The Strategy That Failed

[For time challenged campaign strategists and political reporters, just read our last paragraph]

We funned Obama just a bit a while back by suggesting his campaign song should be Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” (later on we supplemented that suggestion with The Great Pretender).

The song selections were meant as good advice to Obama that his act was getting stale and his claims increasingly dubious. John Dickerson of Salon Slate has an article on this theme called Song of Myself – How Much Room Does Obama Have To Boast?

While Dickerson in his article missed the now clearly delusional Obama quote “To know me is to love me” he does capture the quintessential Obama boasts and the conventional thinking behind the boasts. Dickerson also misses WHY and how very DEEPLY Obama’s boasts are hurting him (we’ll clue Dickerson and Axelrod in at the end of this article).

For a candidate so anxious to remind everyone that he’s not a typical Beltway insider, Obama can sound a lot like a classic Washington type: the senator who regards himself too highly.

Dickerson does all candidates a favor by giving a quick lesson on why boasting is necessary and how boasting should be done:

Candidates brag because they have to—they can’t rely on voters to get the message or the media to deliver it. But a little self-love goes a long way on the campaign trail. Voters don’t want to hear about the candidate as much as they want to hear what the candidate is going to do for them and the country. This is why Bill Clinton, a nimble politician, knew reflexively to turn around questions about the beating he was taking as a candidate and say it was nothing compared with the beating the American people had taken. Appearing humble is presidential tradition. George Washington walked away from power, and Abraham Lincoln was quick to quantify his shortcomings. Charles De Gaulle is not our kind of fellow.

Dickerson quickly inventories boasts by other candidates then gets to the meat of his argument about why Obama boasts and why his boasts are lame:

Obama has put such focus on a single speech out of necessity. His opponents, particularly Hillary Clinton and her husband, question whether he has the experience to be president. Obama’s boasting answers critique and put Clinton on the defensive at the same time. It’s probably a smart tactic, but the posture is at odds with the reflective politician who in 2004 talked about not knowing which way he would have voted on the Iraq question if he’d been in the Senate at the time. Nor does Obama seem like the same fellow who wrote so readily of his faults in The Audacity of Hope. In the book, he also explains that empathy for your opponents was the key to healthy political discussion. [snip]

Obama’s reliance on his anti-war position invites stories that question whether he is inflating his courage. This creates a double risk: résumé inflation suggests both dishonesty and a lack of anything else to boast about. Some Democrats say Hillary Clinton takes too much credit for her role initiating the SCHIP. (Ted Kennedy was the bill’s driving force.) But her bragging hasn’t sounded excessive, and voters will probably tolerate it. A bigger stretch is Fred Thompson’s excessive regard for his role as John Robert’s Senate escort during the chief justice’s confirmation hearings, a task never before listed by a presidential aspirant and not historically associated with greatness. Thompson’s lack of material explains perhaps why he treats his decision to run for president is an achievement that is itself worth boasting about. “I could have spent the years reading other people’s scripts and cashing other people’s checks,” he says on the stump, “but instead I decided to get into this race.”

The Associated Press story from earlier this week which questions Obama’s claim of boldness is confirmation of what Dickerson is writing. For Dickerson and Axelrod’s benefit let’s discuss why Obama’s boasts on Iraq are deeply hurting instead of helping. Here is part of what we wrote on May 10, 2007 (links to sources can be found in the original post):

But most importantly, recall that the Iraq resolution vote occurred less than 1 month before the 2002 national elections. Democrats were in danger of being extinguished leaving the government in total absolute control of George Bush. Even with the vote to approve giving George Bush the authority to confront Iraq the Democrats lost the Senate on November 5, 2002. Democrats also lost an additional 6 seats in the House of Representatives. Only in 1902, 1934 and 1998 had a party in control of the White House gained congressional seats.

A rejection of the Iraq resolution would not have prevented a savage Bush attack on Iraq and in all likelihood the Democrats would have been wiped out from government. According to CNN “The two top Democrats in Congress said Wednesday that President Bush’s popularity and the post-September 11 environment were largely responsible for the Republicans’ sweeping Election Day victories.” “It is significant when you have a president at a 65 percent rating. That is unusual,” said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri. “I think some of it is related to 9/11 and the people’s reactions — the people’s desire to be united with the president in fighting against these issues, in trying to solve these issues.”

How popular was Bush in October 2002, one year after 9/11?

The Pew Research poll published on October 10, 2002, the day of the Iraq resolution vote in the Senate, which sampled public opinion before Bush’s televised speech to the nation on October 7 gives us a glimpse of the national mood. Presumably a poll sampling public opinion after October 7 would have registered even higher numbers for Bush and his pro war policies. “When asked the question Congress is currently debating – whether the main goal of military action should be ridding Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction or ousting him – Americans come down strongly on the side of removal.”

According to the Pew poll, the mistaken idea that there was an Iraq 9/11 link “strongly resonate with a majoirity of Americans”. Americans by 66% said they believed in the Iraq 9/11 link. 65% of Americans believed that Iraq was close to having nuclear weapons, 14% of Americans believed Iraq already had nuclear weapons. When asked if Saddam “can be disarmed but left in power, or do you think he has to be removed from power,” 85% favor getting rid of the Iraqi leader.

The American public was overwhelmingly in support of the of the Iraq War. Polls measured 75% of the public supported the decision to go to war. 1/3 of Americans believed in declaring war even without UN support. Nearly 70 % believed there were Iraqis in the World Trade Center attack. Bush, we forget at our peril, was the most popular president ever. French Fries were renamed Freedom Fries. Americans wanted revenge. Even some of today’s most antiwar bloggers, who constantly attack Hillary, were table pounding proponents of the war.

Here is the lesson from the above, Dickerson and Axelrod, as to why Obama’s boasts on Iraq hurt him: The boasts are insulting to the majority of Americans. When Obama mocks Hillary on her 2002 vote Obama is also mocking the majority of Americans who agreed with Hillary’s vote.

[Clue for Axelrod and political reporters: the entire premise of the Obama campaign strategy is flawed. The campaign raison d’etre is precisely why the campaign is falling apart. When Obama says ‘I was right’ in 2002 he also is implying about the vast majority of Americans ‘You were wrong’. Check the numbers – Obama’s support will not go higher than the percentage of Americans who opposed the war in 2002 – a minority. Americans don’t like to be insulted by blowhards and braggarts.]

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