Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Where It Stands
I think the smallness of this year's presidential campaign has been thrown into sharp relief by the big, terrifying events of the last few weeks, from two hurricanes in the Gulf Coast to the crisis in the economy. John McCain took a lead in national polls and projections such as and by winning a string of "news cycles" that centered around Sarah Palin; the choice of Palin fired up Republican base voters previously cool to McCain, closing if not erasing the enthusiasm gap between the two campaigns, and rekindled the culture wars around the question of Palin's readiness and suitability for the presidency.

(For that matter, it occurred to me today that the much remarked-upon change of media hearts and minds regarding McCain, long a hero of the national press, probably helps bond the Christianist, Bush-approving base to the Republican nominee that much more strongly: those people might hate the press even more than they hate non-famous "elites.")

What some are suggesting is a nascent trend back toward Obama in the polls probably reflects a change in attention back toward the economy, where the Democrats have an advantage simply by virtue of being less affiliated with the deregulatory and wealth-concentrating excesses of this decade. That McCain has a tendency to fire repeatedly at his own feet when it comes to economic issues plays a part too. But Obama hasn't yet sealed the deal with the voters he'll need to win states like Ohio, Colorado and Virginia--the working-class and middle-class whites who voted for Bill Clinton in the '90s and, those who were Democrats, tended to favor his wife last winter and spring.

William Galston at the Democratic Strategist has some advice for how he can do this: focus like a laser on articulating, and then repeating and repeating and repeating, a clear message on the economy. Addressing the candidate directly, he writes:

When I say you have no message, here's what I mean:

First, you are not offering a coherent account of what has gone wrong with the economy - why it is no longer working for average families. People are anxious and bewildered; they want to know why jobs are disappearing, why incomes are stagnating, and why prices are soaring. If you don't offer an explanation, McCain's will carry the day by default: the problem is the corrupt, self-interested politicians in Washington; the solution is getting them - and government in general - out of the way.

Second: you are not offering a focused, parsimonious list of remedies for the economic ills you cite. As a result, few if any voters can actually cite a single signature economic proposal you have made. It's not that you don't have ideas. If anything, you have too many. At some point, more becomes less, and you are well beyond that point. You need to decide which three or four economic proposals are most important and repeat them relentlessly for the next seven weeks.

Your campaign already contains everything you need to do this. You could offer a focused economic message with four elements: rebuilding the United States, with an infrastructure bank, generating millions of good jobs that can't be outsourced; creating millions more jobs by leading the world in environmental innovation; significantly reducing the tax burden on average families; and offering health insurance to everyone at a price they can afford. If you say that about your economic plan - and nothing else - from now until November, there's a good chance your message will get through.

Third: you are not drawing crisp, punchy contrasts between your plans and McCain's. An example: the centerpiece of his health care plan is the taxation of employer-provided health care benefits. Pound away at that, and let him explain why throwing workers into the individual health insurance market unprotected is such a wonderful idea. And by the way, while your plan would increase coverage, his would do the opposite. Is that the change Americans want?

I agree that this is a great strategy for winning the election. It puts McCain on the defensive, on his weakest terrain--remembering that this is the guy who turns to Phil "Nation of Whiners" Gramm for economic advice, and has admitted that he's not a master of the subject.

Unfortunately, Obama is nowhere near as comfortable with economic issues as Bill Clinton (who probably could roll up 400 electoral votes if he were running this year) was. To which Galston, a former Clinton adviser, says: tough. "Three months ago, when you were riding high, the McCain campaign was flat on its back. But give McCain credit: when he was told that to win he had to change, he did. He focused, and he accepted a kind of discipline that he had previously resisted. Now it's your turn."

But while carrying off this strategy probably will win Obama the election--so long as the economy remains on the front burner, at least--it's not going to advance the basic philosophical concept I think will be key in addressing the issues of the next twenty years: reversing the Reagan-era truism that "government is not the solution; government is the problem." Even the focused, politically effective economic message Galston details implies a newly assertive role for the federal government-- the infrastructure bank, investing in "environmental innovation," healthcare provision, and so on--as does the tough talk Obama has offered on new regulations to ward against the sort of irresponsibility in financial markets that led to the bailouts announced this week. If he can get 51 percent of the public to buy into it--or reach the conclusion that McCain's more-of-same message represents something much worse--that's fine. But the entrenched opposition to that sort of larger public role won't be swept away by a squeaker victory, and as this excellent analysis by Rick Perlstein observes, such wins--and the sort of cautious approach Obama has advanced through most of the campaign--don't bode well for dramatic progressive advances. One could argue that he's already squandered the opportunity to really change the conversation.

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