Senator, I know everyone is giving you advice these days, and I didn’t want you to feel I wasn’t paying attention. On your way back from your fabulously successful trip overseas, remember these four letters: LMWT.
Lose Michigan, We’re Toast.
These numbers should focus your attention:
God love Arianna Huffington. She is nothing if not vocal. And these days, she’s actually consistent, especially in warning Barack Obama not to listen to the “siren song of conventional wisdom, ” which presumably lures him into the Campaign Zombie Zone of the center left :
Certainly, it’s hard to argue that such a defensive, rightward move as the one she describes didn’t work for either Gore or Kerry.
Huffington offers as antithetical to her position this from Stuart Rothenberg, quoted recently in the Dayton Daily News. Rothenberg said that the most important key to Obama winning Ohio was for him to:
“Connect with voters on the economy. To do so, he has to do more than connect Republican policies with the nation’s troubled economy. He has to show voters he cares rather than “giving an Econ 355 graduate lecture on trade and the economy,” said Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report. “He needs to be more personal, and use real people as examples to demonstrate that he feels their pain.”
Huffington seems to think that this is incompatible with the continued rabble rousing she counsels. She then admonishes Obama to “dance with them what brung ya,” a quote that is often good advice, even if it probably should be attributed to Darrell Royal rather than Don Meredith and Molly Ivins.
Here’s where Huffington gets it especially wrong. What brung Obama to this historic juncture is not that he’s some sort of fire-breathing lefty wunderkind. Rather, his distinctive gift if for *connecting* with voters, just as Rothenberg suggests he must in Ohio. But here’s the problem: the voters with whom he has connected so far will not be suficient to win him the Presidency.
In Theodore’s Clark’s recent, excellent, heartbreaking “The Last Campaign,”
Clarke recounts that after the assassination of Dr. King in April 1968– Robert F. Kennedy had declared his intention to challenge Lyndon Johnson just three weeks prior–the RFK brain trust retreated to the Senator’s compound at Hickory Hill. They agreed that in such a charged environment, Kennedy should tone down his anti-poverty and anti-war rhetoric, adopting law-and-order and business-is-good overtones. Such sooth-saying was seen as critical to “reassembling the New Deal coalition of blue-colar workers, ethnics, Catholics, farmers, Southerners, Northern liberals, and blacks that had elected Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy to the White house before being shattered by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.’ Huffington should recognize this strategy–it’s a lot like the one she is so frantically waving Obama off.
Huffington would have loved Kennedy’s reaction. After agreeing with his handlers–by all appearances, sincerely–he would again and again scuttle what became known as the Hickory Hill strategy. Almost comically, he would often read his prepared speech so quickly that no one could understand him; then make extemporaneous, provocative remarks on the state of race relations in America; and then take questions for longer than he’d spent on the first two combined. He would, over the strenuous objection of his staff, spend hours walking around Indian reservations, where he encountered more rusted-out cars than voters. Whether by some special political intuition or because of Kennedy’s enormous capacity for empathy, it was as if he couldn’t help himself. If the path through America’s disaffected did’t lead to the nomination, so be it.
Usually, this approach worked to spectacular effect. Other times–notably in Oregon, the only one of 27 primaries and elections a Kennedy had ever lost up to 1968–it failed in equally grand fashion.
RFK’s conclusion was as simple as it was powerful: “I do best with people with problems.”
Oregonians liked their guns and their suburbs. They didn’t self-identify as troubled, and they preferred the cool detachment of Eugene McCarthy to the passionate, sometimes offensive goadings of Kennedy. But they were in the minority. People with Problems would be the key to the 1968 Democratic primaries, which is why Kennedy’s message worked, against tremendously long odds. He went from being a largely distrusted and somehwat sinister figure to being the presumptive nominee, all in 82 days. He presumably would have been President as well, given that Humphrey ran a close race against Nixon despite insisting on a “politics of joy” during one of the least joyous periods in American history.
Thankfully, the Summer of 2008 brings none of the violence and fear of physical harm which forever stained the Summer of 1968. But this does not mean that fear is not ascendant in much of America. This time the reigning fears of People with Problems have to do with the price off gas and groceries, their ability to keep their homes, and their efforts to keep credit card collection agencies at bay.
The front page ofthe June 25 Wall Street Journal painted this all in stark relief. The WSJ noted that closely watched Shiller index of housing prices had registered a recent decline with comparables only in the Great Depression. The article did not go on to state the obvious: that the houses which have declined most dramatically in value are those in the newest developments, are farthest from city centers, and are much more likely to be inhabited (or recently disinhabited) by people who bought them with predatory loans they could not service.
In a second story,
the WSJ reported that the Consumer Confidence Index now stands at 50.4, its lowest level since 1992. And as if to further my case that the Summer of 2008 is more like the Summer of 1968 than we’d like to admit, the CCI’s measure of confidence 6 months ahead stands at its lowest level since….1967, the first year the Conference Board conducted the survey. These are absolutely staggering indications of the American public’s collective anxiety. A CCI score of 100 is indexed to 1985, just after the electorate overwhelmingly told Ronald Reagan that yes, thanks for asking, they did feel better off than they were four years prior. Twenty-three years later, with Bush relinquishing the helm, we are half as confident as we were when Reagan began his second term. Half as confident. 1967 levels. This frigging country was exploding in 1967!!!
Add to all this bad news the following little tidbit: the average 401(k) balance is down 15-20% since its October peaks. There is a large cohort of Americans–perhaps numbering in mid seven figures– who went into the 2008 holidays in a position to retire comfortably, but couldn’t think of doing so on July 4 2009. These people *alone* could swing a popular vote that was even moderately close.
Four days after the Journal published its scary numbers, Tom Friedman lent his articulate voice to what many of us have been thinking for quite a while:
“My fellow Americans: We are a country in debt and in decline — not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline. Our political system seems incapable of producing long-range answers to big problems or big opportunities. We are the ones who need a better-functioning democracy — more than the Iraqis and Afghans. We are the ones in need of nation-building. It is our political system that is not working.”
Make no mistake: the People with Problems demographic is #1 with a bullet when it comes to the Presidential aspirations of Barack Obama. And in Summer 2008, People with Problems must be convinced that the candidate knows that they exist, that he understands how dire are their straits, and that they will be among his first priorities once in office. Especially since Obama cannot responsibly promise them any quick fixes, this will require a much more intense level of engagement than the mere injection of a “hopeful” message into the atmosphere.
I believe the Two Davids, Plouffe and Axelrod, when they look at the electoral map and say that there are many ways for Obama to win the general election. Kerry won 252 delegates in 2004, requiring Obama to find only 18 more. And true, more delegates are in play from small/mid-sized Bush 04 states (Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia,) than there are from yet smaller states made vulnerable by the thinness of the Kerrry victory (Oregon, New Hampshire).
Obama can win without Indiana and Ohio–what I’ll call “former smokestack states (FSS)” that went for Bush and where the numbers are currently encouraging–although doing so would require him to hold New Hampshire and Oregon and win a over 40% of the delegates from the remaining Bush states in play. What Obama *cannot* likely do is win the election without the other two other FSS: Pennsylvania and Michigan, both Kerry 04 states.
Which brings us back to People with Problems. No part of the country–certainly no part of white America– self identifies as more troubled and more victimized than the swath of America that depended most highly on manufacturing jobs for their livelihood: Pennsylvania and Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.
It is before these understandably surly, largely white crowds–who have demonstrated their skepticism of Obama in much the way blacks were at first wary of Kennedy–that Obama must channel Bobby Kennedy. And the way to do so is by combining the passionate, game-changing style Huffington recommends with the practical considerations posed by Rothenberg.
Of course there are massive differences between the situations of the two candidates. It is impractical for nominee Obama to run the whistle-stopping, caravaning retail campaign in the general election run by candidate Kennedy in the primaries. And although civil rights were front and center in 1968, Kennedy had the luxury of being undistracted by abortion, God, gays, and guns (although his understandably intractable position on gun control may ultimately have cost him Oregon). Finally, Obama’s message must be more intricate and nuanced. Kennedy was a white guy saying, “my race has oppressed you. Help me and I’ll make them stop. ” Not that tough a message to hear from a white man–it was just a matter of believability. Obama must say, “I’m a black man who has achieved things you can only dream of. Nobody has oppressed you particularly, but the country in which you have placed such faith has let you down. You’ve been conned. Help me and I’ll gain back some of your dignity and security.” A much tougher message, but the only one which–while having the added benefit of being truthful–can break through. And break through it must.
Despite their differences, Obama can copy Kennedy *exactly* in the following and most important regard. Kennedy used his passion to focus on and engage the people who would take him to victory, to the exclusion of a bunch of other groups he was advised to mollify. Now Obama must do the same. He has connected very effectively with people who are black (too many of whom qualify too easily as People with Problems), and with those who are relatively untroubled in a troubled time. He’s good with Wall Street; ridiculously solid with Silicon Valley and Hollywood; darling of New York media types; a god on college campuses. Most incredibly, millions of people who likely fit none of these categories have come to Obama’s aid with smallish campaign contributions. *All* of these people doubtless have problems. But their lives are good enough that they can carve out space in their brains and psyches to whistle along with Obama’s hopeful tune.
White People with Problems in the FSS are a different story. These are people who must be told directly and convincingly that their situation is important to the government before they can engage in talk of hope. These are people who are unemployed and untrained. People who are hungry and can’t bear to admit it. People who are scared to death of losing their benefits, and who already can’t afford their health care expenses. People who want their children to be proud of them–and doubt that they are.
How to reach People with Problems in the FSS? Other than spending a disproportionate amount of time there, Obama should:
-Focus essentially all of his message in the industrial Midwest on the economy, broadly speaking. But he should do so, as Rothenberg suggests, at a level that seeks to *empathize*–to recognize the depth of the yogurt–not to offer short term fixes. For example, not nearly enough has been said about the pension disaster about to befall the employees and retirees of the big auto companies. Ask a 55 year old GM employee if he gives a shit about a jobs program, when all he cares about is his pension giving him the ability to *quit* his job–something he thought was part of the bargain all along.
-Be not at all shy in saying that this is the worst economic situation faced by the nation in 40 years. Most People with Problems don’t want to abdicate entirely the responsibility for their plights. But they will gain comfort being told what they alaready know: the road is steep and the wind stiff.
-Appoint his treasury secretary–or economic czar– *now.* Whoever it is must be an effective campaigner, with serious gravitas. Tom Friedman suggests that the VP choice be economically driven. I don’t think Obama should waste that much time.
-Have the shadow secretary recruit and be in charge of a truly world-class group of surrogates. By this I don’t mean a bunch of pointy headed economists (Austin Goolsby, the poor guy, is the only person in the Obama who has a name which is almost as bad for politics as the candidates). Presumably there are recognizable current and former executives and even some legislators who have sufficient facility in economic matters to be useful.
-Impose Rove-like message discipline on these people, plant them in the Industrial Midwest, and take away their photo id’s. Every day a different issue: energy, trade, taxes, etc. Every day the same message: the working class is in deep shit, we know it, and we plan to focus on doing something about it.
There is no need for Barack Obama to tack in any direction. This is his election if he can combine his natural gifts with the geograpic and message focus that served the Bush campaign so well. Obama’s ability to connect with people–and to connect them to a higher purpose–is what has “brung” him this far. If he is to be our next President, he must connect to people who–at least for the time being–recognize no higher purpose than their own economic survival.