Sunday, May 13, 2012

Is Obama's team planning to run a "Republican" campaign?

I find the description of President Obama's re-election strategy by Howard Fineman in Obama Takes Multiple Pages From GOP Playbook Huffington Post 05/13/2012 to be fairly scary from a Democratic point of view. It reads like stenography for the Obama campaign, but Fineman doesn't cite any of the customary anonymous sources granted anonymity for no good reason at all. He doesn't cite any sources at all, actually, so it could be Fineman's own analysis of the strategy.

Tom Tomorrow's classic jab at Obama's "postpartisan" politics

Fineman describes it as a particularly confrontational strategy. Which in itself makes all kinds of good sense. The President needs to draw a sharp contrast between himself and his Republican opponent, Willard "Mitt" Romney. Here is how Fineman describes it:

But campaign strategy does matter, and there the GOP has a track record and a theory that Obama has always found to his liking as a candidate.

It is more confrontational and definitive than the model used by Bill Clinton, who won election twice (but never with an outright majority) essentially by blurring his party's differences with a conservative GOP.

Starting with Richard Nixon in 1972, and moving on to Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004, Republican incumbents assembled a strategic doctrine that includes the following basic plays: Stress culture, and exploit cultural and regional divisions, especially if doing so helps detract attention from a so-so (or worse) economic record. Declare one's own strength as commander in chief and the opponent's ignorance or weakness (or both) in military and foreign affairs. Paint the foe as out of the mainstream and/or elitist in terms of money, education or both. Highlight wedge issues to expand fissures in the other party. Where possible, speak in sweeping historical terms about the greatness and uniqueness of the country. And evoke symbols of manly recreational endeavor. [my emphasis]
A lot of campaigning involves technique, of course. So showing Obama doing things like playing basketball to project an image of vitality is fairly obvious. "Expect a lot more Obama hoops between now and November," Fineman concludes his piece.

But three things bugged me about this piece. One was the opening line, "As he tries to become only the second Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to win reelection, Barack Obama is adopting much of the strategic playbook Republicans have developed and used for 40 years." (my emphasis) This sounds like an all-too-typical Democratic assumption that they are automatically at a disadvantage against Republicans. Only one Democratic President has been reelected since Franklin Roosevelt. Except for, you know, the other two who were reelected. Harry Truman became President in April 1945 and ran successfully for what would normally be called reelection in 1948. Lyndon Johnson became President in November 1963 and was reelected to the office in 1964. To make Bill Clinton the only reelected Democratic President since FDR, you have to not count the elections of Truman in 1948 and Johnson in 1964 as reelections because they were previously elected Vice President and took office as a result of the previous President's death.

But if we're going to comma-dance on reelection like that, it would be far more plausible to call George W. Bush's election in 2004 as also not being a reelection, since he actually lost the election of 2000.

The second thing that bugs me is that whenever I see a comment like "Barack Obama is adopting much of the strategic playbook Republicans have developed ...", I cringe inside. Because Obama has showed us too many times already that he intensely committed to being the leader who achieves postpartisan harmony between Democrats and Republicans by a Grand Bargain whose only permanent features would be massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The third thing that worries me about Fineman's piece is the phrase "especially if doing so helps detract attention from a so-so (or worse) economic record." It would be hard for Obama to do very much to fire up the economy between now and the November election. In that sense, he's stuck with the gambles he's made. He gambled that bailing out the giant banks and stabilizing the financial sector in 2009 - which his policies did achieve - would be enough to produce something like a Reaganesque "morning in America" by 2012. And he gambled that the postpartisan harmony that would come from not reminding people constantly from the day he was elected what an awful mess the Cheney-Bush Administration had made of the economy would outweigh the risk that people would blame the Obama Administration if Morning In America hadn't arrived by 2012.

But rather than distraction, I would much prefer to see an aggressive push by Obama to propose the kinds of stimulative measures that would be good policies as well as good politics and force the Republicans to position themselves against them.

Charlie Pierce in The Argument Is Over. The Campaign Is Here. Let's Go. Esquire Politics Blog 05/04/2012 describes the Obama reelection strategy very similarly to how Fineman describes it. But where Fineman seems to present it as obvious brilliance leading to near-certain triumph, Pierce sees the problems with it:

All the smart people in the room have declared this Saturday to be the official, no-kidding, honest-to-god Opening Day of the president's re-election campaign. He will speak in Virginia and in Ohio. (The new jobs report undoubtedly has at least partly harshed the mellow of the day.) Still, the president will tell us that things are looking up, that we should all stay the course, and that electing the Romneybot 2.0 will send us back to the policies that set the country to reeling in the first place. (He likely will not say that it's "Morning In America" again, if only because the president and I have a firm agreement that he will not go out of his way to make me throw up.) There will be some more talk of the killing of Osama bin Laden, surely, and probably no little vainglory about our strategic partnership with the Afghanistan that exists only in the minds of the president and his advisors. He will point out that he inherited a mess, and that's he's done god's own work cleaning it up. He will point out that the job would have been easier had the Republican party in Congress not given itself over to obstructionists and vandals, most of whom have the essential civic conscience of a 12-year old with a can of spray paint. The president will not necessarily be lying about any of this.

He also will be too late.

The time to talk honestly and ferociously about the abject failure of the Avignon Presidency was in 2009. The time to demonstrate that failure by investigating the incredible panoply of crimes and blunders that were committed by the previous administration on almost every possible issue was shortly after he took office, when he still had at least theoretically congressional majorities and, in any case, could have, by executive order, released documents detailing at least some of what went on. The time to talk about the sheer sociopathic disregard for political norms illustrated by the new Republican majority elected to the House in 2010 was in 2009, when that disregard was on display at rallies, and in the disruption of town hall meetings, and when the manic energy that has forced the Republican party to abandon reason was at its highest levels. The time to talk — nay, holler — about the disinclination of the opposition to do the business of the people was every damn time they refused to do it. ... The partnership in government didn't "break down." The Republicans broke it and then walked away from the splinters. Period. There was nowhere near enough of that kind of talk over the past three years.
Pierce is explicitly pessimistic about Obama's reelection chances. "I think he's probably going to lose," he writes. And he thinks the fundamental problem is Obama postpartisan delusion, mostly famously expressed in his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech: "There are no red states. There are no blue states. There is only the United States of America."

Although that phrase is the most famous part of the speech, this part turned out to be more of a prediction of how he would act as President, a part in which he described how he thought the Democrats should contrast themselves to the horrendously destructive policies of the Cheney-Bush Administration:

And how did he address the policies and priorities of the Cheney-Bush Administration in that now-legendary 2004 speech?

People don’t expect -- People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. [my emphasis]
We needed more than "just a slight change in priorities": in 2004, in 2008 and again now in 2012. That's what a Democratic President should be offering.

That is the role of left parties in the neoliberal/Free Market dogma that currently dominates the political elites of the US and Europe: to offer "just a slight change in priorities" from the deregulation/antilabor/anticonsumer One Percenter priorities of the conservative parties, without deviating in a major way from those deregulation/antilabor/anticonsumer One Percenter priorities.

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