They have no fire in their bellies


9:49 am - October 18th 2008

by Sunny Hundal    


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Obama may be ahead in the polls right now, but there are various reasons why this is the case, facing the challenges he does as a half-black man.
(1) The economy has made it difficult for McCain to talk about other issues;
(2) Obama has run a flawless and focused campaign;
(3) he has raised a hell of a lot of money that helped build a local ground operation that Democrats had been lacking for years.

Without these factors Obama would be losing because the Democrats have essentially run a defensive campaign while the Republicans have mercilessly attacked at a time when they don’t really have much credibility left. Think about this – 8 years ago, Al Gore failed to challenge all the voter fraud shenanigans in Florida and handed the election over to Bush. Four years ago, Kerry let the Republican machine ‘swift-boat’ him and attack him as a flip-flopper while he failed to challenge those attacks properly. And even now Obama, trying to avoid the ‘angry black man’ label, has done little to challenge the mountain of smears that Republicans have thrown on him. This CIF article does a good job of articulating their hypocrisy over the Acorn saga. And while the media is faithfully repeating McCain’s jibes over William Ayers, it has said very little about Palin’s pals or her general stupidity.

The reason is obvious – the Democrats have lost their cojones. They don’t display any sign of aggression in politics because they have become too afraid of it. Pathetically, they pray every year that the economy will fail so that their man gets in, because otherwise they get hammered by the Republican attack machine. Furthermore, the Democrats even buy Republican propaganda: that they lost the south because they are ‘elitist’ (it’s because they abolished slavery segregation) and that the mainstream media is liberal.

So there’s two points to note here. First, that American leftwing blogs have become hugely popular because they give voice to this passion and anger that the mainstream left and Democrats refused to acknowledge for decades. Second, a left-wing political party cannot fight and win on economic issues alone: it has to become comfortable with and use populist, cultural language and symbols to connect with people for whom economic well-being isn’t the top priority. In my next post I’ll show how I think this applies to the UK.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


1. Alex Parsons

Minor nitpick Sunny but you sure you meant slavery not segregation? Pretty sure ol’ Abe wasn’t one of the Democratic crowd.

Well I thought this was a rather excellant post myself. It’s totally true what you say about the Democrats and will be intrigued as to what you think this means for the UK….

3. Mike Killingworth

[1] I think you’re right, Alex.

I don’t really agree with the thrust of this piece: aggression is an over-rated virtue, if indeed it is a virtue at all. I don’t think anyone can credibly hold that Obama isn’t a passionate politician (certainly more so than McCain, or indeed any of the contenders for the nomination in either party) or that he has energised a breadth of activism that no one else has over there for a very long time.

Still, Sunny, you’re on to something in his last paragraph – or you may be, depending on what you means by “populism”. If you mean that there is no place for paternalism in progressive politics, that’s unexceptionable (and the government seems belatedly to have taken the point in some areas) – if you means that we should attack Tory greed and hypocrisy I don’t understand how that differs from current practice. If you mean that we should take an accommodating attitude to the fears and prejudices condensed by the Richard Littlejohns of this world, most definitely not.

Presumably you have something else altogether in mind.

The Republicans fought to abolish slavery. Otherwise, I think you’re right. The left (by which I mean social democracy) have completely lost the nerve to argue why ever increasing concentrations of wealth are not economically efficient, or why universal, tax-funded healthcare is both more equitable and more economically efficient; or why markets have limits and will never provide the security or stability that are essential to the efficient functioning of human societies without effective regulation; or why progressive taxation improves social mobility – and the chance for all the Joe the Plumbers to prosper, while accelerating inequality has lead to stagnation among middle and low-income workers, and an economically unhealthy dependence on debt. The superficial allure of the cult of the individual is much easier to sell, but left of centre parties should be taking on the right on their own ground. The present crisis proves nothing if not that deregulated markets destroy capitalist enterprise; the false dichotomy between ‘freedom’ and regulation needs to be met head on – without adequate regulation – which provides the basis for trust and confidence in markets – economies collapse. As long as the utters that believe that regulating markets is tantamount to communism are in charge of the asylum, the downturn will continue.

“universal, tax-funded healthcare is both more equitable and more economically efficient”

You have got to be kidding. Take a look at the NHS, you have an argument on the equitable front but as to being “economically efficient” you are clearly mistaken.

Re the Southern States / slavery thing. Sunny, this shows rather more about your prejudice than that of voters in the US.

“Re the Southern States / slavery thing. Sunny, this shows rather more about your prejudice than that of voters in the US.”

Not really; there’s a pretty clear correlation of the South turning Democrat after the Republicans abolished slavery, and then turning Republican again when the Democrats passed civil rights legislation under Johnson. It’s a pretty well-accepted phenomenon.

[5] There is a good case to be made that universal, tax-funded healthcare is more economically efficient, so long as it is set up properly. You only have to look at the US’s healthcare system (which spends more money on healthcare per capita than any other country, including any of the countries which have socialised medicine, and get rather less out of it).

As for Sunny’s post, I’m afraid I don’t think this is a terribly insightful piece. There are a number of issues that Obama has fought on to get where he is today. The economy certainly helps, but his position on Iraq, and his plan for universal healthcare (arguably only there as a response to Hillary) are also central to his appeal.

That his campaign has not gone on the offensive with a negative, character based campaign is not a weakness. He has learned the lessons of four years ago, and set up a rapid response team to close down myths as quickly as possible on the internet, but he has chosen not to respond in kind to the Republicans. He has made a virtue of this, and been very succesful in not veering off this message, even when it might have been very tempting, and as such he has been seen to rise above the level of debate which the Republicans wanted to drag everyone down to.

It was notable on Thursday night that the “attacks” McCain complained about in Obama’s adverts were all about actual issues; his healthcare plan, his position on stem cell research, etc. If Obama’s campaign hasn’t “become comfortable with and use[d] populist, cultural language and symbols to connect with people for whom economic well-being isn’t the top priority,” then I don’t know what it has done, to be honest.

Another factor here which Sunny doesn’t seem interested in is the heroic ground organisation effort which the Obama campaign has made. Again, this can hardly be described as simply “waiting for the economy to fail”. Obama has inspired a massive base of small donors to support a campaign to the point where he can refuse to take public funding and still be enormously well off, sufficiently so that they are considering running a half-hour slot on national TV shortly before election day, because they don’t really have anything better to spend the money on at that point.

And having raised this money, he has got out and empwered an army of volunteers to organise themselves in their own local areas, with the result that a massive voter registration drive has produced, in most places where they’ve been active, massive Democrat majorities over Republicans in terms of newly registered voters.

These factors are dismissively listed in the opening paragraph, before the sentence “Without these factors Obama would be losing because..”. What a ludicrous point to make! The fact is, Obama is fighting in a context where these factors are in place, because that was his strategy, and so far it has been working.

I don’t agree with this about Obama’s campaign – one of his campaign’s many strengths is that it is extremely good at negative campaigning. They’ve managed to persuade people that McCain is an angry and erratic old man who agrees about everything with George Bush, and they defined and destroyed Sarah Palin’s reputation in less than a month. Earlier this year, they persuaded people that Bill Clinton was being racist in his campaigning and that Hilary Clinton wouldn’t bring change to Washington.

It’s a more subtle version of negative campaigning than Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but when you can persuade people to think about your opponents in a way which your campaign defines, and still not get a reputation as a negative campaigner, it’s a pretty good sign.

donpaskini – they haven’t needed to destroy sarah palin – she did a great job herself. Did you see her ABC interview where she explains her foreign policy experience?

You’re right Alex, I meant segregation, not slavery – have changed it now.

If the Democrats lost their balls, as you suggest, Hillary would have been pushed forward by the DNC and won the convention.

Obama’s got the most liberal voting record in the Senate. He will more likely than not win by a landslide. Paddy Power are already paying out on Obama to win.

How much more do you want?

11. douglas clark

I think Barak Obama, and his ground game, have been attempting to stabilise a situation that has gone beyond – if that is possible – polarisation.

We now have the absolute worst of the Republican hate game on display, the robo-calls, the Palin clones such as the clearly insane Congresswoman Michele Bachmann – http://tinyurl.com/6fwt3x – McCarthy for a new era. The contrast between the public face campaign of the good old boy McCain versus what he allows behind his back is self evident.

Frankly, the Obama campaign has actually dealt with this stuff quite well.

In relation to the completely spurious allegations against voter fraud, the democratic campaign has at least attacked back before the election. The Supreme Court has already ruled against the Republican machine in Ohio, see here:

http://tinyurl.com/5tak4h

Which would strike me as connsumate timing, but there you go. Too late to appeal, too early to hurt.

The more general charge of using voter fraud as a vehicle for voter suppression is the subject of a current Democratic complaint to the Attorney General that politics is being allowed to subvert justice, in a systematic fashion. They seem to have a case that it will be hard to deny.. see Rachel Maddow here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vm3KCEkZbMc

This is, at the least a fight back at the right time. Before the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

I do not agree that this is bad tactics. It is, to me at least, good strategy. These idiots, the religious right have to be destroyed by any means possible. The Republican party, where king rats are deserting the sinking ship in almost incredible numbers, has gone beyond being a right wing party to being a party of budding fascists, as per Joe McCarthy. Or enraptured Christians. Frankly, from anywhere outside of Kansas, this is insanity.

A resolute, but calm approach to this madness, seems to me to be more likely to gain votes for Obama and down ticket candidates, rather than addressing it directly. I have listened to the unbelievably shouty anchorpersons on US TV for the last few days, and frankly that sort of debate, where the news station and their surrogate are able to either shout over or terminate a discussion, at will, is a denial of any sort of democratic process. I get the general impression that the average US voter agrees with me on that, or on the straightforward point that being negative is not good.

So, whilst I’d like to blow the John McCain battleship with Captain Palin out of the water right now, for the reasons given, I suspect Mr Obama and his campaign have a far better understanding of how to win this election than either me or thee.

12. douglas clark

I am curious why Kris is the last comment on this thread? I, obviously love Kris, but, the last comment ought to be displayed, oughtn’t it?

13. douglas clark

As I am apparently out of some sort of moderation black hole, and this was what I had to say:

“I think Barak Obama, and his ground game, have been attempting to stabilise a situation that has gone beyond – if that is possible – polarisation.

We now have the absolute worst of the Republican hate game on display, the robo-calls, the Palin clones such as the clearly insane Congresswoman Michele Bachmann – http://tinyurl.com/6fwt3x – McCarthy for a new era. The contrast between the public face campaign of the good old boy McCain versus what he allows behind his back is self evident.

Frankly, the Obama campaign has actually dealt with this stuff quite well.

In relation to the completely spurious allegations against voter fraud, the democratic campaign has at least attacked back before the election. The Supreme Court has already ruled against the Republican machine in Ohio, see here:

http://tinyurl.com/5tak4h

Which would strike me as connsumate timing, but there you go. Too late to appeal, too early to hurt.

The more general charge of using voter fraud as a vehicle for voter suppression is the subject of a current Democratic complaint to the Attorney General that politics is being allowed to subvert justice, in a systematic fashion. They seem to have a case that it will be hard to deny.. see Rachel Maddow here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vm3KCEkZbMc

This is, at the least a fight back at the right time. Before the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

I do not agree that this is bad tactics. It is, to me at least, good strategy. These idiots, the religious right have to be destroyed by any means possible. The Republican party, where king rats are deserting the sinking ship in almost incredible numbers, has gone beyond being a right wing party to being a party of budding fascists, as per Joe McCarthy. Or enraptured Christians. Frankly, from anywhere outside of Kansas, this is insanity.

A resolute, but calm approach to this madness, seems to me to be more likely to gain votes for Obama and down ticket candidates, rather than addressing it directly. I have listened to the unbelievably shouty anchorpersons on US TV for the last few days, and frankly that sort of debate, where the news station and their surrogate are able to either shout over or terminate a discussion, at will, is a denial of any sort of democratic process. I get the general impression that the average US voter agrees with me on that, or on the straightforward point that being negative is not good.

So, whilst I’d like to blow the John McCain battleship with Captain Palin out of the water right now, for the reasons given, I suspect Mr Obama and his campaign have a far better understanding of how to win this election than either me or thee.”

I’d be interested why you couldn’t read it properly.

Sorry for repeating myself….

14. Sunder Katwala

Sunny isn’t happy with the Democrat campaign, but I don’t agree with the thrust of the post at all.

I think the proposal lacks strategy (and is inconsistent with the idea that Obama has been flawless and focused). Andy Hinton at 7 and Mike at 3 make some good points, which I agree with the thrust of. Particularly that if you wanted this campaign, Obama was always the wrong candidate for you, and he was clear about that across the last four years. (You might have got more of this from Dean ’04, perhaps from Edwards ’08. But it sounds to me more like a proposal which risks fighting the election within the Republican frame around the culture wars, than one which challenges that in an effective way).

But, to think this through, perhaps we should ask: what is the campaign for?

Let’s set out some objectives. What would the absolutely dream, ideal perfect Democrat campaign be trying to achieve?

1. Win the Presidential election, having lost five of the last seven (robbed once, I admit).

That’s the primary objective. If you were being greedy, you might say, but is that enough? So then you might want several more things. The dreamlist might include:

2. Make gains in the Senate and the House: have coattails, momentum
3. Strengthen Democrat organisation and mobilisation for the longer-term, including a new cohort of activists; extending the playing field of competitive states at all levels;
4. Frame public issues in a way which unpicks the advantages exploited in recent elections by the Republicans.
5. Through 2, 3 and 4, create opportunity/possibility of significant ‘realignment’ of US politics in a way that was not on agenda, and secure that in strategy for government

It would be astonishing to succeed on all of these fronts. Right now, the prospects look pretty good. You might say that they aren’t doing enough on (4). I;m not sure of that.

My feeling is that the post prioritises (over these objectives) the goal of making Sunny and others on LC feel more fired up by the final weeks of the campaign … I don’t think that should be a particular goal of the Democrats. (I was pretty bored by the second of the debates: do I think Obama should give a toss about that? No. This is politics, not entertainment. He probably got it exactly right in defusing the doubts of those voters leaning towards him but with reservations, in a way that a more high-flown response might not have done).

We are spectators. By all means, start to get your disillusionment in first if you feel like it. But this isn’t our fight. many many Democrats in the US who remember 2004 very much feel very very fired up about this campaign: (they are hoping it comes off, but the nervousness is coming from it all looking so positive, rather than it all looking tight).

What matters now is not further energising of hyper-mobilised strong partisans and activists – but continuing to convince any voters still undecided. I am am unconvinced that Sunny’s strategy would play to them.

Yes, the blogs are engaged with the anger of the base, which is great for that audience, but they are not dissonant from the campaign in any significant way (this side of Nov 4th). It may get harder afterwards, but I don’t think a different campaign would help with that. If appealing to the half of the US which appeals to the anti-Bush sentiment which the Dem base feels was enough, they would have won in 2004. One big achievement of this campaign has been to have a greater appeal to both those partisans and to independents at the same time, when the conventional wisdom is that there was a zero-sum trade off between those two goals.

For all of the advantages the Dems had in this cycle, this is one of the best executed campaign strategies we have seen. If it achieves half of my list above, it would surely count as the best executed Democrat campaign since at least 1976 or 1964.

Some people are Never happy!

A shorter response to ‘they have no fire in their bellies’.

* Yes, they obviously do. Indicators of activity and engagement are massively up.

* Could you name any democratic political party or political movement in the developed world, which is making a credible bid for government power and which has more cojones and fire in their bellies than the Dems have right now?

– The Spanish Socialists are picking some big domestic cultural fights as a political strategy, but I’d give the Democrats in 2008 the edge over them. Who else?

Sunny, you yourself alluded to the way Obama has to tip-toe around issues in order to avoid being labelled as “angry” – not just because of race, but because he genuinely believes the old-style angry partisan liberal approach is not what his nation needs right now. He has played the past few weeks perfectly. He has let events take hold and managed to portray himself as the calm, cool manager of the economy he would be if he were elected.

Sunder Katwala is right. The Democrats are the most engaged, most active, most fired-up political force in the world right now. I’d give anything just to be there on the ground with them at the moment – if Obama and his party does well on Nov.4 it will have less to do with the economy than to do with the millions of small donors and volunteers that have been inspired to see beyond what their candidate does and does not say on television, but by his message that if Americans want their democracy back, they’re going to have to take it back themselves.

And check out Joe “Say it to his face” Biden in this clip:

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=G1IL0uskZe8

If Obama refrains from sticking the knife in to his washed-up opponents whilst the economy falls down and instead talks about his economic plan, isn’t that what a uniter does? And he IS hitting back on ACORN:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/17/obama-camp-seeks-special_n_135750.html

The Dems are playing offense in this election: they’re just doing it from the ground up, the way democracy is supposed to be. Both past-it pols like Carville and Begala, and some of the liberal blogs, have been calling for blood: but look at where Obama is now. I think his route was the smartest, if not the most immediately satisfying.

Chris Cillizza explains on WashPo’s The Fix blog, how Colin Powell’s endorsement of his opponent may be the final nail in John McCain’s presidential hopes.

It is widely rumoured that the retired General will offer his backing to Senator Obama on NBC talk show Meet The Press today. Cillizza points out that Powell’s support will shore up Obama’s foreign policy credentials – the one area where McCain still gets traction.

But it sounds to me more like a proposal which risks fighting the election within the Republican frame around the culture wars, than one which challenges that in an effective way

Hi Sunder. In some ways, maybe. But its more than that – its about the extent to which the Republicans have gone on the offensive on a whole host of issues which have perpetually kept Democrats on the back foot.

The Republicans are brilliant at generating faux outrages and making noises that raise the doubts of people in what the Democrats could do. I’ve been calling people across Nevada and half the time we have to educate people about Democrat policies because of Republican misinformation.

The Democrats want to play too nice. They don’t want to engage in any ‘dirty tactics’. I think it was Donal Trump who said a few weeks ago that once Democrats had gotten control of Congress they should have impeached Bush. And yet the Republicans did their best to impeach a popular Clinton for much less.

The point isn’t about what Obama promised or has been saying – I think his strategy has been flawless and stuck to the script. The point is about the general ability of the Democrats to play rough.

It is in fact about the general inability of the Democrats to play on their own turf and instead about how they continually end up playing on Republican turf – which is they inevitably lose.

This is also what the blogs are about – saying its time to stop playing to Republican talking points – hence the much needed boycott of Fox News (which the blogs put pressure on for) and make it obvious that Fox is a Republican propaganda machine.

In fact, even liberals here are too afraid of being openly liberal. Every time someone at MSNBC sees there are ratings to be gained from being overly liberal, the management stops them because they’re all too afraid of what Republicans might say.

Will it convince independents?

Well, it depends, because if you play the game on your own turf then you have a much easier chance of convincing independents… so while the Republican right-wing nutjobs such as Ann Coulter and Bill O Reilly don’t really convince independents, they also ensure the media stay within their narratives and also drive anger when required.

The Democrats have done well this time, but its because of pent up anger over 8 years, and also because that anger, expressed online, has created somewhat of a level playing field. Without the DailyKos, HuffingtonPost, TPM and other millions of blogs, the Democrats would have had their butts handed back to them on a plate.

But what is your own turf?

In the US, and in Europe,
– when the debate is about economics, and the role of government, more working-class voters are attracted to the left.
– when the debate is about culture and identity, more working-class voters are attracted to the right.

For the Democrats to want to frame the election about their issues, their turf, is absolutely right. Your question strikes me as more about what the cultural left thinks about this. But if the liberals in the liberal-left are not interested in a coalition then we don’t have a liberal-left.

Does shifting the salience towards socio-economic issues and away from the culture wars entail conceding substantive territory in the cultural arguments? It ain’t necessarily so. And I just don’t see where the Obama-Biden ticket has done that. It seems to me they have taken liberal positions, with a tone of respecting that not everybody agrees, and without wanting there to be a national culture war.

It is certainly possible to argue that we make more progress on some of the issues (eg race in 2008?) by defusing the public polarisation, and there certainly cases where either or both of civil society campaigners or politicians (eg race and civil rights in the 1960s) won’t make progress without picking a fight.

It seems to me your complaint is about whether they want to eg go for a major public argument about (say) gay marriage

It is amusing to watch Sunny back-track and admit that this campaign has been flawless in sticking to the same script, when he was calling for the dirty tractics of a renewed ‘culture war’ during the conventions.

I think Sunder is correct in painting Obama as a centrist candidate, which easily explains why leftists like Sunny are disappointed with his appoach on areas where there are doctrinal differences. Is this an admission that ‘left-liberalism’ is flawed?

thomas – you’ve completely missed the point by a mile. Obama has run a flawless campaign and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My point is more about Democrats – the party and its mainstream supporters. They are the ones without fire in the belly to win. I repeat, this is not about whether Obama should have made it into a culture war and won on that basis. But let me also remind you guys, if the economy hadn’t tanked so dramatically, Obama would be about 2-3 points behind in the polls right now…. and doing worse day by day as McCain hammered him about close association with “terrorists” and “advocating socialism”.

In response, Obama and the Democrats haven’t been able to throw anything at McCain to make him look scary. Thankfully, McCain has done that all by himself. But my point is about the fact that Talking Points in this campaign mostly revolve around the controversies that Republicans generate, not Democrats.

Does shifting the salience towards socio-economic issues and away from the culture wars entail conceding substantive territory in the cultural arguments?

Sunder, I think you’re looking for too clear-cut a separation here. If I was running this campaign, and was further behind in the polls, then I would have hammered McCain’s foreign policy credentials from the start on the Iraq War… in a way that said he was erratic, had bad judgement and made the US more unsafe by taking us into Iraq. Its amazing that McCain is still seen stronger on an issue where he’s displayed shockingly bad judgement.

On other issues, I would have hammered Palin’s association with her own church and preachers and Troopergate relentlessly, making them into the main attacking issues.

Obama has mostly defended himself in this campaign… but given 8 years of Bush failure, the Democrats generally should be more on the attack. Instead they are having to justify themselves.

So my point isn’t about whether Obama should engage in the culture wars but about how defensive a strategy Democrats usually play in politics, and how aggressive in contrast Republicans are.

Its very odd to call the campaign flawless when your entire thrust here in fact challenges the central strategy of that campaign.

All of your arguments do amount to either increasing the salience of Red-Blue culture wars, or increasing the salience of strong Republican issues over strong Democrat ones.

To match aggression with aggression would have been a much, much weaker strategy than the one which has been deployed. If aggression were so good, the Republicans would have had their best month, not their worst month. It has backfired on them, and the Obama’s decision to defuse aggression by remaining somewhat above the hyperpartisan fray (without pulling his punches on the economy, or Bush, or the way the Republicans do politics) seems to being vindicated.

(i) The Republicans would like a slanging match, because it would shift the territory more to ‘nothing every changes … they’re all the same … a plague on all your houses’. That would be great for unpopular incumbents, as it levels the playing field down. It is always better for the right than the left, as anti-politics helps create the environment for the right. (And it might have worked: look at the low approval ratings for the Dem Congress). Your call for more partisan aggression is asking Obama to throw away not just a strategic campaign advantage, but one of his central beliefs on which he wants to govern.

(ii) To say that the Democrats should have a lead on national security – particularly for Obama over McCain – is to ask a hell of a lot. McCain was always going to do poll on these issues because of his military record, his levels of experience in the Senate. (He also could counter the Iraq war issue by trying to make it about the surge).

The Dems had to play defence, to seek to neutralise the issue, primarily by ensuring their candidate met the Presidential threshold on these issues.

Still, Obama has made all of the points you want to hear in the debates. His candidacy began with being against Iraq: but it is an important part of his public argument that he was against it for the right reasons, and he has effectively used Afghanistan to stress he is not against all military action. The Dems do not want the election to be primarily about foreign policy. If they achieve that, they can run the foreign policy, and reframe the choices and arguments. (What is striking about Obama is just how far – on Iran, and Pakistan – he has taken risks in being provocatively interesting on foreign policy).

It would be frankly mad for a relatively unknown, candidate who is black, and was anti-war to think that the way to run more aggressively or angrily on foreign policy. And Obama’ s cool demeanour in the debates has both helped his own Presidential case, and drawn a contrast with McCain’s erratic judgements/character. Again, I think you are advising a way to lose an advantage he gained.

(iii) I think, contrary to your reading, that the Dems have not got into a position (as Kerry and Dukakis both did) of having a campaign dominated by Republican charges, contrary to what you say. Sometimes, they counter the content (though they are most often doing so more below the radar, esp on eg the Muslim smears, as the whole point is to get an outraged response and to increase the salience further, eg Swift Boat).

Not responding in kind has enabled the main message to be “not this time” – to challenge the frame of what the election should be about. Big issues or small things. National issues or character assassination. A return to “its the economy, stupid”. The main competition is for the frame of the election.

You can’t play that argument without being hypocritical while you are fighting fire with fire. To make Palin’s associations the main attacking issues would be mad. Let the media discuss and scrutinise Troopergate. To choose to go aggressively, on whatever grounds, for Palin is undoubtedly to increase the salience of the culture wars in the election. She has been chosen for that one reason. Any major and concerted attack on Palin is simply to take the bait.

The Dem base and the media have been banging on endlessly about Palin. Perhaps thats good; perhaps its too much. I would say that there is nothing on Palin which the campaign needed to do which it has not done.

It would also legitimise the Republican arguments on issues like Ayers, once they are all doing it, and destroy the Dem’s antidote to that. In fact, I would argue the Dem strategy has done a good deal to defuse the Republican strategy – look at all the commentary on the right about McCain’s ambivalence about going fully nuclear. If it were a tit-for-tat battle, it would be easy to escalate it, and argue that the Dems are responsible for the negativity (without people laughing).

“I don’t really agree with the thrust of this piece: aggression is an over-rated virtue, if indeed it is a virtue at all. I don’t think anyone can credibly hold that Obama isn’t a passionate politician (certainly more so than McCain, or indeed any of the contenders for the nomination in either party) or that he has energised a breadth of activism that no one else has over there for a very long time”.

I agree with Mike.

I mean, whether it’s firey enough for you or not..he’s doing the right thing.

24. Mike Killingworth

Many thanks, Jo.

Obama has pulled a crowd of 100,000 over the weekend. Since the USA has six times the population of Britain, that’s equivalent of a politician here drawing a crowd of 17,000 to listen to them specifically (as opposed to turning up at an anti-war demo or something). I don’t know what the biggest single crowd at the last election was but I bet it was a lot less than that.

Sunny,
It’s too early to say that he’s run a ‘flawless’ campaign – wait until Nov 5 before you start counting your chickens. And you did want it every other way, so I’d be interested to know when you changed your tune.

Sunder,
what we can say about Obama’s campaign is that it has been remarkable for the way it has maintained a constant strategic direction despite calls from all sides to change. Obama’s campaign is the first in living memory not to have had a shakeout of senior employees at ANY stage during the election – now that is remarkable (though whether it is a good thing still remains to be seen, even if it so far appears to have contributed to the in-house air of confidence).

All in all I have to credit Obama as a remarkable politician for his ability to be a blank canvass onto which ordinary people can project their beliefs and leaves him open to the charge that he hasn’t been scrutinised enough.

McCain has suddenly become remakably dignified in the last couple of days now that he has accepted the role of underdog, and while his defence of the democratic process may be another strategic reversal for him this has helped his polling figures by enabling him to drop some of the more negative campaigning.

So this election may look done and dusted to some, but it still has a long way to go – this is no time to get complacent.

Mike,
I’m not sure that the ability to draw huge rapturous crowds is a positive thing for democracy, especially considering such events only happen every four years during an election campaign.

Such events are organised in such detail that they are almost religious events in their ritualised fervour – they certainly don’t encourage critical accountability!

27. Mike Killingworth

[26] I’m not that fond of them either, can’t stand crowds (the LC do at Farringdon Rd earlier this year approached my top limit) but I was merely making a point about BHO’s ability to energise – I wholly agree with the “blank canvas” bit in your previous post. Trouble is, the last two people of whom that could be said were Clinton and Blair.

Although like you (I guess) I am suspicious of the polls, I can’t help thinking that the level of new registration is very promising for the Democrats – why would you register (if you hadn’t before) and then not vote?

Its very odd to call the campaign flawless when your entire thrust here in fact challenges the central strategy of that campaign.

Sunder and Rayyan – what I’m doing here is making a clear distinction between what Obama should do and what the Democratic party and his surrogates do.

And furthermore, while my point relates specifically to elections, its actually more about the atmosphere when there isn’t an election – these are the times when Democrats in general aren’t aggressive enough.

(1) The ‘avoidance of culture wars’ stuff is over-played. Both candidates have had big clashes over abortion (final debate) and McCain has relentlessly tried to tie Obama as not American enough and not hot on national security. Furthermore, the latest robo-calls fall into the same category.

The fact is, Obama has looked as if he’s stayed away from the stuff by staying calm and collected – but has still had to defend himself through ads and under-the-radar stuff. His rhetoric about going past the culture wars was a good and entirely necessary strategy, simply because he didn’t have the credibility to engage in that overtly. But that isn’t to say his surrogates and him couldn’t have done more to raise doubts about McCain himself. People condemn negative campaigning but it works – and the Republicans know it. Furthermore, without the economic crash, Obama would have been much worse off in the polls.

So the fact is, a series of stock market crashes put the culture/clash strategy on the back-burner but that doesn’t mean its not an effective startegy.

2) Raising doubts about McCain Sunder you say it would have been difficult to raise doubts about McCain on national security. Rubbish – they did precisely that with the war-decorated hero Kerry against the draft-dodger Bush.
Obama half-does this by saying we should be asking not about experience but about judgement – and who made the judgement to go into Iraq and make the US less safer? And much more could have been said about his time spent in Vietnam, through surrogate groups. Unfortunately Obama didn’t want to play ball.

3) Slagging matches American elections are always vicious affairs. But the viciousness is always thrown by the Republicans towards Democrats, who usually lose. The only times they’ve won in recent years is when the economy became the big issue and it nixed the culture wars.

I think my point still stands here. Its not the slagging match which is the problem – Americans expect that anyway, but who is more effective in raising doubts about their opponent and catching their emotions. Without a doubt, the Republicans.

Relying overly on the economy is a bad strategy and the Democrats have a string of defeats to show for it. Obama may get through this time, but only because the economy took a turn for the worse near the end. Otherwise it would have been way more closer.

4) On Palin, you say:
Let the media discuss and scrutinise Troopergate. To choose to go aggressively, on whatever grounds, for Palin is undoubtedly to increase the salience of the culture wars in the election. She has been chosen for that one reason. Any major and concerted attack on Palin is simply to take the bait.

The media has actually been quite nice to Palin, given the loonies she hangs around with and the record she has. Its a testament to Americans that they’ve seen what a crazy nut she is and how inexperienced she is – the MSM didn’t even do a big enough job in framing that. Shows like SNL in fact did a better job. And Troopergate turned into a damp squib because the Democrats didn’t press hard enough.

In fact Sarah Palin has been turned into a liability for another reason. She should have been used to connect to ordinary Americans by aping Obama’s rhetoric rather than being used as an attack-dog.
I wouldn’t have wanted Obama to go after Palin – Biden and other surrogates should have done it. In fact, much of the heat on Palin only came from the angry elements of the left: the blogs. Who else spent time digging up stuff on her?

My point is that while you guys play down the angryness required to win, you don’t acknowledge that Obama is in a strong position only because he’s had a hyper-aggressive leftwing blogosphere batting for him, and because the economic conditions have gone to pot.

Otherwise, despite running a great campaign, he would have lost – Americans wouldn’t elect a black guy so quickly who was smeared with being a Muslim. These are extraordinary circumstances. Would the Democrats have won otherwise? I don’t think so.

Sunny,
Obama and the Democrats haven’t won yet and plenty can change between now and polling day. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

I fear you are analysing the strategies at play from a singular perspective (that of your own) and are therefore unable to disinter the different reactions the same messages are having on different sections of the electorate.

Firstly, to engage with the culture wars narrative assists the more reactionary stances as it polarises opinion, so unless you can be sure that your side is in the clear majority it is sensible to steer clear of it because you run the risk of alienating people who have mixed views on the various subjects. Put simply, culture wars and negative tactics belong to the underdog – if you’ve got a strong lead you don’t want to get dragged down into the gutter where you’ll get dirty, you don’t want allow your opponent to frame the debate as then you’ll be meeting them on their terms where you lose the advantage.

Obama’s line on abortion (for example) that it is always a tragedy to be faced with such a choice shows he is willing to reach out in an inclusive way which doesn’t undermine his principles and demonstrates his attempt to broaden his appeal, while McCain’s ‘federalist’ argument that it is for the states to decide this matter is more defensive and shows he cares less about the subject than not upsetting the fundamentalists within his own camp.

Obama’s strategy is actually MORE credible because it combines rather than subordinating either the issue or the electoral maths. His message of unity is far stronger than McCain’s of ‘leave it to your own devices’ because it enables him to appear more prepared to make a decision if needs be which is both more authoritative and presidential.

I also disagree that the media has been soft on Palin. She has turned herself into a non-factor in the real debate with all her mistakes. She could effectively be ignored since her appeals to core conservatives meant she was ignoring the swing voters in favour of shoring up the Republican base. This became apparent when she changed tack and started toning down her attacks on Obama. So in the event that the gap in the polls start closing into danger territory rest assured that the media will subject her to closer scrutiny and Trropergate and the Bridge to Nowhere will rise again in our consciousnesses – this is a theme which is bubbling under, it’s out there but it’s not a distraction.

You are clearly suffering from a form of narcissism if you think the left-wing blogosphere has been effective in winning over any of the non-aligned groups, which may be understandable considering your own personal investment and attatchment to it. It’s nevertheless true that the blogs have freed up the front-line campaign to go after undecideds by doing the job that Palin and talk radio have been otherwise tasked with for the Republicans.

While you may be correct to a larger extent in the general scheme of things that the arguments can only be won by confronting the opposing ideology and challenging them with facts, you forget that this is an election – winning it is paramount and outstrips all else – other concerns can come later because arguments may be won but they are never settled during elections, that happens only in day-to-day life and the practice of governing.

For the purposes of electoral consideration it is the independents who are the decisive body of opinion whose natural scepticism must be overcome with reassurance, empathy and concilatory gestures. Going negative is a tactic of last resort and smacks of desperation, so it should be avoided where at all possible. It is a plain indictment of previous campaigning strategies that so many resorted to negativity so quickly and easily – if you can win clean you should try to because what you can do later is limited by what you say now, and why tie your own hands?

I don’t think the Dems have ‘relied’ upon the economy giving them a boost, rather that they have relied upon themselves doing the best job possible in standing up for the best intentions of the nation, while allowing the situation play out with the flaws of the Republican campaign coming to the surface for us to judge on their own demerits – even in the last TV debate Obama refused to be drawn on judging Palin, saying that it is up to the public to take our own view. The troubled economy has been a great equaliser in removing the advantage of GOP incumbency.

I can fully appreciate your anxiety to see your guy win, but it is not helpful to allow yourself to get emotionally intertwined in the potential result if you still wish to influence it. From my experience at different levels twitchiness always becomes apparent among inexperienced campaigners when the outcome remains undecided and the result draws close, but it’s counter-productive to allow your frustrations to come to the fore while there is still time to do more work.

So calm down a bit and don’t allow yourself to get diverted from the plan.

Once you make the distinctions more clearly, the argument is better – but only because you then lose the central premise of the lack of fire in bellies.

The achievement has been to run a more unifying (cf Powell endorsement, Obamacons, fundraising) and more mobilising (cf enormous crowds, blogosphere, fundraising, turnout) campaign, against the idea that is a zero sum trade-off.

And that could only have worked if there had been an unprecedented amount of fire in bellies. To take the levels of net mobilisation as exogenous to what the Obama campaign has done is unfair.

Has Palin not been scrutinised? The media have had little exposure to the candidate (but what there has been has damaged her considerably on preparedness). Your fire in their bellies people have certainly gone just as potty about this as her supporters.

The netroots can overstate their importance in national elections: one danger of groupthink and associating with people we agree with. Take the Lieberman primary and general election case, which is the one US race to date where we can unambiguously say that online organising had a decisive role on events.

I don’t agree that the financial crisis has been decisive. You seem to be saying McCain would have won without that. Clearly its a counter-factual but Obama was in a strong position prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers: (and that of course explains the McCain Palin pick as something of a ‘hail mary’ underdog gamble).

Was any non-incumbent Democrat better placed in late September? (Perhaps Carter in 1976, where Watergate was a massive advantage, but the Carter-Ford race tightened a great deal after the conventions and ended up neck and neck. The Obama campaign certainly needs to show it can close – and there character/experience are going to be the central issue – but its post-convention campaigning has been especially and unusually effective in historical perspective.

31. koppakabana

Sunny, Obama cannot afford to anyway be perceived as aggressive due to his aesthetic associations with the black and Muslim communities in the US. Race and terrorism are such divisive issues in the US (often largely unspoken) that they can determine an election given public perception.

I am 100% certain that he is affected by the attacks; it’s simply that he doesn’t show it because it’s far too risky for him. Funny that when McCain reveals anger, Republicans are quick to label him “passionate,” where as Obama revealing anger would certainly confine him to the “angry black male” stereotype.

People can express dissatisfaction without direct anger; for Obama, the attacks are on McCain’s policies, not his character. When I lived in the UK, this method of communication was regarded as “classy,” not something to be derided. I understand your frustration, but this is how the political game is played. He simply cannot afford to be perceived as an angry person.

One small note on southern states: while they are majority Republican, recent national elections have shown the public voter gap narrowing. I’m interested to see if Obama’s grassroots canvassing efforts will yield higher voter turnout in traditionally red states.


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