Friday, January 25, 2008

How Hillary Lost Her Narrative

Over at Carpetbagger Report, I was in a protracted debate with various Hillary supporters and others talking about the supposed "Catch 22" that Hillary's campaign says Obama is stuck in: That he claims to be a positive candidate, yet has said negative things against Hillary. And if you want to see details on my points, you can find them there.

But the main point I'd like to say is how Hillary's campaign is making a mistake with this one. Because the way life works is that you tell a story, and the details are expected to fit into that story. And if you don't tell your story, others will create one around you. And this isn't just in politics. When you're the new guy at a job or school or whatever, you need to give people the context for them to understand who you are; your background, likes, dislikes, that kind of thing. If they get a positive story about you, your interactions with them are more likely to be interpreted in a positive light. But if they're negative, they'll see negatives. That's just life. Context is everything and first impressions set the stage for everything that follows.

And in politics, the secret to winning is knowing how to use an opponent's story against them. And the trick is to turn their assets into liabilities, so they will be punished if they try to use their strengths. So if Gore or Kerry have a reputation for being honest boyscouts, you attack them for being lying flip-floppers; thus undermining their credibility. So every time they try to stand on their reputation as truth-tellers, jokes start flying because too many people are convinced that they aren't truth-tellers. And while that didn't work with most people, the media ate it up.

Streetfighter v. Nice Guy

And so for the current Democratic primary battle, the context for the two main campaigns is that Hillary is the streetfighter who has proven her ability to take it to her opponents, while Obama poses as the above-the-fray "post-partisan" good guy who will do what it takes to fix America's woes. And so Hillary's supporters will point out that Republicans are ruthless and we need a streetfighter to combat fire with fire; and that Obama is unproven and will get destroyed by Republican attacks. And Obama's supporters will say that we don't like the fight, and can achieve more with a positive message; and that Hillary will give us more of the fighting we saw in the 90's. And if you've read my previous post, you know which side I'm coming down on.

But here's the problem for Hillary: This "Catch-22" argument goes completely against her story against Obama. Specifically, how can they claim that Obama can't fight, while complaining that he's attacking them? And this fits into Obama's story, because nobody can really expect him to not say anything about Hillary. And as long as he doesn't spend too much time fighting, he can just use this as an example of how he does things: He'll take the highroad, but isn't above throwing a punch when needed to protect himself.

And that's exactly what we need to see. The best defense is a good offense, and every defense requires a block followed by a counter-punch. And that's what we've seen from Obama. Hillary's side attacks, he blocks the attack and carries through with a punch of his own, which usually puts him back on message. Hillary can attack him for that, but as much as the attack will stick, she's only undermining her original argument against him.

Tunnel Politics

And the worst part for Hillary is that this confirms my suspicions about her: She's so busy trying to win every battle that she'll lose sight of the war. He makes a charge against her and so she makes a counter-charge, not realizing that she's undermining her case and bolstering his. And that's the overall effect we saw in the 90's. Sure, Clinton remained popular throughout much of his presidency and is now more popular than ever, but we saw the goalposts move to the right throughout that time.

And for as much as they triangulated into victory, they didn't do much to help Democrats, liberals, or Gore. It was just a tunnel-vision view of surviving by always taking a battle position on the moderate side of Republicans. And while they won most battles, the goalposts continued to be moved further to right. In essence, they helped conservatives in order to defeat Republicans. And all the same, they gave them almost everything, while duking it out in bloody Battle Royale style every time.

And the trick here is that you've got to be able to focus on the day-to-day fight, but without losing your big picture. You've got to remember what the narrative is and how your daily battles fit into it. And I'm not sure that's something the Clintons have ever figured out. But with Obama, we've almost got the opposite. He's a Big Picture guy, yet despite the meme that he's not good at fighting, I haven't seen that. From the little I've seen, he looks pretty good.

Nice Guy Fights Back

Overall, I think the issue here is that Obama's pushing a Nice Post-Partisan Guy narrative, and people assume that means he's soft. And because Hillary mocks him for that and acts tough, they assume she's a fighter. But what have we seen her fight for? What Senate battles has she lead? And I think the only reason people assume she's a fighter is because she's taken a beating over the years and acts tough. But as I said at Carpetbagger's, for as much as we've seen her fight, she's not fighting for us; she'll only have us fighting for her.

And of course, a problem is that if you sell yourself as a fighter, everything you do looks like a fight. And with Hillary, she is promising us at least four years of bitter fights, and I have no doubts thats what we'll get. But Obama's positioned himself as the guy who is above all that, which means he's not expected to fight all the time, but makes his punches more effective when he does. And that's the problem with the constant War Room attitude started with the Clintons and perfected with the Bushies: The war never ends.

And as I've said before, the secret to fighting isn't knowing how to keep fighting, but knowing how to end it. Obama's positioned himself in a way that makes him capable of doing that. Hillary was mocking him for that under the assumption it meant he was soft, but just recently reversed herself and now tells us that he can fight. And not only does this confirm why he'd make the better nominee, but shows us why she does not.

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