The Plank

What's So Awful About Bitter And Partisan?

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Politics inspires more armchair quarterbacking than football. And although I know a thing or two about public policy, my instinct is to assume that veteran political strategists--particularly those now working for Barack Obama--know better than I do how to manage a presidential campaign. So it's entirely possible that their new advertisement is the perfect spot at the perfect time.

For those who have not seen it, it features Obama, seated and speaking directly into the camera about the economy and his proposals to improve it: 

It's sober and detailed and, yes, a little boring--which, quite possibly, is the point. As the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder notes

Obama aired a two-minute ad just like this one a few days before the
Iowa caucuses. Many Obama aides believed at the time that it pushed him
over the edge because it made voters feel comfortable voting for Obama.
Feeling uncomfortable with Obama--not knowing the cut of his
jib, what's in his maw, all of that--is the essential hurdle for him
in this election.  Even the McCain campaign admits, in quieter moments,
that if voters feel comfortable voting for Obama, well, not even Sarah
Palin can swing this election.

Maybe. But I'm still worried. And it's not only because John McCain's new advertisement--about which a colleague may soon have something to say--is shorter, punchier, and more direct.

My problem starts with the ad's big pivot line, in which Obama says

The truth is that while you've been living up to your responsibilities Washington has not. That's why we need change. Real change.

At the ad's conclusion, Obama hits the same theme

I approved this message because bitter, partisan fights and outworn ideas of the left and the right won't solve the problems we face today. But a new spirit of unity and shared responsibility will.

I continue to think this is absolutely the wrong way to frame the debate on economic policy.

For one thing, it plays on turf relatively friendly to McCain--making this a contest of who will stand up to "Washington" and break with business as usual. Obama should win that contest on the merits, but, given public perceptions, I'm not sure that he will.

After all of these years, people feel they know who McCain is. And no matter how many lobbyists he has working for him now, no matter how obviously he panders for the sake of winning, no matter how many blatant lies he tells, and no matter how many times he votes to support President Bush, voters still remember those now-distant episodes when he was an authentic maverick who made stands on principle.

No less important, the framing is wrong on the merits. The influence of lobbyists and special interests have something to do with our problems. But they are not as important a cause as conservative ideology and the people who have advanced it--in other words, President Bush and the Republicans.

But Bush and the Republicans make no appearances in this advertisement. None. Zilcho. Nada.

Even worse, instead of reminding voters of the Republicans' responsibility for our problems, this spot actually blurs the differences between the parties--yet again--by placing blame on "outworn ideas of the left."

I wonder, just which ideas would those be? Regulation of the financial industry? Government spending on jobs and education? Universal health care? They all sound pretty good right about now.  Bush is the least popular president in recent memory.The troubled economy is the voters top concern and, historically, voters have always trusted Democrats more than Republicans on those issues. And on the specific issues--from investment to health care--voters actually support Democratic positions. Shouldn't Obama hammer away at this, the way his running mate did the other day in Michigan?

Yes, I'm biased philosophically. And, no, I'm not a professional strategist. So feel free to disagree. But if this is indicative of the campaign's direction going forward, I'm going to keep worrying.--Jonathan Cohn

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