Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Upside of Political Mistakes

One of the big mistakes Republicans make is the assumption that there are only upsides to their plans and that it’s possible to get everything they want without negative repercussions. For example, they think they can woo racist votes without being stuck with the racist label. Or that they can woo rabid cultural warriors who refuse to compromise on cultural issues without actually giving them any cultural victories. Or that they can bully everyone as much as possible without facing any kind of backlash or pushback, and that the more you bully people, the more they’ll allow themselves to be bullied. But the truth is that every action has a reaction and there’s always a downside to every decision you make.

But it’s not even just that they’re making poor decisions. In reality, they don’t really have much choice. The current Republican crew is stuck with the decisions previous GOP leaders made, but all the same, they have no other choice. Without racists, cultural warriors, and all the other a-holes the Republicans appeal to for votes, they couldn’t possibly win elections; and even still they barely win. The reality is that Republicans got stuck wooing an increasingly shrinking voter bloc because they’re making the best of a bad situation.

Even the Iraq War and Democratic opposition to it was a double-edged sword that paid big dividends before finally burning them. Were it not for these "mistakes," Republicans would never have stolen Congress in the 90's or the Whitehouse in the 00's. The real problem is that the Republican Party only stands for protecting the Republican Party and everyone else is just getting hosed. That's why their only hope is to beat us by grabbing the voters we don't want, and who are too angry at us to realize they're getting hosed. But again, these were the choices that Nixon and others made decades ago and isn't something that could just be undone overnight.

Similarly, McCain is stuck with the decisions BushCheney made, whether he likes it or not. And I suspect that McCain’s going to realize he’s trying to defy gravity with his recent attempts to distance himself from Bush. He definitely doesn’t like the options he’s been left with, but imagines he can do the impossible by dumping Bush and pulling a “Me Too” strategy” on Obama; as if people would be happier to see Obama’s theme with a “leader” like McCain attached to it. But if he were smart, he’d acknowledge reality and sell himself as Competent Bush, the guy you thought you were voting for in 2004.

Not that I think that’s a great sales pitch, but it’s the only one he’s got. Because his current deception makes him look like a joke, especially as there are quite a few Bushies who just don’t want to let go. McCain might be pushing a “change” mantra, but most Republicans still want to stay the course. And the people who don't want another Bush aren't going to buy him as Obama's wise grandfather.

About the Benjamins

And that’s what’s so weird in reading all the post-mortems of Hillary’s presidential campaign. Carpetbagger has a post which highlights a great number of Hillary mistakes as given by various pundit-types, but the main thing that strikes me is the assumption that these were all blunders. But the truth is that these were decisions that had good and bad sides, and had Hillary not made these “mistakes” she might not have gotten as far as she did. In many cases, these “mistakes” represent Hillary making the most of a bad situation.

For example, one big “mistake” was how she ran out of money because she was going for an early knock-out blow. And while I agree that this was a problem, isn’t it obvious that she wouldn’t have done as well as she did if she hadn’t spent as much money as she did? Had she spent less in New Hampshire and lost, she wouldn't even have made it to Super Tuesday. Similarly, she only did as well as she did on Super Tuesday because she shot her wad, and Obama would have knocked her out if she had spent less. She’s hugely in debt because that was the only way she could compete with Obama, and if she had spent $20 million less, she’d have done a lot worse. Just imagine how bad off she'd have been if she had to spend big in Florida and Michigan.

Same goes with her “mistake” of not working hard enough in caucus states or her decision to let Obama win lots of small states in February. She had finite resources and anything she spent in these places was less money and time she could have spent in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In many respects, this was a zero-sum game and every vote she wooed in Georgia was a vote she would have lost somewhere else. And had she done so, we’d be talking about how she made the “mistake” of focusing on states she was going to lose and didn’t work hard enough to win in the big states. Everything looks like a mistake when you lose.


And this high spending all tied in to her overall “invincible” strategy, which was also listed as a mistake. But can it really be argued that it didn’t give her many advantages? Much of the political world acted as if the nomination was Hillary’s and everyone else was an after-thought. And that surely gave her a HUGE advantage. For example, fundraising was surely helped by the fact that donors assumed their money was helping to bribe the next President of the United States (yes, “bribe” is a strong word, but let’s be real here folks).

Another big “mistake” was in emphasizing her experience and acting like she was the incumbent candidate. But as I suggested in a previous post on Hillary, what choice did she have? Her Senate record wasn’t spectacular and as much as she differed from the standard Democrat, she was on the wrong side. She had bet heavily on being a foreign policy hawk who was friendly to big business, which was an extension of Bill's policies, and was completely unprepared when the political winds shifted against Republicans.

The reason Obama was Mr. Change wasn’t because he decided on January 1, 2007 to have change as his message. It was ingrained in everything he’s done and is a part of his general personality. He's the fresh, new face with the energy and voice we've been waiting for. Hillary, on the other hand, just didn’t have any kind of real record to stand on after the Clinton presidency, and was stuck with hoping people just liked her for what she did in the 90’s. Had she gone for a change theme, she'd be playing on Obama's turf and he'd beat her. She either had to play it as a 90's retro-theme or not at all.

Dressing Up the Pig

And the problem here is that you can't use a sales pitch that doesn't fit you. No matter how popular health drinks are, Coke can never sell itself as one. Walmart will never be considered high fashion. McDonald's will always be greasy fastfood. That's just the way it is. The secret to good marketing is finding out what your niche is and finding the best way to convince people they need what you've got. But if your product doesn't match what you're selling, people won't buy no matter how good your sales pitch is.

Just ask Garth Brooks, who tried to shed his tiring cowboy image by adopting a moody alternative persona and turned himself into a punchline overnight. And that's not fair, as I'm sure the cowboy image was just as fake as the alternative one. But no matter, people had their idea of who he was and no amount of marketing could change that. Rather than letting him reinvent himself, it showed the world exactly how fake he had been the whole time and he ended up losing both personas. Even Madonna wouldn't attempt such a drastic reinvention, and she's famous for changing her image. But no matter how often her music changes, she's still the same shallow popstar, which is what her fans like about her. Brooks, on the other hand, tried something completely different and only ended up embarrassing himself.

And that's exactly what happened to Hillary and what's happening to McCain right now. Hillary and McCain are both Establishment candidates who only offer their experience and name recognition. And had Hillary won the nomination, we'd have been stuck with a very boring and bitter election as two old warhorses battled it out from within their bunkers; neither of whom had anything to offer outside of negative spin against their opponent. Rather than any real discussion, both sides would only talk to their base while complaining about how unfair the other side was being. It'd have been entirely personal because neither side has anything to offer us and could only engage in defensive tactics to woo voters to their side.

It'd have been like the 2000 election, except that we just didn't know what problems we needed solved back then; so neither Gore or Bush had anything real to talk about. This time, we know what we need, but neither Hillary or McCain are particularly well-positioned to give it to us. They were both responsible for getting us into this mess and if they can't even acknowledge how we got here, they can't possibly be the ones to get us out. And with nothing real to talk about, this would have been one hard slog to November.

Being Obama

But just as Obama forced Hillary out of her bunker and into a series of embarrassing personality shifts (which BagNews sums up well), McCain's also finding himself completely off-script and clueless as to what his next line is. But it's not because he's clueless, but rather that he's not the solution that we need this year.

And to be honest, I don't think he was ever our solution. I'm not sure why McCain ever imagined that he should be president, but it really isn't within his skill-set. As I've suggested before, McCain would be perfect as a mediocre college football coach and he'd have been happier and angrier if he had chosen that profession. But the guy was never cut-out to be president and would find that he hates the job even more than Bush does. At least Bush loved campaigning and being treated with the respect he always imagined he deserved but never received. But McCain would find the job a huge headache and prefers talking to his buddies in the media rather than the riff-raff on the campaign trail. Whether he knows it or not, Obama is doing him a huge favor by beating him in November.

As it is, he seems somewhat content with himself that he's able to ad lib as well as he has, but he's not doing nearly as well as Hillary did; and it was obvious that Hillary couldn't pull off the shape-shifting changes she needed either. But she really did quite well under the circumstances. The problem here wasn't that Hillary made lots of mistakes, but rather that this wasn't her year and she did as well as she did because of the choices that many folks see as mistakes. While I think she could have done better than Kerry in 2004 (though I'd have preferred Kerry), being too Republican is a definite liability in 2008.

Because ultimately, her big "mistake" was not being Obama, and that's an even bigger problem for McCain, who has even fewer of the traits that make Obama a winner. She was a slightly used Cadillac in a year that people wanted a cool new hybrid, and McCain's the beastly Ford Excursion whose gas mileage has just gone down since 2000. While both Hillary and McCain have selling points that clearly got them as far as they did, voters just need to see their gas mileage rates to know who to vote for.

Remember, nobody thought it was a mistake for Hillary to be invincible until Obama showed that it wasn't enough. Nor was McCain smearing Bush in the primaries. Both Hillary and McCain were making the right moves, but in the wrong year. And now McCain's figured out it's Obama's year, but wrongly thinks he can change his moves. He can't. And the sooner he tries to work with the bad options he's got, he can avoid choosing the absurd ones he wants.


Anonymous said...

And now that the DNC will be funded by the grass roots, Barack Obama's party will be a governing majority for a generation at least.

What John McCain needs to do is find a dignified way to lose.

John Fulton said...

The justifiable confidence Obama can have going into the general, may not apply to the broader Democratic Party.

If they keep voting to not lose on issues like FISA and Iraq it won't help. If congressional democrats keep playing defense and searching for the middle ground on torture, illegal wiretapping, protecting corporate lawbreakers and funding a colonial adventure, they will disappoint an excited base and hurt Obama's chances. The new voters that Obama attracts won't vote for democrats despite what the party does. The party has to deliver on change to keep these voters.

Obama can win despite a confused congress, but the party as a whole may not enjoy long-term success unless they can (at least appear to) solve some of the huge problems we are facing.

McCain is absurd talking about change. Perhaps if it's a coherent campaign strategy to have McCain use Obama's platform, it is one to make the whole concept of change seem ridiculous, to sow cynicism among undecided voters in the hopes that fear can come back as a the central emotion for electoral decisions.