Where To Go From Here? (UPDATE)

So the rough days are going to keep on rolling for the Obama campaign.  This marks a difficult patch for the front-runner that actually began about a week ago when in the waning moments prior to the Texas and Ohio primaries, Obama was getting knocked about by a press that had suddenly turned on him as well as a Clinton campaign that was swinging with desperation.

Things haven’t changed much since then with the exception that the Clinton campaign has become even more aggressive.  The media still remains slanted against Obama for the most part which is natural for two reasons.  It’s in their best interests to do so; the Democratic primary right now is ratings gold.  Also, we’re still in the afterglow of the Ohio and Texas victories where Clinton is bound to have her due.

Just because what we are seeing is not outside the expected, that does not mean it’s any less frustrating.  Caught up in a ratings feast, and frozen by accusations of anti-Clinton bias, the media has become a loudspeaker for Clintonista tactics, tactics that were expected to increase given that they appeared to work for her in the last set of primaries.

Josh Marshall points out that the effect is that Obama looks like he is just getting clobbered out there.  What is more important is the fact that this is particularly true amongst those who don’t put forth the effort researching the attacks and negative news stories, that wide swath of people in the electorate to whom sound bite politics speaks.

What’s worse is that this is likely to continue at least for a little while.  I don’t foresee any turning of the tide until Wednesday at the earliest.  Should Obama win both Wyoming and Mississippi, he will again be given the headlines and hopefully have the opportunity to at least get the megaphone back for a little bit.

As it stands now, the Clinton attacks aren’t going unanswered; the Obama campaign has responded to just about everything that’s come their way.  Problem is, not a whole lot of people are listening.

Clinton is controlling the news cycle.

Something has to happen, and having the Obama campaign go hard negative is not the way to go.

This may seem hypocritical of me, but understand that I’m differentiating between the campaign and its supporters.  I’m lukewarm on where the supporters should be.  The more vicious side of me wants to call for war.  Of the three remaining presidential candidates, I’m fairly certain that none of them are 99.44% clean, but I’m also of the mind that Obama is most likely the cleanest of the bunch.  There’s more than enough mud to be slung at both McCain and Clinton to go around.

On the other hand, there is the side of me that believes in things such as integrity, intellectual honesty, and higher standards.  That part of me believes that while Obama supporters are well within their rights to throw elbows and play a very tough defense against Clinton, little good will come from stooping to the same level as the Taylor Marshes and Larry Johnsons of this season.

It makes us look petty and delusional.

But that’s not the focal point of this post.  The focal point of this post is how does Obama get himself back on track because make no mistake, Marshall’s right, the Clinton campaign has him rattled and reeling.  And while he’s still poised to take the nomination, Clinton has a long time to build a strong argument for Super Delegates overturning pledged delegates and snatching the nomination at the last second.

Also, it does no good if Obama limps into the General Election.  McCain may be at a disadvantage, but the strength of the nominee and the party has plenty of time to cause harm to itself before we get to the main event.

So the Obama campaign needs to sit down and have one serious skulls session to figure out the game plan for the rest of the way in.  It needs to develop a game plan that can overcome the kitchen sink strategy employed by Hillaryland without doing damage unto itself.

Now, I’m no big league political strategist, but I do have some ideas.

Forget the math.  This is good advice for Obama, his campaign, and its supporters.  We all know the math problem for Clinton at this point.  We’ve all played with the delegate calculator to the point of breaking it (er… that is, if it were a tangible thing to be broken).  We all know that by falling far short of 52 delegates on Tuesday, Hillary’s chances of winning the nomination through legitimate means is next to impossible.

This knowledge at this point is irrelevant.  It would mean something if it could be used to convince the Clinton campaign to bow out, but that is not the case.  Speaking about delegate advantages to Clinton or a Clinton supporter has the same effect as trying to speak to them in Klingon.

There’s something lost in the translation.

So the usefulness is gone from talking delegate math and it has the unfortunate side-effect of taking focus away from how to win the rest of this race.  We get it, Hillary shouldn’t be able to win, she’s still in the race, move on.

The problem with focusing on the math is that it’s too much of an argument that the Obama campaign has already won.  By all rights it should have, but it didn’t which means that the Obama campaign has to give up for now the argument that it has won, and move back to the argument of convincing people to help it win some more.

Don’t Go Negative.  Many Obama supporters really want to see Obama take it to Hillary but good.  This is a natural reaction.  The most timid of people can bear being trod upon before the urge to hit back overcomes their better senses.

But the Obama campaign has set a different theme, and walking away from that theme could prove to be disastrous.  The Clinton attacks are going to get harsher, and they’re going to get lower.  But Obama was at his best when he countered them with, “You see, this is the kind of politics I want to move away from.”

Clinton is going to continue to go negative no matter what Obama does.  No matter how pristine he is, no matter how flawless his campaign maintains itself, that’s just how it’s going to be.  And we all know neither the man nor the campaign can be without flaw, they’re only human.

So it has to be accepted that for the rest of the way in, Clinton’s going to continue to heap garbage in Obama’s direction.  Believe it or not, I think the best course to plot here is to stay on message and largely ignore her.  Occasionally throw in something like, “Look, I’m here talking about things that matter to Americans, she’s over there throwing every dollop of mud she can find.”

But aside from that, let her do what she does.  Retaliating with his own attacks risks disrupting the campaign’s theme, and changing to play defense against these attacks throws Obama off message.

On the other hand, if Obama stays on message, eventually Clinton’s attacks are going to start ringing hollow.  This is a woman who already has high negatives, and every time she goes negative, she risks losing support.  The only reason it is working now is because the Obama campaign is reacting to it.

Now, some may wonder about Swift-Boating.  That’s a tough call.  First you have to draw a line at what is and what isn’t Swift-Boating.  Once that line is drawn, I believe a simple template is the way to go.  You correct the charge, you point to how divisive this kind of politics is, and then you get right back on message; preferably all in the same breath.

Go Back To Hope.  Back in February, my friend Mark and I had an interesting mini debate on how Obama should proceed.  My position was that the all style and no substance attacks were starting to get legs and to combat that, Obama needed to turn himself back into the wonk he was at the onset.

Mark, by contrast, argued that you stick with what works, and it was the Hope/Change themed Obama that did all the work.  Mark was right.

Obama went more towards the policy based speeches starting back in Wisconsin, and as far as I know stuck with those speeches through the Texas and Ohio primaries.  He won Wisconsin, of course, but the March 4th primaries went poorly for him.

Here’s the thing, and for this explanation, I’m largely channeling Mark.  Campaigning against Clinton on substance is a loser for Obama and not necessarily because he’s significantly below her in this arena.  That’s not the case.

What is the case is that true or not, both are sold as being about the same substantively.  This means that by turning to substance, he’s fighting on the same ground as Hillary which allows her to stay competitive.

The one thing that most pundits and political junkies tend to agree upon is that he far outstrips her on his ability to inspire, his charisma, his oratory and communication skills.  This is a clear and free advantage that is his to use any time he wishes to and it is on a plane upon which Clinton cannot hope to compete.

Shorter: Clinton and Obama can offer similar presidencies, but Obama is far more capable of making people feel good about it.

This is his home, his sweet spot, and he shouldn’t let anything take him from it.  It is this Obama that draws record crowds and encourages awe-inspiring grassroots efforts, and it is this Obama that wins elections.

Further, this revitalizes the question that can be a pox upon both McCain but especially Clinton; how do you kill hope?

This is not to say that he should make ALL of his speeches the kind of things that people make music videos about (special request to Hollywood: Stop making music videos.  The first one was cool.  All the rest that have followed have become increasingly creepier to the point where I get a little freaked).  He should have periodic town-halls where he has honest discussions with potential voters and he does show the more wonkish side of his personality.

But overall, the brand recognition, as Mark called it, that got him where he is is Hope and Change and as they say, you dance with the one what brought ya.

Humble Thyself.  This one’s pretty easy.  Whenever Obama gets cocky, he stumbles.  It happened after Iowa, and it happened after his February shut out.  Obama does much better when he is viewed as the underdog trying to pull off the upset.

Well, he’s the front-runner now, but that doesn’t mean he should start acting like it.  People love an insurgent campaign with the ability to go the distance, and that too is part of what brought Obama as far as he is today.  Just like I suggest ignoring delegate math, Obama should ignore all other indicators that he’s the front-runner.

On one level, this means getting back out there, begging for every vote, working the big venues and the small ones and employing the every state, every delegate, every vote counts strategy that allowed him to take the lead.

On another level, this means not signalling to his supporters that this thing is sewn up.  He needs them as alert and ready as ever.  Believe it or not, a little fear is good, and the specter of Hillary still being able to win is a great motivational tool to keep volunteers and donors running at full capacity.

Go After McCain.  He was doing brilliantly with this for a while, and then he got tied up with the Clinton attacks.  On top of everything else that we have here, focusing completely on McCain is the clincher.

For one, it allows him to directly combat criticisms that he’s not ready to go head to head with McCain.  Let’s face it, he doesn’t really need to prove he can go toe to toe with Clinton.  After over twenty debates and a bulk of the state primaries, he’s largely proven that.  He needs to now show through his actions he’s ready to take the debate to McCain and the only way of doing that is by doing it.

Second, it’s going to have the effect of pushing Clinton out of the picture.  It will emphasize all of the pro McCain remarks she’s made thus far and turn her into a heel among the Democratic base as it forces people to ask why is one Democrat going after a Republican and the other Democrat is going after a fellow Democrat?  Plus, it will put forth the image that Clinton is tilting at windmills.

Indeed, I think that’s a killer of a dynamic in this race as a whole.  McCain and Obama directly engaging each other with Clinton begging to be allowed to play.  It will reinforce the idea of Obama as the nominee, and it will make Clinton look weak and desperate.

**

Now all of this is just a broad sketch, and I don’t think he can do this right now.  With any luck for the Obama campaign, tomorrow is going to bring some victory his way, followed by more good fortune on Tuesday.  Until and unless that happens, he’s likely to have to weather a few more days of bad press, but one way or another, he’s going to get the soapbox back.

When he does, he needs to use it wisely and effectively.  I think if he does everything above and then some, Clinton won’t have much of a chance.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that there need be one more bit of advice that the Obama campaign take to heart.

-Have a Locker Room Moment.  This is, as is so often used when discussing politics, a sports metaphor.  We all know the locker room moment.  It’s half time, outside the locker room some has been band is playing has been songs while sequine adorned cheerleaders dance around, but inside the locker room is a totally different story.

Each coach has their own style, some yell, some beg, some just keep calm, but the good coaches no how to take a flagging team, huddle them up in the locker room, and give them what they need to bring it back in the second half.

Integral to this moment is getting team mates that aren’t making the plays to snap out of it and bring their a-game for the final stretch.

This is exactly what Obama needs to do at this point.  He needs to bring his inner circle together and tighten them up.  He needs to get them to focus on the message and quit with the rookie mistakes.  Was Sam Power’s “monster” comment a resigning offense?  Given the kind of names and slurs tossed back and forth maybe not, but as sad as it is, she had to go.  Was Susan Rice’s remarks really as bad as the sound-bite made it seem?  Definitely not, but she should have known better that the worst of her words were going to be the ones that got the most ink.

And Goolsbee…  I’m officially not commenting on NAFTAgate until (if) we get to the bottom of this.  I’m not going to mess around with he said/she said on this anymore.  But even giving him the benefit of the doubt, and saying he was misquoted or misrepresented in the now infamous memo, he shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place.

The Obama campaign started off sloppy, but it cleaned up its act early and maintained an incredibly tight ship for a long time.  They’re getting sloppy again, and Obama has to step in himself and get people back on track.

He needs at a bare minimum to pull all the big players in the national organization in and personally whip them back into shape.  It wouldn’t hurt spending a little time with the chairs and co-chairs of remaining states and doing the same with them though I understand time and resources will make that difficult.

He needs to have a sit down talk with these folks, and he needs to say this:

“This is the message.  This is how we are going to spread this message.  And no one, I mean no one, goes off the reservation.  You’re smart folks, but the slightest misstep could kill us, so if you drop the ball, you’re getting benched.”

“Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory… lasts forever”

That’s the kind of moment he needs.

4 Responses to “Where To Go From Here? (UPDATE)”

  1. Pug says:

    . . . stooping to the same level as the Taylor Marshes and Larry Johnsons of this season.

    Is that even possible?

    I agree with you about strategy. Obama can take selected shots that fit within the framework of his campaign. I think the tax return issue is a good one. It is a reasonable requet for more transparency, it stresses the Clinton’s obssession with secrecy and has high bombshell potential. I think people will be shocked at where Bill’s huge income is coming from.

    I also agree that Obama should go directly after McCain. Hillary is making the same kind of attacks he is anyway. Forget Hillary. Responese to some of Hillary’s silliness do need to be made but they should come from surrogates

    Another president I remember had what he called his 12th commandment: “Never speak ill of another Republican”. It certainly worked well for him in the days before Lee Atwater/Karl Rove-style scorched earth politics and “kitchen sink” strategies.

  2. heheh… I think that was Reagan’s 11th commandment.

    No, I want to point one thing out that you said I totally agree with–let the surrogates do the dirty work. I know I said I was luke warm on bloggers going hard negative, but if the time is right, the time is right.

    Also, the great thing about the Tax hit is that it speaks directly to one of the premises of Obama’s campaign; transparency.

    Thanks for commenting, do it again some time!

  3. “On the other hand, there is the side of me that believes in things such as integrity, intellectual honesty, and higher standards. That part of me believes that while Obama supporters are well within their rights to throw elbows and play a very tough defense against Clinton, little good will come from stooping to the same level as the Taylor Marshes and Larry Johnsons of this season.”

    If we were to stoop to their level, we would at least see what the world looks like from hel…ah, nah, I won’t go there.

    Great post, btw. And I think we are starting to see some good stuff coming out about her ‘experience:’

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-experiencemar07,0,51719.story

  4. I saw the headline, but abstained from posting on it for now just because after the content I got up today I was wiped.

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