By Al Giordano
Amanda Paulson of the Christian Science Monitor publishes a profile of Obama strategist David Axelrod today, but it's really more of a story about the power of staying on message and marching to one's own drummer:
...last fall, Sen. Obama was down 33 points in one national poll, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the presumptive nominee, and Obama's campaign staff was under enormous pressure to shake things up and try a different tactic.
...since Obama announced his candidacy on a frigid Saturday in February of last year - telling the crowd of an "unyielding faith that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it" - that core message has remained largely unchanged. Axelrod "had the initial vision of how this campaign might succeed," says John Kupper, a partner at Axelrod's firm...
Still, the success of that message was tested over the months, as Obama continued to trail in the polls and many pushed the campaign to increase attacks on Clinton or to shake up the campaign.
Both observers and those inside the campaign give much of the credit for resisting that pressure not just to Axelrod, but to the team that he and Obama built up...
Many credit... (Obama campaign manager David) Plouffe, who is a partner in Axelrod's firm and a longtime friend, with the ultimately successful decision to eschew traditional wisdom and focus on rural and caucus states.
The seamlessness of the operation bore a stark contrast to the constant bickering and shake-ups within the Clinton organization, a far more typical model for presidential campaigns.
"Oftentimes, presidential campaigns are organizations of ill-fitting pieces jammed together by competing power centers," says Mr. Claypool. "That results in rivalries, turf wars, backbiting, intrigue, and drama - all the things missing from this campaign."
In these Internet-driven political times, everybody, it seems, is an armchair campaign manager and strategist: TV news and newspaper pundits, talk radio hosts, bloggers, their readers, listeners, callers and commenters. And, no doubt, all the ebb and flow of free advice has its democratizing benefits for those capable of listening. An idea can shoot out of an unlikely corner and suddenly find itself embraced and implemented on a national scale. (Think of how the term "Chicken Little" has come to be so widely used in so short a time.) That's part of the narrative of our times: from your modem to God's ears.
But with the decentralization of analysis, some of the dysfunctions of traditional political campaigns - the aforementioned "rivalries, turf wars, backbiting, intrigue and drame" - have spread throughout the national coliseum, too. Everybody, it seems, knows best, or thinks he does, when it comes to how to elect a president of the United States. As part of that, ideological arguments are now so often framed as strategic ones.
Ariana Huffington today resurrects her June 30 "Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle Is for Losers" - in which and notes that the media has taken an entirely different narrative from it:
[I've] looked at the Obama campaign not through the prism of my own progressive views and beliefs, but through the prism of a cold-eyed campaign strategist who has no principles except winning. From that point of view, and taking nothing else into consideration, I can unequivocally say: the Obama campaign is making a very serious mistake.
Fair enough, but she did title her first piece as a narrative about "moving to the middle." And what happened? The media added its own spin based on that (and her experience, having her message misinterpreted in the media, exactly parallels what has generated her misimpression, and that of others, that the candidate somehow has shifted toward the ideological center).
Yet if we look at the Obama message from a year ago through to the present, most of the matters that many have framed as a move or a change in stances merely involve the reiterations of things the nominee has been saying all along - about faith-based initiatives, about the responsibilities of fatherhood, about getting out of Iraq "as carefully as we were careless going in," and especially about process: the openly stated shift from a politics of permanent partisan confrontation to one of reaching out to adversaries and, gasp, even forging compromises. All these things were basic to the Obama message before the Democratic primaries and caucuses began - and had so much to do with why he won the Iowa caucuses and most of the contests that followed - and all of those things have remained unchanged.
In that context, the nominee has not "moved to the middle," and even his vote last week on the compromise FISA bill did not surprise those that paid close attention to the Obama candidacy since last year or earlier. A guy who talks so much about his willingness to listen to rivals, to meet with shunned foreign leaders, to not demonize members of the opposition party, and to seek workable compromises in governance - at such open contrast with two decades of Bush-on-Clinton-on-Bush-II polarization - doesn't shock the careful observers when he does exactly what he's repeatedly said he would do.
And so, just as a year ago, when Obama had not yet gained traction against an "inevitable" nominee and so many were shouting that he had to change his message and strategy, Rudyard Kipling's sage advice, titled "If...," comes to mind:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too...
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!
The narrative is, in fact, inverted: Those that try to prod the Obama campaign to "not move to the middle" (and such advice pours out daily from friend and foe alike) are in fact asking him to move off his original message. And those that try to pressure him to do so with public threats or pronouncements that they've withdrawn, or will withdraw, support, would, if his campaign followed such advice, cause him to do exactly what they are claiming he shouldn't do: shift off his original message, capitulating to pressures. (Some just want him to bow to their pressure, it seems, which is fine until they claim that they oppose bowing to pressure in general.)
It seems to me that Axelrod - the Christian Science Monitor story refers to him as "Keeper of the Message" - and team are keeping their heads when all about them are losing theirs and blaming it on them.
And that's why so many previous media-generated crises and outrages-of-the-day over the past seven months, especially - two Clintons, two reverends, some gaffes that were gaffes because they were errant, other that were called gaffes because they were not - so many millions of words on blogs and in the media that portrayed every moment as if history would be decided by that one loud distraction - floated back out to sea and aren't even remembered in much detail today.
To study the 2008 campaign is to receive an advanced course in how to keep one's head in a permanent media storm when all are losing theirs. For that's the main problem or weakness for aspiring leaders of today, on public and private stages, large and small. And best of all, this crash course is free to any and all of us that want to take that class.
By Al Giordano
I'm busy getting lots of things in order for Netroots Nation in Austin (and our unofficial welcoming reception, co-sponsored by The Field and Burnt Orange Report, on Wednesday evening), and I have nothing to add on today's controversy-du-jour regarding a certain magazine cover, but I did think this six-minute segment of TV news coverage by Channel 8, the CBS affiliate in San Diego, about Senator Obama's appearance this weekend at the National Council of La Raza was very well done and interesting:
Consider this an open thread.
By Al Giordano
A history class is in order:
In 1992, Ralph Nader launched a write-in campaign for president simultaneously in the New Hampshire Democratic and Republican primaries. He campaigned extensively in the Granite State, drawing large crowds in a land where one of his key issues, opposition to nuclear power, was a major bread-and-butter issue, too, due to the high electric bills caused by the construction of the Seabrook nuke. The late journalist Andrew Kopkind insisted that I join him at one of those events and watch how Nader had developed a compelling critique of the way Washington does business. Interestingly, Nader gained more votes on the GOP side of New Hampshire, 3,258, than the 3,034 he received on the Democratic side: about 1.8 percent in each party's primary.
I had known Ralph then, already, for a decade. In 1982, I had managed my first statewide political campaign: a referendum restricting nuclear power and waste dump siting in Massachusetts. Our polling showed that voters considered Nader's opinion on those matters more influential than any other voice, and Ralph came into the state to campaign. Two years later, when I worked as deputy political director for John Kerry's first US Senate campaign, I was tapped to drive Ralph around the state on his behalf. (This taxi-driver's son also had a couple of memorable days that autumn as chauffer to Gary Hart and the late Mo Udall in their visits as campaign surrogates to the Bay State.)
Anyway, if anybody ought to be sympathetic to Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns it ought to be someone like me, his old ally and one, at that, who until this year hadn't voted since 1996, fed up with both major political parties and the political system overall.
Also in 1992, a different "third party" candidate - the Texan billionaire Ross Perot, on a kamikaze mission to destroy his old rival George H. W. Bush - got a whopping 18.9 percent of the vote, using part of Nader's message about Washington politics being broken to do it. Perot's presence in that contest - and not, as the mythology suggests, any particular talent of Democrat Bill Clinton - is what delivered the 1992 election to the Democrats. Clinton won with just 43 percent of the national vote.
It was in 1996 when Nader made the jump to "third party" presidential bids, when he attempted to get the Green Party nomination, but the Greens didn't achieve national party status and his name was on the ballot only in those states where they got the signatures. Nader got 0.7 percent nationwide. That year, Ross Perot, running again as a third-party candidate, got a significant 8.4 percent of the vote. And Clinton, the incumbent, did much better, winning with 49.2 percent.
In 2000, after eight years of the Clinton White House had sufficiently disillusioned so many Democratic-leaning voters, Nader, again ran as the now-national Green Party candidate and received 2.7 percent nationwide. Post-election he received a considerable amount of backlash, though, as his presence on the Florida ballot squeezed Vice President Al Gore's victory margin down so low that the election could be stolen. Nader never recovered, politically, from that historic moment.
By 2004, Nader had hit his nadir: running independently without the Green Party nomination, he received 0.38 percent, just one-seventh of what he had achieved four years prior.
This year, Nader's back again, and polling as high as six percent. That's why last week's must-read column by pollster Mark Blumenthal is, well, something you must read. It shows that third-party candidates always poll much higher during the summer before the election than the count of their final tally in November:
During June 2004, according to the RealClearPolitics compilation, Ralph Nader earned the support of an average of 4.5 percent of voters on 19 national polls that asked a question including him as a choice along with George W. Bush and John Kerry.
Bush led by an average of 1 percentage point (45 percent to 44 percent) with Nader included. On 17 national polls fielded that month that did not include Nader among the choices, Kerry led by a point (47 percent to 46 percent).
By November, Nader's support had dropped off considerably in national polls. Most pollsters were by then asking a single vote preference question that included Nader and his running mate, Peter Camejo, in states where that ticket appeared on the ballot. The final RealClearPolitics average showed Bush and Dick Cheney with a 1.5-point lead over Kerry and John Edwards (50.0 percent to 48.5 percent), with Nader and Camejo receiving an average of just 1.0 percent of the vote.
But even that overstated support for the Nader-Camejo ticket. They received just 0.38 percent of the national popular vote.
Read the whole thing, because the same will happen this year and you might as well know it ahead of time so as not to get too worried or excited by this year's crop of third-party candidates. As Blumenthal points out, independent candidates have long polled better than they did when the votes rolled in:
June polls by Gallup showed George Wallace with 16 percent of the vote in 1968, John Anderson with 22 percent in 1980 and Ross Perto with 22 percent in 1992 and 17 percent in 1996. Each fared worse on Election Day, especially Anderson in 1980 (6.6 percent) and Perot in 1996 (8.4 percent).
With the exception of movement building (which Nader and even Perot, despite his vast financial resources invested, failed to accomplish with their candidacies, having almost nothing to show for it today other than the pelts of the candidates they helped defeat on their walls), there really is little good reason to pursue a third-party presidential candidacy in the United States, except to be a spoiler that strips votes away from one candidate or another.
In the 72 countries that have a parliamentary system of government, launching an alternative party makes a lot more sense. Many times in those places, no single party gets a plurality of votes and when it comes time for Parliament to choose a head of state, a minor party can extract concessions on its key priorities in exchange for its votes.
Of the three national-level third-party candidates in 2008, only former Democratic US Rep. Cynthia McKinney, of Georgia - who yesterday won the Green Party nomination - has gone the movement-building route (and had the Democratic nomination gone to Senator Clinton rather than Obama, McKinney would have been served a much better set of objective conditions with which to do that).
Had Ron Paul gone the Libertarian Party route this year, his could have been an authentic movement-building candidacy, too. That he didn't under such ideal conditions (especially because he did it before) demonstrates just how ineffectively he views that tactic. Paul would know: He was the Libertarian Party presidential nominee in 1988, and received just 0.5 percent of the vote.
Former Republican US Rep. Bob Barr, also of Georgia, is in this thing as the 2008 Libertarian Party nominee with the primary goal of being a spoiler: to screw his former Republican party. And Nader is in it to screw Obama: Like Wallace, Perot and Anderson before them, the entire bases for their candidacies are to spoil it for someone else (and careful, because that can backfire, too, and actually help the guy you're trying to subvert, as happened with Anderson in 1980: he set out to hurt Ronald Reagan and ended up hurting Jimmy Carter).
Nader's one national media moment so far this year came from a very unfortunate gaffe (of the very race-baiting kind that lost former president Bill Clinton so much good will this year) when he accused Obama of "talking white." Such behavior is no way to rally a progressive base. And the revelation in 2004 that Nader only qualified for the ballot in many states because the Republican Party or right-wing anti-immigrant organizations rallied to secure him the requisite voter signatures - something that Nader, to my memory, has never repudiated - also speaks volumes as to his intent.
Nader, sadly, has exhausted almost all of his political capital built upon previous good works, decades ago. He's proved now three times that he can't turn an independent presidential candidacy into a movement builder. There is a major difference between organizers and policy wonks. His celebrity no longer commands significant public attention for important issues. Basically, the national press - for better or worse - will only pay attention when he says something boneheadedly stupid. Nader fatigue is the consequence of his previous presidential campaigns. I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling badly for him and who laments the good will he has squandered over the years. But other than playing spoiler, there's no convincing argument for Nader's candidacy this year. And, correspondingly, no matter what the polls say between now and then, you will see his support tank to a record low by November.
By Al Giordano
Attention, Field Hands...
We have received the following communication from our former host:
We are happy to let you know that we will be providing you blogger credentials for the Democratic Convention in Denver. We look forward to reading your reports from the convention. Best, Deb on behalf of RuralVotes
We are happy to let you know that we will be providing you blogger credentials for the Democratic Convention in Denver. We look forward to reading your reports from the convention.
on behalf of RuralVotes
So now, thanks to the good works of so many Field Hands and supporters, we have raised the funds to report from the Democratic National Convention in Denver next month, and we now have a blogger credential with which to do that work.
Given that we have achieved our goals, I'm prepared to move on beyond the unpleasant aspects of the past month, let bygones be bygones, and get on with the important work of reporting and analyzing the 2008 presidential elections.
Congratulations. You're the best hands that any Field could have.
By Al Giordano
Chris Dodd lets it out that he's been asked for "stuff" from Obama's vice presidential search team. According to the same AP story, Kathleen Sebelius offers a by-the-book non-response (as Congressional Quarterly notes that four years ago she categorically denied being considered), Claire McCaskill gives a curt no-comment, while Joe Biden and Jim Webb are signaling that it ain't going to be either of them (as did Ted Strickland some time back). Yes, it's vice presidential hunting season!
Clinton spokesman-turned-Fox-News-commentator and consultant to Colombian oligarchs Howard Wolfson says that Hillary Clinton is so fucking awesome that she doesn't even need to be vetted, while his ex-boss was jetted together with Obama and his vetter, Caroline Kennedy, on Wednesday on the campaign plane.
Columnist Robert Novak puts Tim Kaine as number one of the numbers two for Obama (that could well explain fellow dominion stater Webb's Shermanesque statement last week), and adds a bunch of snooze-worthy "ticket balancers" - Evan Bayh, Ed Rendell, Bob Casey, Sam Nunn and Clinton - in that order as his tote board. The rest of his list seems pretty stupid but I'm about to tell you why I think he might be right about the first name.
For McCain, Novak puts Mitt Romney in first place and Tim Pawlenty in second: the Field thinks it highly likely it will be one of them, with an edge to the billionaire supervillain. But on the Democratic side, there's an excess of riches and more of a tendency by rank-and-file party activists to care deeply about who gets tapped, so it's much harder to call. Bill Richardson is being uncharacteristically silent and his neighboring governor Janet Napolitano is being characteristically so. John Edwards scheduled a fall debate, in Buffalo, with Karl Rove, leading to speculation that he's out of the running, but The Field doesn't count him out: he can always cancel the date. He's the one they'll turn to if the "you must pick Clinton" lobby gains too much momentum, because his name recognition is as high and his national numbers are in fact much better than hers. And yet, the promoters of an Obama-Clinton ticket have not gained the traction, so far, that they had hoped, thanks to the 900-pound ex-POTUS and his own business interests lurking in the background.
The argument that Obama must pick a military man or a pol with foreign policy gravitas is also losing steam, both due to Wes Clark's off-message dust-up and, now, the critique over Obama's supposed "moving to the center" works against that logic. For Obama to make that kind of pick would feed that particular beast.
Anything could happen but The Field thinks that Kaine, Sebelius and Dodd, in that order, have the inside track.
Sebelius is very much in there but ironically it's the warped "feminism" of some Clinton diehards that push on the scales against her. One pundit from a pro-Clinton publication went so far as to call Sebelius The Other Woman. In a land now filled with single moms and their kids, that's a great big "ouch." Also, whereas Kaine would be likely to surprise, and Dodd would predictably enthrall the party bases, Sebelius - not an orator - would bring a risk of underwhelming the crowd.
Longtime readers of this blog know that I've thought Dodd's chances to be larger than the conventional wisdom would suggest. That scenario hit a speed bump last month when it was reported that Dodd received the same kind of VIP bank loan that caused vice presidential vetter Jim Johnson to have to resign from his post. That Dodd is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee makes it a potentially bigger pebble in his shoe. Picking Dodd would give the GOP oppo team a clear line of fire to paint him - and Obama by association - as more-of-the-same Washington insiders. That's too bad, because on every other factor - he would be an immensely popular surrogate and attack dog in the rust belt swing states from Pennsylvania to Michigan with the lunch-bucket voters, he can throw a punch, he speaks Spanish, and he may be the most perfect ideological match for Obama among all the names mentioned - Dodd would be a natural fit.
By process of elimination, The Field's computer is increasingly spitting out the name of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who exudes a common man's decency, in Spanish as well as English. His problem, surmountable but it would require some footwork on his part, is that while he's functionally pro-choice on the abortion issue, he's rhetorically pro-life: "I will reduce abortion in Virginia by enforcing current Virginia restrictions, passing an enforceable ban on partial-birth abortion, ensuring women's access to health care (including legal contraception), and promoting abstinence-focused education and adoption. We should reduce abortion in this manner, rather than by criminalizing women and doctors."
Kaine would have to give a pound of flesh on this one and undergo some kind of public tilt just a little more toward the pro-choice end on the rhetoric, or a convention one-third-filled with pledged Clinton delegates could get a bit awkward (but, then again, it's ditching their power to cause trouble that brings Obama to Mile High Stadium on the last night of the convention, a symbolic and literal opening of the doors. He could also play any tricks they might attempt to his advantage, and so Senator Clinton, at least, doesn't want them to "go there.")
Of course, the easiest way to calm down possible Clintonite qualms about Kaine or Sebelius (and by extension toward Napolitano or McCaskill) would be to give Senator Clinton the scoop: to have, during her big convention speech, Clinton make the surprise nomination of one or the other. That's entirely doable.
More and more, though (and Caveat Emptor because it's still early), The Field is thinking that it's most likely to be Obama-Kaine vs. McCain-Romney in November.
By Al Giordano
What Russ Feingold Said:
"Having a Democratic president and particularly Barack Obama should allow us to change this mistake. Barack Obama believes in the Constitution. He's a constitutional scholar. I believe that he will have a better chance to look at these powers that have been given to the executive branch and even though that he will be running the executive branch, I think he will understand and help take the lead in fixing some of the worst provisions. So this is a huge setback and it would have been much better for Democrats to stand together and not let it happen in the first place ‘cause it's much harder to change it after the fact. But I do believe that Barack Obama is well positioned both in terms of his knowledge and his background, and his beliefs, to correct this. And so I do think that people have a right to be disappointed but I also think they have the right to hope for change on this issue in particular starting in January."
So, the FISA bill passed. And today began just as any other day. The sun came up. We drank a cup of coffee. Some of us lit a cigarette - or did any number of things that others do not approve of - and we were not locked up for it. To note the obvious, that the sky did not fall, is not akin to saying that a bill inoculating telecommunications companies against civil lawsuits (and retroactively so) for following invasive government orders, was a good thing. It's just to say that it is what it is, and life goes on, and so does the daily struggle to defend our personal and collective freedom on so many fronts.
Only in America do a significant number of people equate expressions of outrage and indignation du jour as somehow being akin to the hard work of political activism or participation. And I hate to say it, but this delusion is worse, much worse, on the left side of the dial where reaction is the standard operating procedure in place of authentic action. I speak, therefore I act is the great American illusion of politics. Sorry, but no. Only when our speech effectively causes others to act does it rise to the level of poetry (which, as Vaneigem wrote, "seldom exists in poems"). Have you ever had to sit through a poetry reading by a particularly bad poet? That's what I feel like when I find myself to trying to listen to what too many people consider activism. They're blathering on and my eyes are drooping as I'm eyeing the wall clock and the exit sign, twirling my cigarette lighter as if a rosary bead necklace.
The phenomenon of "outrage activism" in the United States - something I just haven't experienced to that degree in other lands - is understandable on a certain level: Since 1980, the United States has been plagued by presidents that routinely did outrageous things and did insufficient good things to make up for it. One could even say that with the exception of a few expressions of basic human decency by Jimmy Carter, that this perpetual disappointment has recycled itself since 1963, or even since 1945, and has wrought a permanent character trait that has calcified around the US body politic and most pointedly among those with liberal or progressive tendencies. Most Americans don't even know what real change could look like, and probably won't recognize it, or even find it scary, at first, when it does come.
I return to what Senator Obama actually said about what he will do after the FISA vote, should he get to the White House, because, well, we are now in that time and space:
Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I've chosen to support the current compromise. I do so with the firm intention -- once I'm sworn in as President -- to have my Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future.
Now, I understand why some of you feel differently about the current bill, and I'm happy to take my lumps on this side and elsewhere. For the truth is that your organizing, your activism and your passion is an important reason why this bill is better than previous versions. No tool has been more important in focusing peoples' attention on the abuses of executive power in this Administration than the active and sustained engagement of American citizens. That holds true -- not just on wiretapping, but on a range of issues where Washington has let the American people down.
I learned long ago, when working as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago, that when citizens join their voices together, they can hold their leaders accountable. I'm not exempt from that. I'm certainly not perfect, and expect to be held accountable too. I cannot promise to agree with you on every issue. But I do promise to listen to your concerns, take them seriously, and seek to earn your ongoing support to change the country...
There's an interesting paradox here: We don't want the president to eavesdrop, but we do want him to listen. I particularly liked these words in that statement:
And going forward, some of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker. That's ok.
In other words, the veteran community organizer has heard it all before: the declaratory politics of "do exactly what I say or I'm getting off the bus!" Okay, well those people are off the bus now. Or are they? My own organizing experience tells me that the same people (and in the age of anonymous Internet handles there's so little accountability to track it numerically) will move on to the next outrage-of-the-day and declare, all over again, that if the nominee doesn't do as they say on their next ultimatum issue, they will be getting off the bus all over again. And we scratch our heads wondering, didn't that guy loudly announce his exit weeks ago? Sadly, a lot of such "activism" is driven by folks that have a hard time commanding or holding on to our attention in other aspects of daily life, and see such proclamations errantly as a way to accomplish that.
As the saying goes: How can I miss you if you never go away?
Or another of my favorite fortune-cookie axioms: He who says a thousand goodbyes never leaves.
It's the only dance move that some people know. Their miscalculation is thinking that the rest of us worry ourselves or lose sleep over whether they're on or off the bus. Part of the American experience - indeed, a key chapter of every Campbellian "hero's journey" - is the act of wandering out into the wilderness from time to time, learning a few new tricks, and coming back better armed to fight the battles that matter.
When I got off the bus for so many years and wandered around the outskirts, those experiences from that vantage point allowed me to see, more clearly, the United States of America, its culture and its politics, more truly as it is. It's a big part of how I've been able to, this year, predict some major events before they happened. I've concluded that a much bigger problem in the USA than any piece of legislation passed by Congress is the petrified manner in which so many Americans define and limit their participation in current events.
For those that feel their own participation is stuck in an ineffective rut, and cry out in frustration about deal breakers and and "getting off the bus" and such, as one who's been there, I highly recommend the voyage. And the fact that nobody really cared about - and few even noticed - my disappearance turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the lessons are better learned with both feet out, and not merely by straddling the exit door, hanging halfway off of the proverbial bus while warning the other passengers over and over again that one is about to step off, as that's when the chances of getting hit by a truck, and tumbling underneath, are far greater. And that can make one's head hurt.