Radical activist Saul Alinsky has had quite a season, especially for somebody who has been dead for 36 years. The two Democratic finalists had Alinsky links. Hillary Clinton wrote her 1969 senior thesis on his work, and she impressed him so much that he offered her a job. (She declined.) Obama spent his early Chicago years working for Alinsky disciples.
But the candidates who have most effectively applied Alinsky principles are John McCain and Sarah Palin. In Rules for Radicals (1971), Alinsky offered specific ideas for political and social action. Several seem to underlie the GOP campaign plan.
Never go outside the experience of your people. Grassroots Republicans love Palin. They see her as a more gifted version of people they know from PTA meetings, small-group Bible studies, Communion breakfasts, and yes, hockey games. Her perspective is different from that of other national politicians. For Barack Obama, Wal-Mart is a symbol of worker exploitation. For Hillary Clinton, it’s a former source of corporate-director fees. For Sarah Palin, it’s a place where you buy stuff.
Wherever possible, go outside of the experience of the enemy. During his political career, Obama has never had a serious Republican opponent, and Biden hasn’t had a tough general election since 1972. Effective attacks from the right are new to them.
On this point, conservatives and Republicans also have a structural advantage. As David Brooks wrote after the 1994 election, conservatives know about liberalism from popular culture and the mainstream media. “But many liberals, it transpires, have only the haziest phantasms about conservatism, having only read each other’s descriptions of it.” That observation remains true, even after a GOP Congress and presidency. Recall liberal befuddlement when Bristol Palin’s pregnancy didn’t cause Republicans to burn her mother at the stake.
In the past few years, many Democratic strategists have studied George Lakoff’s laughable analysis of political thought, Don’t Think of An Elephant! According to Lakoff, at the core of Republican philosophy is the template of the “stern father.”
What will they do with the “stern father” theory now that the GOP’s most exciting leader is a cheerful mother?
Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. Obama has promised to cleanse American politics of dishonesty and special-interest influence. Some of his supporters have even compared him to Jesus.
The McCain campaign has pounded Obama for falling short of his own standards. And Obama has supplied plenty of ammunition. He broke his promise on public funding of his fall campaign. He pledged that he would fire any staffer who criticized Palin for private family matters. When a staffer did that, Obama reneged again.
In fact, if Obama were faithful to his own word, he would not even be in the race. Here’s what he said when he took his senatorial oath in 2005: “I’m not running for national office. I am here to be sworn in as the United States senator from the state of Illinois. I will not be running for president in `08.”
Obama has defended himself with lawyerly hedging and parsing. In other words, it all depends on what the meaning of the word “promise” is. No wonder Obamamania has cooled. You can’t keep looking like a messiah when you keep talking like Clinton.
Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage. During the summer, the McCain campaign rattled Obama with YouTube videos mocking him as a celebrity and “The One.” The barbs in Palin’s acceptance speech left Obama supporters sputtering.
Obama has reacted by adopting even harsher rhetoric, thereby undercutting his promise of a “new tone.” His campaign has also proved that it is clumsy with humor,” running an ad saying that McCain “can’t send an e-mail.” It turns out that McCain has difficulty using a keyboard because of the injuries he sustained as a Vietnam POW. So with a lame joke, the Obama campaign renewed attention to McCain’s heroism.
“A good tactic is one that your people enjoy,” said Alinsky, and Republicans have been having a great time lately. But they must beware irrational exuberance. With a shaky economy, protracted war, and unpopular president, the GOP still faces a tough slog. And although Alinsky’s tactics may be energizing, Republicans should remember that he did not always win. As he taught in Rules for Radicals, the targets often find ways of adapting and fighting back.
But for the moment, at least, Republicans can revel in an irony: their ticket has gained ground by following advice from the ultimate community organizer.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.