Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The art of strategy

As February 5th approaches, the nation appears to be heading to the Clinton-McCain contest that was deemed to be inevitable before McCain’s long decline and Obama’s rise. But first, McCain must prove that he can win a primary without independent support, and Clinton has to finally bury the Obama insurgency.

McCain’s challenge is formidable, as he is seeking to break from the formula that has been the key to Republican Party electoral success in presidential contests since rising out of the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. For all of the fealty shown by this year’s crop of Republican presidential aspirants to the memory of Ronald Reagan, the underpinning of Republican success has not been character or charisma, but rather strict adherence to the formula set forth long ago by Grover Norquist, long-time conservative activist and President of American’s for Tax Reform.

Don’t raise taxes. Preserve property rights. Protect the Second Amendment. Support home schooling. Oppose abortion. Support communities of faith. Protect marriage.

Norquist rules have been the cornerstone of a Republican coalition that endured for decades. It brought together seven groups, each of whom were moved to vote on a single issue.

Pro-faith. Anti-tax. Pro-gun. Anti-gay. Pro-life. Anti-sex education. Pro-property.

Norquist understood that if those single-issue voters stayed together, they could control the government.

“The reason the center-right coalition holds together, the Reagan voters, the George W. Bush voters… vote and are moved by a desire not to be messed with themselves. And as long as everybody’s primary vote-moving issue is dealt with well––and that’s what Bush did, that’s what Reagan did, that’s what the next Republican nominee that gets this right will do––then the coalition is a low-maintenance coalition, because nobody in the room wants anything at the expense of anyone else on a vote-moving issue.”

“As long as the Christians don’t try and steal anyone’s guns, and the gun-owners don’t try to steal anyone’s property, and the property-owners don’t throw prophylactics at the Christians’ kids, we can all work together because nobody is in anyone else’s face, nobody is in anyone else’s pocket, and we can all go fight the Left the rest of the week.”

And it worked. And it endured.

If a Clinton-McCain contest emerges, the Republican Party will be in uncharted waters.

Despite being a traditional conservative on social issues, John McCain never bought into Norquist’s vision, and has been anathema to elements of the Republican Party for years. His campaign collapsed and was largely left for dead after his efforts to mend fences with evangelical leaders. His strength––his brand––lay in his hero status, his straight-talk persona, and his integrity. He is a big picture candidate. Pandering––the essence of Norquist’s business model––simply did not suit him.

This stands in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy, as formulated by strategy guru Mark Penn. Penn, the author of Microtrends, views America and the electorate as a quilt of distinct socio-cultural groups with their own interests and concerns, and fashioned the campaign accordingly. However, Penn’s is not a Democrat version of the Norquist strategy, as his are not single-issue voting groups, but rather archetypes built on the familiar model of “Soccer Moms” and “NASCAR Dads.”

However, Barack Obama’s campaign challenged the fundamental premise of Penn’s targeting strategy. Obama’s candidacy was not build on positions, but rather an appeal to an inchoate notion that the nation needs a different kind of leadership, that after years of the Blue-Red Civil War, it is time to rebuild the notion of Nation.

Obama’s appeal loomed to be devastating to Clinton, just as any campaign that is built on interest group politics can appear craven next to a larger appeal to the better angels of our nature. Obama’s message brought out the worst in Bill Clinton, in particular, who was reduced to inveighing against the risks of idealism and false hope. However, the emergence of race during the week after New Hampshire turned the tide for the Clinton campaign, and has been devastating for Obama.

In the Iowa caucuses––now receding deep into memory––Obama won among all voter groups except for older women, and after his victory speech the Pundit Class was building him up as a combination of J.F.K. and M.L.K. Less than a week later, despite losing New Hampshire to Clinton largely on the basis of her strong rebound among women voters, Obama continued to enjoy strength across all voter categories.

In the wake of her New Hampshire victory, however, Clinton uttered words that will become legend in the world of political strategy. Clinton embraced the King metaphor but suggested that while visionary leadership was fine, it took L.B.J. to enact the legislation that King’s rhetoric engendered.

For the week that followed, Clinton pressed the theme that she was the political leader with the muscle and finesse to tame the bureaucracy and drive a progressive agenda, while Obama was just talk. But the strategy was not intended to resuscitate the memory of L.B.J. Rather, the objective was to turn the discussion to race.

And it worked. Outrage ensued that Clinton had subordinated King’s achievements to those of Lyndon Johnson, and––even worse––that almost half a century later a visionary Black leader would still have to rely on White leadership to see their dreams come into reality.

Hillary stoically withstood days of racially charged vituperation, drawing on her and her husbands deep reservoirs of support in the Black community. But by the time a truce was called before the Nevada vote, the trick had been turned, and Obama had been transformed.

No longer was he the visionary, whose base was drawn from those eager for fundamental change––the latest in a long Democratic Party tradition that included Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Howard Dean. Now he was first and foremost a Black Candidate, inheriting the mantle instead of Jesse Jackson.

And what was wrong with that? After all, Jackson won more primaries than almost anyone on that list.

But as the Nevada vote rolled in, what was wrong became clear. In less than a week, the entire dynamic of the race had changed. Identity Politics largely displaced the debate over Change vs. Experience, and the Obama campaign was badly wounded.

For the Clinton campaign, this transformation was essential. After all, she had won New Hampshire in the wake of the Teargate episode that drew women to her banner in large numbers. While that was fine as a means of reviving a campaign that was failing, she could not allow herself to become identified as a Women Candidate.

Therefore, labeling Obama as the Black Candidate served two purposes. First, even if it ceded a major voting block to him, it marginalized his campaign and undermined its national prospects. Second, it neutralized the negative aspects of her own reliance on women, by making each candidate an identity candidate.

And what a good trade it was. In Nevada, Clinton might have lost much of her support within the Black community––which backed Obama three to one––but in exchange she gained a dominant edge among Women, Whites and Latinos.

How quickly the new politics devolved to the old. The Clinton campaign and its surrogates immediately began to spin expectations based on the logic of the newly reframed campaign. They have pronounced Obama the likely winner the upcoming South Carolina vote on the basis of its large Black vote––a tactic that in turn solidifies the image of Obama as the Black Candidate, diminishes the importance of the outcome if he wins, and magnifies the importance if she wins––while remaining silent on the corollary that they fully expected to win California and New York in the trade.

If a Clinton–McCain contest emerges, it will be a throwback. John McCain will once again be John McCain, and will run on the basis of his iconic status as a maverick and as a leader, eschewing his lapse into Grover Norquist’s world of coalition politics. Clinton, for her part, will have to choose which voice to embrace. Mark Penn long ago scripted the general election as one in which she would quilt together the Democrats' 48% Blue vote, and build a broad electoral victory by drawing in up to 20% of Republican Women.

But that was then. The successes of both the McCain and Obama campaigns reflect a public weary with the old political rules and strategies, and a desire for a future that is different from the past. Offering a future that is different from the past––a past defined by divisive national politics and twenty years with a Bush or Clinton in the White House––will be a tough sell for Hillary. Despite all of the advantages that Clinton will enjoy in this Democratic year, McCain’s stature and independence may enable him to draw support across party lines, much as Obama was able to do.

There is no small irony that this all comes to a head in the South Carolina, the state where George W. Bush buried John McCain in 2000 through a racially-charged strategy. The Clinton campaign has regained its position of dominance, and challenged Obama to respond in turn if he is to regain his momentum.

Meanwhile, Hillary has opened a new front in the campaign. In the last debate, raised the issue of Obama’s relationship with Chicago developer Antoin Rezko. It is truly a sign of the confidence that the Clintons––whose own campaign finance history includes their own unsavory moments Johnny Chung and Norman Hsu and the pardoning of fugitive billionaire Marc Rich––would take this tack, and invite a reopening of the entire saga of Clintons past.

A saga that is one of the central elements in the desire of many voters to move on.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Whither change.

“Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong. Some of us are ready, and some of us are not.”

With her voice soft and her eyes showing a hint of tears, Hillary Clinton laid herself bare to the voters. Perhaps this will become the signature look that will convey the sincerity to the public that Bill mastered when he bit his lower lip as he felt our pain.

Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong.

In this YouTube moment, Hillary brought her campaign back, laid her claim to the presidency, and set forth her creed. Blunt words hidden behind the soft voice. Steel behind the moist eyes.

While the media focused on the emotional content and visual images, the words themselves expressed sharp differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

For months, the contest between Clinton and Obama was largely reduced to the themes of Experience and Change. However, that characterization has been seriously flawed from the outset. After all, Clinton’s claim to “thirty-five years of experience as a citizen activist” masks a resume that boasts just over one term in the Senate as a follow-on to her years as First Lady and her legal practice in Little Rock. Her years as First Lady certainly provided great exposure to the presidency, but its relevance remains an open question.

If nominated as the standard bearer for her party, her claim to the mantle of experience will not hold up long in the general election contest, whether she faces John McCain, Rudy Giuliani or Mike Huckabee, so better to set that argument aside now. The fact is that Clinton’s resume is as thin as any presidential candidate in memory. She has completed one term in the Senate, has never served in the military or held a foreign policy position, and has never been accountable for the basics of executive leadership: setting strategy, making decisions on limited information, building on successes, addressing failures, and learning from both. And however one spins her years as First Lady, even Bill Clinton would be forced to credit Huckabee’s tenure as Governor of Arkansas as a more proven credential.

Yes, Hillary led her husband’s efforts at healthcare reform. But the upshot of that effort does little credit to her claims, as it stands as the signature policy failure of her husband’s tenure. In the wake of that failure, Hillary did not regroup and soldier on, but rather she left the stage while husband Bill beat a tactical retreat as he tacked to the center and embraced Republican welfare reform legislation. Opponents of welfare reform might reasonably argue that the poor paid a heavy price for Hillary’s leadership failure.

Hillary’s words in New Hampshire bring back to center stage a central characteristic of her leadership style that will become pivotal before the election is over. Like the man that she seeks to replace in the White House, Hillary Clinton believes that she is right, and that those who disagree are wrong. And while the facts of her resume may belie her claim to the mantle of Experience, this central aspect of her personality makes the mantle of Change an odd fit as well, particularly in terms of what Change has come to mean in this election year.

The theme pf change that emerged in the Iowa victories of both Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee was not the appeal of the outsider, but rather it was a reflection of the exhaustion of the electorate with the politics of division that have characterized the current administration, and that characterized the Clinton years as well. Whatever their differences on policy, both Obama and Huckabee are comfortable with and reach out to people whose views and experiences differ from their own. Just as Obama visited and embraced the congregation of evangelical pastor Rick Warren––and they embraced him––Huckabee connected with African American audiences that were bypassed by the rest of the Republican field. They share an optimism and humanity that resonate with voters weary of years of Red and Blue, the use of patriotism as a rapier of political tactics, and the politics of personal destruction.

The real distinction between Clinton and Obama is not about experience. It is philosophical and sharp, and Hillary laid it out in her moment of sincerity in New Hampshire.

Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong. The words and the righteousness once reserved for the minions of the vast right wing conspiracy were now leveled at her antagonist for her party’s nomination.

The question that was raised from the moment he considered running for the presidency is about to be answered. We are about to find out if Barack Obama is ready. The campaign over the weeks to come will define both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton in terms of how much this fight means to her and the tactics that she will embrace. Obama by whether he can stand up against the fury of the assault that lies ahead, and whether it deepens his commitment to his core message or whether he shrinks from it.

The race is Hillary’s to lose. After all, all of the advantages are hers. Her team is experienced, and her message is simple. She is expected to do whatever it takes, so few will think less of her if when she goes on the offensive. And much of the core message has already been fleshed out, as it was delivered by Bill Clinton prior to the vote in New Hampshire:

Voting for Obama is a risk. He has no experience. His ideas are flawed. It is all an illusion. Get real.

And there will also be the subliminal messages delivered by surrogates to undermine the Obama campaign, such as the "testimonial" offered by Clinton supporter and former Senator Bob Kerry while campaigning in Iowa prior to the caucuses––and for which he apologized profusely later:

I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims.

Amazing, really, that after months of being the insurgent running against the inevitable nominee, Barack Obama was the frontrunner for all of two days. Barely twenty-four hours from when three polls were released showing him ahead in New Hampshire by ten points to the day the votes were counted in New Hampshire.

Then, a day after her dewy eyed performance, Hillary won by four points. And it was over.

Now we are back to where it all started. She is once again the presumptive nominee. The advantage is hers. But it will not be about Change, because we have seen this show before. Right or wrong, ready or not, this is about the real world of power politics. The question for the voters, and central to her challenger’s message will be whether we want to go back or whether it is time to move on.