Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Fighting the Bad Fight

Another odd feature of the current Clark-McCain dust-up (besides that many liberals who say we should never play defense now want Obama to play defense), is that the folks denouncing Obama for this act as if this is a betrayal of liberalism or something. I keep reading about how this is "politics as usual" and whatnot, as if Obama chose politics over policy.

And yet...isn't this strictly an issue of politics? Is there some liberal policy agenda that says we always have to insist that military service similar to McCain's isn't a qualifier to be president? Of course not. This is strictly a political debate. It's about whether or not Obama should have supported or rejected Clark after he got attacked for a political statement. The only possible betrayal here was of Wesley Clark, not liberals. So why are some liberals so up in arms about this?

I suspect it's because they've been waiting for Obama to betray them, just as they always expected him to. Just as they know all politicians will. And now they're wringing their hands over this supposed betrayal of the cause. But as I suggested in my last post, the real betrayal here is to the people who think a liberal president should always bash the shit out of the Republicans. Sure, they insist that bashing be legitimate and without cheap smears, but if they see a hit ready to be made, they want to make sure it's made. No pulling punches. Ever.

Hillary the Fighter

And that's what the real betrayal here is about. It's not about policy at all, but about politics. They want Obama to treat Republicans just as the Republicans treat us, and anything short of that is a sell-out. But of course, even this isn't the end-all issue they're acting like it is. They're merely taking this as a sign of who he really is. They expected him to either fight every fight strong, or he's being a defensive "pussy." There is no middle ground, and each fight he backs off from is another sign of weakness.

But you know what? I don't want a candidate who fights every fight. That was a huge huge HUGE HUGE HUGE blunder Hillary made. You bring a fight to her, and she'll find a way to win it. And each fight is won in its own specific way. And before you know it, you've got a candidate that's got their hands in half a dozen contradictory battles. One week Hillary's saying that Obama's too weak, and then complaining that he's too mean the next. She's invincible, and then she's crying. One week she's the policy wonk on all the issues; the next, she's gassing up pick-up trucks, drinking shots in bars, and trying to sell McCain's gas tax "holiday" that even voters weren't dumb enough to believe.

And all this adds up to be a huge problem for Hillary: Who the hell was she? Sure, she might have won a few news cycles with this stuff, but overall it just dragged her down. Because she didn't have a real narrative. She had no big picture. No story to sell. Just a whole bunch of conflicting snapshots that left her looking desperate and lost. Sure, she might have looked like a fighter, and she might have won a few battles, but what was she fighting for besides the victory?

And that's what you get when you decide to fight every battle. Defeat is never an option, but if you don't get to pick your fights, then you have to pick your weapons. And that means you're going to have to shift all over the place and sell everything out to win every battle. That's just how it works. But...if you only pick the fights you think you can already win with the weapons you have, and know how to decline battle in a way that doesn't look like you've even engaged in it, then you can keep true to an overall narrative while still having something good to say against your opponent. And you lose a lot fewer battles.

Obama Wins!!! Obama Wins!!!

And the more I think about it, the more I realize that Obama's move was totally and completely right. My initial instinct was to call it a big blunder and thought Obama had really hurt his campaign. And I bet that was the same feelings most liberals have. Clark's statement was totally correct, so screw the media for trying to suggest otherwise. Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead.

And I think that's exactly what Republicans were counting on. For as much as bloggers like Digby see this as part of the age-old Republican strategy to bitchslap Obama and make McCain immune on that subject, I don't think so at all. I think they were just going for a quickie smear on Obama, figuring that Obama would act like the rest of us and go on the defensive to help Clark. And the Republicans were all geared up for it. Obama was about to walk into a media ambush that McCain's campaign quickly organized and McCain was going to get a big boost. Finally, he'd have something he could talk about safely.

And the best evidence to suggest that Obama did the right thing is McCain's reaction. Were he trying to make himself immune on the subject, he'd have accepted Obama's rejection in order to make the point that even Obama wouldn't dare say such things about McCain. But he didn't. Instead, McCain kept acting as if Obama had defended Clark. Obama zigged when he was expected to zag, and McCain was caught flat-footed and could only go through with his initial plan. And rather than reading about how Obama is smearing McCain's military service, we're reading about McCain complaining about a vast Obama conspiracy, and that's not where McCain wanted this at all.

Acid Chess

And so I think Obama did the absolute right thing. This was a set-up. An ambush. And the longer Obama tried to defend Clark's statement, the worse things would have gotten. Even in 2012, we'd have to explain how this episode didn't prove that Obama hates veterans, and the conservatives we were debating would call us idiot traitors for it. And I doubt Obama's campaign set this up or even saw this coming. I think they've got a standard procedure for dealing with campaign fights they weren't ready to win: Decline battle. You shouldn't bet if you don't know the score, and that's exactly what Obama did here.

And that just makes sense. As a commenter mentioned tonight, politics isn't tennis. It's chess on acid, and I agree with that completely. You don't need to win every skirmish or return every shot. And in this case, it's all for nothing. Nobody will vote for McCain because of his military experience. Nobody. The only real casualty here is Wesley Clark, and he seems to be handling himself fine. And if Obama had defended him, they'd both have gone down together. This is how elections are lost and I'm glad Obama did what he did. It was counter-intuitive, particularly after all the fights we've been through, but it was the absolute best thing to have done.

This was a debate we wouldn't have won. And now that it's ending, McCain is back to where he started from: No platform, no momentum, and no plan. He was hoping to smear Obama as being anti-military and is already back to looking clueless. And that's exactly how it should be.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. I'm amazed at how much people keep underestimating Obama. They keep trying to trip him up, and he keep manages to sidestep them, leaving them rubbing their grapes in exasperation. Brilliant! I too was upset about the FISA support, but most people don't give a shit about FISA or are aware of its particulars. And Clark can handle himself. And if the left is so concerned about FISA, it's still up to us persuade public opinion to see it out way. Obama ain't perfect, but he keeps his eye on the ball. The trait of a champion.


John of the Dead said...

I, too, was uncertain at first. But Obama's latest statement, in which he basically says, "We have more important things to work on that what someone one a cable talk show says." That's some masterful political ju-jitsu. At this point, if you're still talking about it, you're ignoring real, important issues. Pretty smart.

John Fulton said...

Counter-intuitive is a good word for some of Obama's moves. It is certainly what he has to be to evade the traps that are the developing media narratives about this election.

Whether this will soothe our liberal hearts is iffy, but all judgments about strategy will be reassessed in light of who wins in November.

Clark is just fine. I too would love to see him as the VP, but the game is on and if he falls out of contention in the course of doing what he needs to do to get Obama elected, I'm sure he understands what it will be worth.

I have to keep reminding myself that anyone who scores a hit on McCain is going to get the slime treatment from the right and their media allies. Obama doesn't have the power to prevent this from happening to Clark.

We saw what happened to Richard Clarke and Scott McClellan. Nobody could stop the shit headed their way once they decided to tell the truth publicly. The broderite media believes in their warped decorum fervently, and truth telling about their heroes doesn't sit well with it. Obama can't change that.

Anonymous said...

What I really appreciate is how it turned John McCain completely paranoid, claiming some conspiracy of the Obama campaign coordinating with not only Wesley Clark (who couldn't have planned to be asked the question) but then Jim Webb's call for getting politics out of the military was claimed to be some kind of attack on McCain's military record, which is simply nonsensical.