THE PLANK JUNE 6, 2008
With the primary race finally wrapped up, we asked a few friends of the magazine to consider the type of campaign Barack Obama should run against John McCain. Up here is Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, an online forum.
I agree with virtually all of what my Democratic Strategist colleague and mentor Bill Galston has to say in his essay on Obama's general election campaign. But I'd come at the challenges and opportunities Obama faces from a slightly different perspective.
First of all, in the battle for persuadable swing voters, both candidates have a potentially attractive meta-message. Obama's is that he offers bold and fundamental change, not only from the failed domestic and international policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, but also from the habits of a corrupt and gridlocked Washington. McCain's is that he offers safe if limited change from the political and policy vices of both parties, based on his personal credibility and "maverick" credentials, with a heavy emphasis on the post-9/11 security environment. Both candidates understand this is a "change election," and both also understand the handicaps faced by McCain as a Republican whose signature issue has been an unstinting commitment to "victory" in Iraq.
Entering the general election campaign, Obama needs to recast and rebroadcast his meta-message, which has clearly been eroded by the Jeremiah Wright controversy and the incessant media discussion of his primary campaign struggles, to connect with certain demographic categories of voters (most notably non-college-educated white voters). And at the same time, Obama (with help from his vanquished primary foe, Hillary Clinton) needs to regularly challenge McCain's claim to represent either "safety" or "change" on the full array of issues where voters clearly support Democratic policies.
Team Obama should also recognize that the GOP is promoting two very different and potentially conflicting negative stereotypes of their candidate: He's familiar, in that his supra-partisan and inclusive rhetoric disguises the fact that he's just another Liberal! Liberal! Liberal! Yet he's unfamiliar, representing all sorts of strange, radical, unprecedented forces in America life, from his interracial background to his "radical friends," to his identification with post-Baby Boomer culture.
While Obama should fight both stereotypes, he should recognize that the second one is probably more politically damaging. This could be the first presidential election since 1964 when a majority of Americans would prefer a Liberal! Liberal! Liberal! to any sort of Republican. He shouldn't be defensive about his progressive principles and platform, and above all, he should not risk letting voters go into Election Day with serious doubts about who he is and what he would do as president. That would be an open door to sentiments ranging from racism to a simple fear of the unknown that could undermine all his built-in advantages in this election. And in terms of making voters comfortable with his identity and core values, he can and should make a special effort to get beyond the Wright controversy and display his own authentic faith and his unusually nuanced understanding of its role in public life. Don't fear the preacher.
Second of all, if only because John McCain will try to narrow the issues landscape to national security, Obama needs to avoid the temptation of changing the subject (an inveterate Democratic habit) and constantly articulate a strong, comprehensive vision of America's security challenges, in which his highly popular views on the Iraq War are part, not parcel. He can definitely do that, with or without help from national security validators, on or off the ticket. But thanks to the dynamics of the primary competition, supplemented by GOP attacks, all the majority of voters know about Obama on national security are his commitment to a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, and his pledge to negotiate with unfriendly states without preconditions. A determination to keep America safe, and specifically to use military force if necessary, should be the first, not the last, words he uses on national security issues.
Finally, Team Obama should fully utilize Obama's rhetorical skills, and the freedom he will enjoy to deploy them. He will be the first Democratic candidate in living memory with a significant financial advantage over the opposition. He will have every opportunity to get his message out and should ignore the boredom and cynicism of the campaign-weary chattering classes about his inspirational rhetoric. Obama's acceptance speech in Denver (on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" address), will almost certainly be the most observed political speech in, well, history. It will be an unparalleled chance to solidify his identity, his message, and the choices faced by the electorate. It's the sort of opportunity that could move millions of voters. He should seize it.