With about 60 days to go before the general election, the US Presidential race is officially on.
We have the prospect of history before us. We will elect either the first Black President or else the first female Vice President. Attention to the race is heightened after two straight weeks of political conventions, high profile appearances and speeches.
According to the TV bean counters, ratings for John McCain and Sarah Palin’s speeches matched or even exceeded those of Barack Obama and Joe Biden the week before. 40 million viewers in prime time. That’s more than the audience for the David Cook/Little David Archuleta showdown on American Idol in May, and more than those who witnessed Daniel Day-Lewis cop an Oscar in February. America, not only are you really into this election, but you have made these people very famous.
And that’s a major thing here: recognition. For a lot of people who may know next to nothing about American politics, John McCain is simply better known than Obama. That’s a fact. Obama has done a lot in these past 19 months to make himself more known, but the fact that he is still “definable” –i.e., the popular perception that we don’t know about him and that he is still an enigma. This may or may not include the fact that voters are uneasy about electing a Black man or that they harbor any racial attitudes.
With John McCain there is transparency, and his surface strength is also a source of comfort to a lot of people. You know he is a conservative; you know he’s a Vietnam war hero; you have seen him in the Senate for the past couple of decades. He may not remember how many houses he has, but you know what? He’s rich and old. That we know for sure.
This vacuum argument —the idea that we build perceptions about these candidates based on surface level information that is available—carries merit when you figure that much of the American public is simply uninformed about major issues, and thus do not feel compelled to be equipped with this knowledge. Most voters simply don’t get together and compare the health care plans of McCain versus Obama in any thoughtful way. They vote on how they feel about someone, and how they come across. Whether this is an admirable way of choosing a President is another matter.
Both McCain and Obama realize all too well that they have to sell their images to be capable leaders. Palin has had an intense baptism by fire in the last 10 days in fact. Because we knew so little about her, any bit of information that we gleaned was magnified so much more. She likes guns? She shot a bear? What? She has a 17-year old daughter who’s pregnant, despite her own abstinence-only views? Can she deliver a speech? Wow! What a killer, slice and dice speech! And she looks like a friendly librarian! She’s kinda hot. Yes, indeed, we have gotten all this from her, but we have neither the incentive nor will to dig a little deeper. Why should we? She belongs to McCain and the Republican ticket.
With Labor Day come and gone, it will be an intensive fight between now and November 4.
Here are some tips for both candidates so they can try to trip the other guy along the way and make him fall on his proverbial ass. It has to be a fight. These guys have to start the swinging and slinging right away. I can’t wait.
Top 5 Ways Obama Can Make McCain Lose that Shit-Eating Grin:
1. Hello! It’s the Economy!
Looked at the headlines lately? Unemployment at 6.1%, the government takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mac, high food and gas prices, when does this stop? And how can the Republicans not mention any of this in their speeches last week? How is it that when Democrats talk about the real issues voters are concerned about, they call it “gloom and doom”? Barack, drive home this message each and every day. Connect more and more with the middle class because it’s the one that is suffering the most, and the one whose socio-economic status is most at risk. Those swing states have plenty of them, and their individual unemployment figures (Michigan, et.al.) are even higher than the national average. Stay on message and claim the issue that makes the Republicans most uncomfortable. It’s about the real issues that allow Americans to struggle to pay their bills, barely live paycheck to paycheck, almost lose their house, etc. You used to be able to make this connection but you have to show voters that yours is the party of empathy, and one of solutions. Do not get sidetracked or, worse, appear to pay lip service on this issue. Get your advisers out there, too, and get them to spell out exactly what your administration will do.
2. Mend Those Fences Now
Your convention went pretty well. It was supposed to. It’s the Republicans who had more to prove with McCain’s VP pick and they emerged spectacularly. And they’re arguably more unified. You need to figure out just why there is a group that formed at your convention –the PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass). Don’t mess with them. They’re old Hillary supporters who, despite Hillary’s fine speech, still don’t trust you much. They’re the kind of people who need constant reinforcement from you that you’re not going to abandon them. It would be delusional for them to think that a Sarah Palin pick is a gift from heaven to them –just because McCain chose a woman when the Democrats would not. That just shows how mad they are. Don’t assume they’re on your side. And it doesn’t help when they say they may not vote altogether. For party unity, you need everyone under your tent. You need to put the Clintons out there in force each day to make these reassurances. Ditto those analysts Paul Begala and James Carville, the feckless duo who go on CNN and show vague support for you, and then step back and think of what could have been had Hillary gone up. You saw a Republican party firmly packed and united in their allegiance. Looks good. You need to bring all your grumpy people together and understand what is at stake here once and for all. And if you need to, do all this talking yourself. You’re a proven uniter; this is what you’re famous for.
3. Get Your Story Out Once and For All
The worst thing a candidate can ever do is allow the other side to define him or her. This is only made worse when you don’t talk too much about yourself. That biography video before your speech helped, and so did your wife’s more humanizing speech about how she and you met. Made you seem a little dorky and less wonky. Good. Get that side of you out. Don’t appear so scripted. Don’t make it seem that each and every word has been written by Axelrod and Plouffe or that you deliberate over each word so that it resonates on the New York Times front page. Get that bio video out everywhere, put it out there so we can all see it repeatedly. Talk more casually about yourself and take this approach: How did you get here? How do you understand middle class issues? Whatever happened to class issues and what’s wrong with insisting on this as we all struggle to find our place in this society? At this point, Barack, you won’t risk overexposure. We need to see you because we just (still) don’t know enough about you. The more we know, the more we see what is at stake, instead of simply and vaguely glossing over what you and Biden will bring to the next several years. And for heavens sake, if McCain and Palin lob some nasty shots at you and call you names, grow a pair and respond swiftly and strenuously. But don’t reduce yourselves to slinging mud.
4. Take Ownership of the Experience Issue
This issue is getting way out of hand. To actually have McCain minions say that Sarah Palin has more experience than Obama and Biden combined? Huh? A 44-year-old who three years ago was the mayor of Wasilla, AK, population 9,000? She is supposed to have executive experience by mere virtue that she has been Governor of a state that has a population less than the size of San Francisco. How does the McCain camp possibly make this outrageous claim and give it some legs? Because you haven’t been out front on this issue, and when you have, you have been on the defensive, as if to make it seem that you have to constantly explain yourself. You have been running a fairly seamless campaign for the past 19 months.
That means something. You head one impressive, well-organized machine, and how you manage this issue is in itself an indication of what sensibilities you have as a leader.
5. Focus on the Swing States
You’ll be frustrated to know that in the past 10 days or so, more states have become more “battleground” than before. Add Missouri to the mix that already had Virginia and Michigan. Colorado? It could be there one day as well. Do nothing but focus your efforts and those of your surrogates here. Poll these states daily. You have to work on getting the undecided here, and older populations on your side. The Democratic vote here in some of the states are not all that ready to support you, so you need to spell out what it is that will help them select you as their candidate. The “safe” states of Massachusetts and Oregon or Washington? Best to leave those to others. You almost need to live in West Virginia every day.
Top 5 Ways McCain Can Make Obama Nervous and Start Smoking Again:
1. Co-opt Obama’s Change Message
You have pretty much erased whatever “I am the agent of change” message that Obama has preached for the past several months in his campaign. You have done so because you caught the Democrats off guard, and then you disarmingly chose a disarming and formidable female running mate. That’s the change. That’s the change you have somehow convinced a lot of voters about –no matter what is the substance of her (or your views). You put this woman out there when the greybeards in your party expected some other greybeard to be beside you. You can picture her as an outsider, just like you, and you say effectively that you can’t wait for Washington to meet someone whose platform seems to have been to be a reformer. That resonates with a lot of people who don’t trust Congress to be an effective organ any longer. Keep it up and suddenly people will forget that Obama was even about change.
2. Get on the Right Side in Iraq
The President today announced a troop reduction from Iraq, to slowly take place soon. This confirms what both the Secretary of State and Defense have announced recently as well. Go ahead and applaud this, even if you have announced that you were in favor of the surge. The gradual reduction need not be a contradiction in terms. Instead, reason that it was in Iraq’s interest all along to begin to take control of its own governance, and that that was one objective behind the troop surge. Therefore, be on the side of this wave, and show that you were right from the start. Show that Obama was wrong before and is only coming round to accept the fact that the surge seems to have worked. Exploit this duality, and play up the fact that Democrats may not necessarily have the foresight to see through their knee-jerk hostility to any increase in military presence. Then again, voters don’t tend to trust Democrats as much as Republicans on matters of foreign policy and defense. This would be true especially now, for reasons that are clear. Iraq needs some kind of eventual finality. We will not be there forever, and it’s helpful to delineate what the path to democracy would be.
3. Control Each and Every Sarah Palin Move But Don’t Overdo It
You were with Palin yesterday in Albuquerque having a Mexican brunch. You kept her close to you as cheering crowds came up to you both. Today, unprecedented crowds showed up in Kansas City because of her. She went up on stage again, hair tied in a bun, and proceeded to talk more about her time as governor. She is an asset to you in this moment. She galvanizes the conservative base, she does a lot of the talking about big government and tax and spend liberals, plus she’s energetic. She appears to be on message. Yet she still needs seasoning –in the ways of being a vice-presidential candidate who one day could step in once you, well, croak. She needs to be schooled in the ways of foreign and domestic policy. One day she could be sitting in daily national security meetings in the Oval Office so it’s high time you sit her down with a Dick Lugar or a Lindsay Graham to brief her. She’s a quick learner. Next Thursday she has her first TV interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC News. Give her talking points but don’t muzzle her. The last thing you and your handlers want to do is overscript her because she appears not to really need one. But she has to be consistent and stay on message. Any departure from this or any extemporaneous remarks that she will have to come back and explain won’t be good. But she seems to be polished thus far, and a “real” example to women of aspiring to high elective office all while taking care of five kids.
4. Lose the Formality
Like Palin, you need to play to your strengths and not allow yourself to be stuffy. Stop wearing the suits (really). They make you uncomfortable. They literally straight-jacket you and make you lose direction. You are much freer in movement and in spirit when you have a long sleeve open collar shirt and khakis. When you look uncomfortable, we feel your pain and it makes whatever message you’re sending distracting. I think you’ll like this suggestion because it also makes you more approachable and friendlier. What you want to avoid is dark suits when you are speaking in public. Do not feel that you have to struggle with the multiple teleprompters; they are not your friend. You are best when you can appear to be off the cuff, even a little cranky. You have earned the moniker of “maverick” because you don’t like to be told what to do. Tell Rick Davis to not worry so much about molding you in front of a camera. Be natural and a little coarse. Jesus, you’re 72 years old, so you should know how to speak your own mind by now.
5. Resist the Urge to Go Negative
One of the few bright lights in your acceptance speech in St.Paul was your appeal to unity, in reaching “across the aisle”, of depicting a nation that has to give more of itself –building communities, national service, etc. Jeez, you’re sounding like Obama. But these are bipartisan values, and the patriotic tone you evoked was very effective. It’s important that you tout those issues that bring the country together and not allow issues to polarize the electorate. Voters will see you as a healer of sorts, as someone who feels a sense of urgency to mend a very divided America. Your speeches lately have done this. You do not need to attack Obama personally. If he doesn’t stay on message constantly and respond to you strongly, then the burden will fall on him to act. You also don’t need to sic surrogates to do the dirty work for you personally. Keep it above board when they are from your campaign. You don’t need to control Rush, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly; they have their audiences to satisfy. Negativity –and how voters respond to it—seems to have caused the demotion of those windbags Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann. They won’t be around as much to attack you as “Bush Lite”. Therefore, there’s no need to go for the petty attacks. Remember there are a lot of people who expect you to blow up like a volcano. Resist the urge and stay on an even keel, with a clear message that you focus on.