Tuesday :: Nov 20, 2007

A Short History of Recent U.S. Presidential Politics - Part 4: The Textbook Campaign

by eriposte

Sen. Barack Obama recently said the following about Sen. Hillary Clinton (bold text is my emphasis, throughout this post):

She’s also a skilled politician, and she’s run what Washington would call a 'textbook' campaign.

In previous posts [see Part 1, 2, 3] I briefly mentioned some analogies between the 2000 and 2008 Presidential campaigns. In this post, I will collect together some of those historical analogies to show you how a textbook campaign looks like in 2008. Read it and let me know if you figured out who exactly is running a textbook campaign today. For clarity, I've divided this post into the following sections.

1. Crossover Appeal

2. Outsider, Special Interests

3. Honesty, Straight Talk

4. Persona


1. Crossover Appeal

Here is a relevant snippet from a recent Obama campaign memo:

Barack Obama believes that to bring about fundamental change three things have to be accomplished. First, the next President must have the ability to unify the country, bringing Republicans and Independents together with Democrats to solve the nation’s most pressing problems. Obama has a track record and approach suited to this challenge while Senator Clinton is likely to unite the GOP against her candidacy as well as her Presidency. And Senator Edwards does not show an inclination toward unity, suggesting compromise is a dirty word.

This sentiment was also reflected earlier this year in campaign coverage, e.g., see this Time magazine piece:

Obama's Red State Appeal

by Jay Newton-Small/Omaha

...The demand for Obama in conservative states is a testament to his rock star status, a term he loathes for its implication that he's all style and no substance. But it may be the very fact that many voters don't yet know that much about the specifics of his politics that is sustaining his level of cross-party support. "I'm not seeing any pretty clear matches for me in the Republican crop," said Filipi, a lifelong Republican who found Omaha for Obama on the Internet. "The last few years I've really had to settle on who I've voted for. I haven't been inspired. I'm not sure Obama's that person either but he's the closest I've come to getting inspired in years."

In fact, Obama's voting record is the most liberal of any candidate, according to a National Journal analysis. Obama's score of 84.3% in the Journal's ratings formula tops even that of Representative Dennis Kucinich, who was considered the most liberal Democratic presidential candidate in 2004.

Why is this interesting? Well, flashback to 2000:

[Bill Bradley] styles himself an outsider, talks about trust and tells about the Independents and Republicans who approach him in airports and hotel lobbies, saying, "I'd vote for you, but I'll never vote for him." His message: I can beat Bush; Gore, with all his baggage, never will. Bradley doesn't say whether those Independents and Republicans have heard about his unapologetically liberal platform. Maybe he thinks his halo will keep them by his side.

Never mind that Bradley was ultimately proven wrong (since Gore defeated Bush), but I just wanted to point out that the Obama campaign's #1 fundamental aspect that they consider his strength, is a textbook chapter from past campaigns.

2. Outsider, Special Interests

The Obama campaign memo continues:

Second, the influence of lobbyists and special interests, who control too much of the agenda in Washington, must be reduced and the voices of the American people must be heard again. Barack Obama has a history of taking on the special interests and winning. He has a track record of leading the way on reform and disclosure. Barack Obama will be beholden to no one but the American people when he wins. Senator Clinton embraces the current system in Washington and is the anointed candidate of Washington, raising more money from PACs and Washington lobbyists than any candidate in either party...While Senator Edwards does not accept PAC or Washington lobbyist money either, his record on reform issues while in the United States Senate demonstrated it was not one of his priorities. Opening up and reforming government has been a primary cause in Obama’s life, not just a convenient set of issues in a political campaign.
If and when Edwards and Obama engage, you'll see a lot of charges along these lines.

Not surprisingly, this was one of the main lines of attack that Bill Bradley used against Al Gore:

Bradley... accused the vice president of being a captive to special interests...

As Bradley said:

I'm raising money from ordinary citizens, not from special interest PAC's.

Not to mention this:

[Bill Bradley] styles himself an outsider...

More textbook stuff! With me so far?

3. Honesty, Straight Talk

Back to the Obama campaign memo:

Third, to bring about real change we need a president who will tell the American people not just what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. People may not always agree with Obama’s views, but they will be clear where he stands and why.

This theme continues what Senator Obama had to say about his campaign back in May:

Obama says his political consultant David Axelrod has occasionally felt the need to admonish him and his campaign "not to sit in the middle of the town square and set ourselves on fire." And, he says, "there will be those in my party who resist" his ideas. But, he adds, "there's got to be some element of truth telling in this year's campaign because the problems we face are too tough to try to finesse."

That sentiment was also behind this Time magazine piece on Sen. Obama:

The Candor Candidate

by Karen Tumulty

Let's use Bob Somerby's archives at the Daily Howler to refresh our memories on the 2000 campaign:

At the final Gore-Bradley debate in New Hampshire, Bradley offered the following attack on Gore’s troubling lack of honesty...

BRADLEY (1/27/00): If you don't trust the people to tell them the truth in a campaign, then how can the people trust that you're going to tell them the truth when you're president of the United States?

By this time, Bradley was desperate and angry—and willing to lie through his teeth. How absurd were his claims about Gore’s “character?” By now, he and his campaign had spent two months pretending that Gore introduced Willie Horton to the American people—even though Bradley had gone out of his way to say the opposite in his best-selling 1996 book, Time Past, Time Present (link below). But the press corps loved assailing Gore’s character—and this was Bradley attacking Gore, not a Republican or conservative entity. The line was recited right through November. It helped put Bush where he is.

Fast forward to Oct 2007, Somerby noted the following:

As Bacon continued, he described a recent Obama campaign event. Every Democrat should be disturbed by the highlighted statement, whose antecedent is blindingly clear:

BACON (continuing directly): To emphasize this theme, Obama, who trails Clinton (D-N.Y.) by a wide margin in national polls, was introduced at the event by Tod Bowman, a Democrat and high school teacher in Maquoketa, Iowa. He said Clinton ducked his question about Social Security at an event this month.

"It made me wonder: If a candidate won't answer a question on the campaign trail, how can we be sure she'll be honest with the American people when they're president?" Bowman said at an event at a senior citizen center in Des Moines. [emphasis Somerby's]

There are no words for how appalled Democrats ought to be.
So let’s go back to that high-minded line voiced by that high-minded high school teacher. If you think that line wasn’t written for Bowman; if you think that line wasn’t copied from Bradley’s (effective) slander of Gore; then you live on the far side of Neptune, and you ought to stop following politics. Bottom line: Big Democrats can’t attack other Democrats’ character—especially by falsely claiming that Social Security is some kind of big issue. Bradley was lying in Campaign 2000—and the mainstream press corps loved it. Obama seems to be on the verge of going down that road again.

Looks like Sen. Obama has certainly absorbed the textbook well, hasn't he!

4. Persona

Although the Obama campaign has not been claiming that his campaign is about his persona, Sen. Obama's supporters sometimes don't hide this fact. For example, here is Andrew Sullivan, gushing about Obama:

It isn’t about his policies as such; it is about his person.

Not a lot different from how Bradley was sometimes portrayed in the press:

The heart of Bradley's appeal isn't his Senate record or athletic prowess but what supporters see as his deep and abiding virtue...


Outside of Sen. Obama's regrettable and false attacks on Sen. Clinton's character - which only unnecessarily raise questions about his own - I don't have any objections to his running on his persona or appeal or his passion to take on special interests. America needs great progressives like him in powerful positions where they can bring needed change to the country. However, in the context of this post, what is interesting to me is that even though Sen. Obama has labeled Sen. Clinton's campaign a "textbook campaign", the political history I have discussed in this post - namely, Bill Bradley's primary campaign against Al Gore in Election 2000 - shows that Sen. Obama is in fact running a textbook campaign himself.

What is equally fascinating to me is how Sen. Obama defined "textbook campaign":

It’s a textbook that’s all about winning elections, but says nothing about how to bring the country together to solve problems

His definition resonates strongly with Bill Bradley's view on winning:

It was also there that I absorbed the idea that a team is not just about winning; it's about shared sacrifice, it's about giving up something small for yourself in order to gain something large for everybody. And you know, it's the same for our country.

No wonder, Pulitzer-Prize nominated political history professor and Clinton supporter Sean Wilentz said the following in a recent interview (bold text is that of the questioner, the rest of the text is Prof. Wilentz's response, italics is my emphasis):

So you don't find Obama's meta-arguments against "politics as usual" particularly convincing?
You cannot have a president who doesn't like politics. You will not get anything done. Period. I happen to love American politics. I think American politics is wonderful. I can understand why people don't. But one of the problems in America is that politics has been so soured, people try to be above it all. It's like Adlai Stevenson. In some ways, Barack reminds me of Stevenson.

There's always a Stevenson candidate. Bradley was one of them. Tsongas was one of them. They're the people who are kind of ambivalent about power. "Should I be in this or not... well, yes, because I'm going to represent something new." It's beautiful loserdom. The fact is, you can't govern without politics. That's what democracy is. Democracy isn't some utopian proposition by which the people suddenly rule. We're too complicated a country for that. We have too many interests here. You need someone who can govern, who can build the coalition and move the country forward. You hit on something that's really my pet peeve about the others. Edwards the same way, except he doesn't condemn the politics of the '60s, rather he talks about the special interests...
But people always tie Obama to the Kennedys.
God knows why. His philosophy is much more like Eugene McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson. He's that kind of politician, in a post-Baby Boomer sense. If the argument we're having today in the party is like the one we had in '68 between the Kennedyites and the McCarthyites, [Sen. Clinton is] Bobby Kennedy. She's not Eugene McCarthy. She's not the beautiful-loser idealist, or the person who's ambivalent about politics. She loves politics. Just as Bobby Kennedy loved politics. Bobby Kennedy could deal with Cesar Chavez and Mayor Daley. That's what you need in America.

Let me leave it at that.

eriposte :: 6:28 AM :: Comments (5) :: Digg It!