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.

No comments: