Monday, June 30, 2008

Defending Obama

Ok, I’ll admit that I’m not entirely pleased with some of the Obama decisions lately. The FISA thing upsets me, though I’ve thought that was such a lost cause from the start that I generally ignore any story on the subject and have no expectations that it'd ever work out well. As I learned from The President's Analyst, there are few groups more powerful than the phone company. And the latest decision I would have handled differently was the issue with Wesley Clark trying to derail the absurd idea that McCain’s military experience somehow prepared him for the presidency.

Had I been Obama's strategist, I would have tried to distance him from the idea of what the media believed Clark was saying, while reinforcing what Clark was actually saying, but without acting like I was defending it or leaving Clark out to dry. And in fact, he should have emphasized that McCain wouldn’t dare suggest that his military experience somehow makes him automatically preferable, and that we didn’t even need to denounce that idea because it was so silly. Something like that, so that you remove McCain’s biggest crutch, while also looking like a good guy. But that's how it's done. Rather than attacking a position head-on, you make the position look ludicrous and give your opponent the benefit of the doubt that he agrees with you.

Thus said, there’s a much easier thing they could have done: Just make it go away. At least, to go away as a problem for Obama. And what’s the best way to do that? To say you disagree with the person who made the statement being attacked by the media and to say that as soon as possible. And this helps remove Obama from the issue completely. Now as I said, that’s not how I would have done it, particularly not when the surrogate is Wesley Clark, the guy who really was supposed to be our next Vice President. Or at a minimum, our next Secretary of Defense. But I understand the logic of wanting it to disappear as an issue.

The Losing Sell-Out

And why is this such a big issue? Because liberals are worried that Obama’s about to throw them under the bus now that he's got the nomination. And to be honest, I can’t promise that he won’t. I believe he won’t, but there are no true guarantees in this world. Everything is trust, particularly when you’re dealing with someone you’ve never met. And that'll be true with every politician you ever support. And every time they make a decision you disagree with, you'll get another worry that you've been betrayed. That's the only promise I can make: You won't always agree with anyone.

And so perhaps he’s selling us out. Perhaps he really was a closet centrist this whole time. But that’s part of the weird thing about all this, is that the people who think he’s selling out also believe that they’ve got the winning platform, which means always going strong on every issue. They're not just wanting him to stay pure to the cause; they believe this is the easy road to victory. But if they’ve got the winning platform, and Obama is “selling out” because he wants to win, how do we rectify these two positions? Shouldn’t a “sell-out” actually support the liberal position, whether they believed in it or not?

And that’s actually a big reason why I don’t think Obama will sell us out, because I think he knows it’s the winning platform. He knows that America wants a liberal president and that we really are right. And that’s when you start to get into tea leaf reading territory, as you try to decipher what’s going on. Because the only real issue is whether these are isolated incidents, or whether it’s indicative of a complete switch away from liberals.

And while it's tempting to take a handful of events and read his motives from them, it really isn't that easy. Particularly with the accusation of centrism, which isn't just a method of wimping out of tough fights, but a completely different way of fighting politics. For Dem centrists, it means adopting a Republican-lite platform and insisting that anyone attacking them is a radical bully (think Lieberman's fight against the netroots). For Repub centrists, it means forcing Dems to look radical and insisting that their opponents are radical extremists. But both groups insist that they're in the center of the spectrum and can change positions in a heartbeat to prove it. Even Republicans can change their minds faster than you can blink, if they think they need to.

And that's not what Obama's doing here at all. He didn't win the Clark-McCain debate; he avoided it all together. A centrist would have leapt on the issue; not cut it loose. Centrists don't run from fights, they just have a different way of winning them. And if they win a long-term victory, it's sheer luck.

Managing Risks

And so I don't think this is centrism at all. I think this really comes down to basic risk management. Because let’s face it, he’s not president now and a lot of the decisions he makes on the campaign trail will have exactly zero impact once he becomes president. Let’s face it, when he’s up for re-election in 2012, who among us will mention his sell-out on the McCain-Clark duel of 2008? And for these non-historic decisions, he’s decided to take the easy path rather than fight an uphill battle that he hadn't prepared to fight.

And that’s part of the thing, for as much as his detractors are suggesting that he lost this issue, he didn’t. They’ve got an assumption that this was a no-brainer, and it wasn’t. Deciding to defend Clark wasn’t the end of the issue, but the very beginning. And it’d have been a long battle that could have seriously damaged Obama. The kind of thing we’d still be talking about and explaining in August or September or 2012; how Obama dragged McCain's military service through the mud and disrespected our veterans. And so he took a pass on this issue, rather than risk having it explode on him. Maybe it was a mistake, but believing that the fighter stance is the automatic winning position is sheer folly. That was the beginning of the fight, and every misstep could have screwed him royally.

And a big mistake people are making is trying to relive the past two elections, as if history always repeats itself. But those elections were different. In both those elections, the wind was to Bush’s back and it was up to the Democrat to come up with the big play to throw Bush off his stride and secure a lead. And they didn’t do it. Particularly in 2004, Bush had HUGE advantages, including a loving media, an illegal GOTV effort by various government agencies, random terrorist scares, and wars in two countries. Yet he barely beat back a long-winded “Massachusetts Liberal” who had few diehard fans.

But again, Bush had the advantages, and it was Kerry’s job to come up with the big plays to screw Bush up and to take big risks. But this isn’t that election. Now it’s Obama that has the big advantages and a bigger lead than Bush had, and it’s McCain who’s stuck needing to make the big plays and force the fumbles. And Obama just needs to hold on to the ball, while still gaining territory. But that’s not good enough for some liberals. They don’t want a safe Obama cruising to easy victory; they want Obama the Destroyer. And now that they've seen he's not that Obama, they’re upset.

And maybe rightly so. But I suspect this was a risk management issue, and that his campaign had to make a quick decision to not fight this battle, rather than risk fumbling the ball. But in no case does this necessarily mean that he’s decided to wimp out or turn centrist. This was just one decision and we’ve got plenty of time to hate him before November.

All About Obama

And it's weird to really think about what the folks attacking Obama are complaining about. Because they’re upset that he didn’t defend Clark’s statement. Because he didn’t issue a statement knocking back these attacks on Clark or send surrogates on to the news shows to push back against all this misinformation and explain what Clark really said. To justify Clark’s statement and show that the attacks against it were wrong.

And hello, notice a theme here? This is defense. It’s about Obama going on the line to defend what a surrogate said. And rather than hitting McCain, it would be all about Obama, Clark, and a supposed attack on military service. And sure, there was no attack on military service, but that requires explanation. And knowing the media idiots in question, we’re talking endless explanation. And not just on one show, but LOTS of shows. And for what? To get some of them to admit they were wrong? To start a "He Said, She Said" debate, with one Obama surrogate battling two McCain surrogates and host Wolf Blitzer siding with McCain? Isn't that really what we are talking about?

Is this fair? No, this is our media. And Obama wasn't going to be able to get that changed in time to win this issue. Obama himself could have spoken with every single political pundit, and even if he had convinced every one of them, what difference would it have made. None. He would have spent a HUGE amount of energy, simply to state the obvious: McCain’s military service several decades ago doesn’t qualify him to be president. And the people who would have listened to Obama already know that it’s true.

So what’s the point? As far as I can understand, the point is just to fight. That Obama needs to fight so he can keep on fighting, and whatever fight Republicans challenge him to, he needs to accept and fight or he loses. And while I definitely want a fighter, I don't think Marty McFly's fear of the “chicken” label is very good strategy. Eventually, you’ll be challenged to a fight that you really can’t win, and then you’re just screwed.

Some fights just aren’t worth fighting, and it appears Obama decided that this was one of those fights. The big secret to always winning is knowing when to fight.

Waning Media Influence

And there’s a bigger point to all this: People will continue to talk about this, whether or not Obama mentions it. The only difference is that they won’t mention Obama. They’ll talk about what Clark said, but it won’t be about Obama at all, because he immediately rejected it. But that won’t make it go away. That won’t convince people that McCain’s experience somehow makes him better qualified to be president. Anyone who’s dumb enough to think that is probably beyond Obama’s reach.

Believe it or not, but people aren’t stupid and don’t believe something just because the media says it. Sure, many were fooled about WMD’s, but that’s because they didn’t have personal knowledge or logic to defeat such talk. But Clinton remained popular for many years, despite media attacks and impeachment demands. It took a few years for the media to even begin to acknowledge that Bush was unpopular and even still they rarely acknowledge it. And people won’t ever accept the “Iraq 4 Evah” policy, no matter how much the media insists that it’s the only serious position we can have. The truth is that the media just isn’t that influential, and it gets less so every day.

And so it’s not enough that the media believes McCain’s service makes him immune from national security attacks; people will still believe what they want to believe. And in this case, the absurdity of the idea is self-evident. Obama doesn’t need to say it. But what was necessary was for people to talk about it. Even if they’re trying to justify the idea that McCain is immune, if they try to explain it, they’ll just end up tripping on their own absurdity. This issue was really only a winner for McCain if folks didn't talk too much about it, as the whole thing is entirely silly.

And so it’s not necessary for Obama to talk about it, just as long as other people are talking about it. And we’ve seen the same dynamic with McCain: He’ll never suggest that Obama is a Muslim, but people will say that he is one all the same. Some things don’t need to be said, especially not when you’ve got supporters saying it for you. That’s not to suggest that I think this was a plan by Obama, but I don’t see how it was the instant loss many liberals think it was.

Strategic Withdrawal

And look, you can’t always play offense on every issue. Even if you’re right, sometimes a victory isn’t worth the price. Anyone who’s debated a conservative knows exactly what I’m talking about. And for as much as Republicans insist on always playing offense and attacking without mercy, that’s a big part of their downfall. Sometimes you need to defend yourself. And sometimes you just can’t win and shouldn’t even try. A strategic retreat isn’t the same as a defeat.

And in this case, that’s what Obama opted for. And while it wasn’t the move I’d have made, it’s far from the sell-out catastrophe some people imagine it is. This isn’t Kerry in 2004 and the most likely outcome is that this will be forgotten about by next week. The only people who will hold this against Obama are his followers who expected him to kick Republican ass on every issue. But the only real casualty here are the people who have that wrong idea. I don’t want a president who vows to destroy Republicans every chance they get. While I expect accountability for what happened, I don’t expect vengeance.

We’re hiring Obama to operate our government; not to be the proxy to fight our battles. And if we still want to denounce McCain, we’re free to do so. I’m sure Obama wouldn’t mind at all. Just as long as he doesn't have to. And as for Clark, I’m not sure how this counts as being thrown under the bus, as if this one issue will destroy his career. But Wes Clark is a tough cookie. I think he’ll survive this.


MissMudd said...

Thank you Doc. I think we'll all survive.

Gail Bracy aka MissMudd

Jeff W said...

People will continue to talk about this, whether or not Obama mentions it. The only difference is that they won’t mention Obama. They’ll talk about what Clark said, but it won’t be about Obama at all, because he immediately rejected it.

Well, Doctor Biobrain, after reading your comments on The Carpetbagger Report and your post here, it's interesting to see the dynamic play out in exactly this way on ABC's Good Morning America. Obama is simply not in this particular fight and letting Clark take all the hits. Clark's calm, entirely non-defensive demeanor indicates to me he knows exactly what he's doing and what role he's playing here. He doesn't look like a man being squashed by a bus.

I think there are two parts to this. One is that Clark said something completely obvious and unobjectionable. Riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down does not qualify anyone to be president. Although we might have wanted Obama to "engage" on this issue, he doesn't need to—why address this obvious point made by Clark? The second, related to the first, is the Obama campaign's "rejection" is completely contentless. No one on either side is clear—because the it's all so nonsensical—about what's so outrageous and what's being objected. (If Clark had said "The sky is blue" and the Obama campaign had "rejected" that, the effect would be similar.) In a way, Obama is beating the Republicans and the media at their own game: if they're going to feign "outrage" over an obvious unobjectionable comment, he'll give them a completely faux, content-free "rejection."

Clark is now free to reiterate and amplify the real and important point about how much of John McCain's service is relevant to the position he's seeking now, even more effectively now because of the "rejection."

John Fulton said...

Debating McCain's service record is not what the Obama campaign needs to be doing right now. For the people who aren't paying close attention, the debate just reminds them that McCain has a service record that we all need to bow down to, and that is what McCain is running on. It's the equivalent of McCain campaigning against hope and change; it just reminds us why we like Obama.

Clark is playing his part and knows what he is doing. I don't think he or the campaign expected such an orchestrated media pushback this week: Clark has pushed these points before without the same descent of harpies. The conservative white blood cells have arrived and the campaign sees it's time to move on.

The liberal blogosphere talks about how much we want to learn from the conservative’s success, without seeing that this episode is right out of the right playbook. Surrogate says what the candidate cannot, candidate distances himself from the message, message is out there, campaign moves on with clean hands. This was done successfully with Clark. And it's why the right is fighting back with claims of coordination between, Obama, Clark and Webb. It's the only way they see to fight the tactic. They know it works.

Presidential politics isn't tennis; it's chess on acid. The people who want a good clean volley are going to be mightily confused and disappointed when the flying monkeys start shitting on their heads.

Doctor Biobrain said...

You're totally right, John. It really scares me that all these "tough" liberals are bashing Obama for not being "tough enough" to fall for a trick that would have put him on the defensive. Even now, you can read sentences saying that Obama is on the "defensive" for not "defending" Clark. It's like they don't even know what these words mean and are just talking out of habit.

As I suggested in a comment at Digby's, it's my guess that Obama's campaign has a standard rule for declining fights that they weren't ready for, as their response was counter-intuitive and very quick. It took me quite awhile to see exactly what the Republicans were up to, and I suspect the Obama people didn't see it either. They automatically knew they weren't ready for whatever was coming and immediately pulled back. Smart. In today's political world, you often don't have time to think. I think they made the right decision here.