no-negative-campaigning rule in the Democratic primaries is pretty serious: When Dick Gephardt went after Howard Dean before the Iowa primaries, both candidates saw their numbers plummet, an act that campaign wags called “a murder-suicide.”

“Promises made, promises kept”

Democratic-primary voters pretty much like what Hillary is saying, but they’re nervous about how much she’ll compromise once in office. “Triangulation,” the strategy of compromise embraced by her husband during her presidency, is a dirty word in liberal circles.

Obama’s campaign has done a nice job of telling his unusual and inspiring life story; now they need to showcase him as an effective political leader. Ideally, they would point to the centerpiece of his state legislative campaign in 1996, and how he enacted that key piece of legislation, and similar cases in 1998 and 2002. Finally, they need to show that since he’s gotten to the Senate, he played “a key role” in passing the expansion of Nunn-Lugar to cover landmines and missiles and the Coburn-Obama Transparency Act, which disclosed and organized all organizations receiving federal funds… The over-arching message for this front in the fight against Hillary has to be, “He says what he means and he means what he says.” The contrast with Hillary will be unspoken but clear.

“The humility to admit when wrong, the conscience to make amends”

It’s a bit odd that the biggest gripe the antiwar crowd has with Hillary isn’t so much her view of what to do in Iraq now, so much as her steadfast refusal to apologize for her war vote. But they’ve picked their priority. Obama has ridden his antiwar stance from 2002 about as far as it can take him. Now he needs to take Hillary’s refusal to apologize — interpreted by the base as obstinacy and intractability, and compare her traits to what they hate about Bush.

Obama could, and should, spotlight some time in his career when he made the wrong decision, learned from it, and made amends. After talking about it in speeches, imagine the ad

Sometimes I get things wrong. But I’m proud that I get the big things right, like the decision to go to war in Iraq. I thought it was a bad idea, and I’ve never had to say “I was for it before I was against it.” If I’m nominated, you won’t hear anything about flip-flopping. It’ll be a straight contest between a Democrat who thinks we need to get out and face the real threat from al Qaeda verses a Republican who disagrees.

Democrats still have nightmares about the 2004 Kerry campaign; suggesting that nominating Hillary would mean a rerun of those confusing and contradictory stances on the war could shake their confidence in her.

“I can elect Democrats that Hillary can’t”

There is already at least one red state Senate Democrat up for reelection in 2008 complaining about the difficulty of running with Hillary at the top of the ticket. We also know that in 2008 will feature a significant number of red-state House Democrats running their first reelection campaigns. Sixty-one Democrats represent districts George W. Bush carried.

Would Nancy Boyda rather run for reelection in Kansas’s second district with Hillary on the top of the ticket? Would Heath Shuler, in North Carolina?

If Jim Webb isn’t willing to make this argument, then perhaps Virginia governor Tim Kaine, who has already endorsed Obama, can say something in this vein:

We knew we were facing a tough race. Our opponent had more money and more name recognition. A lot of Washington Democrats had written us off. We asked Barack Obama for help. It wasn’t so much the money as the people he brought in. We had people who hadn’t voted in years came to see him. People were asking, who is this guy?In a tight race, he helped make the difference. And now, thanks to Barack Obama, this district/state now has a Democrat fighting for our values. There aren’t a lot of other politicians who can say that.

Flip side: Later in the campaign, if and when Hillary is perceived to have gone negative, Team Obama could utilize A) the sensitivity of this argument and B) Democrats’ fears of reprisal from crossing the Clintons, by featuring an ad that features Democrats with their identities obscured:

If Hillary gets the nomination, we lose all kinds of down-ticket races in red states.

If we run Hillary, we lose white working-class men.

If we run Hillary, we have to fight all the old fights and go over all of the old scandals, instead of focusing on the future.

Everybody knows this, but nobody’s willing to say it, because we know she’ll come after us.

And then the tagline, to win-hungry Democrats who switched from Dean to Kerry overnight four years ago: “Hillary: Can the Democrats Afford the Risk?”

Spotlight “Republicans For Obama”

It’s very counterintuitive, and obviously, you don’t want to do this while there is still a mass of liberal voters who might switch to Edwards or some other candidate. But when George W. Bush’s former communications strategist Matthew Dowd says the only candidate he would work for in 2008 is Obama, and when McCain adviser Mark McKinnon announces he won’t work for a Republican if Obama wins the nomination, advocates for the Illinois senator can justifiably argue that something special is happening. (Could we imagine any other Democratic presidential candidate seeking advice from Colin Powell?)

It’s an inside-baseball argument, but the Obama team can persuasively argue that their man increases the number of votes (and states) in play, while Hillary would be seeking the Kerry states plus Ohio, with little margin for error (and enormous voter turnout among Republicans).

Unless Barack Obama is comfortable being considered (and most likely, passed over) as Hillary’s running mate, he will have to make some effort to sharpen the contrast between himself and the frontrunner. For now, a crush on Obama isn’t enough.

Jim Geraghty reports on the 2008 campaigns for National Review Online.

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