The race has changed, now what? All reports indicate that the Obama camp is rife with confusion about where they stand in the face of the meteoric rise of Sarah Palin and John McCain’s ability to bring the Republican Party together. Neither one was remotely anticipated. This is more than a bump. I think Obama needs to recognize that the tide has decisively turned in McCain’s favor. Palin is shooting down the turnpike, and unless Obama puts up a big hand to stop her, McCain is going to ride her coattails to the White House. The tire is deflating on the Democrats, and once enthusiastic supporters are becoming disheartened.
Right now, complacency is the enemy. The Democratic leadership in the House and Senate have been quiescent for more than a year, on the assumption that letting George Bush hang himself would be enough. It wasn’t, and as a result public disapproval of Congress is as high or higher, than disapproval of the President. Obama can’t afford to rest on his past message. Right-thinking Democrats view Palin as absurd and obnoxious, but she isn’t going to hang herself, anymore than Bush did. Kerry showed himself to be sorely lacking at just this juncture in the 2004 campaign. He had every reason to win, but he didn’t find the means to turn those reasons into a win. He wasn’t alert and flexible in the face of change, and he acted like Gentleman Jim in the face of Swift-boating instead of fighting back with honest outrage.
McCain made two brilliant changes at the convention. He energized the radical right, knowing that he couldn’t win without them. Palin isn’t a joke to a sizable swath of the electorate; she’s a champ. Second, he pretended to repudiate Republican corruption, in essence slapping the party in the face. Everyone with an ounce of sense knows that they deserved it, so in one stroke McCain appeared more honest; he signalled that integrity trumped party loyalty. Independents liked that, and now they are trending toward him.
From the beginning, Obama has had two prongs to his campaign strategy. The first was change, the second was throwing out the scoundrels. McCain has undercut both quite effectively. Therefore, Obama is unlikely to win by repeating the same message, that McCain is basically a third term for Bush, since Independents don’t yet trust Obama to be their alternative to Bush. Obama has to be as flexible in his message as McCain has been.
He needs to show genuine outrage at the Republican smear campaign and call McCain to task personally for allowing it.
He has to unleash a woman like Hillary Clinton to attack Palin as a huge step backward for women. The Hillary camp needs a strong motivation to back Obama, not a grudging one.
He or Joe Biden must forcefully make Palin look extremist.
He needs to run on more than vague optimism. I don’t think that means handing out policy statements, which are as bloodless as planks in the party platform. It means more emotion and visceral opposition to everything Bush stands for.
The bottom line is that for America to turn the page, Obama has to turn the page on his campaign first. As a general call to the troops, asking for change worked in the primaries; it woke people up. But Hillary Clinton’s momentum in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia showed that a more visceral appeal was needed, and will work. At this moment McCain looks plausibly like a change candidate, and so Obama must fight against him and look like he’s fighting. The essential problem which runs deep, is that Republicans operate on the assumption that Democrats will lose, while Democrats operate on the fear that Republicans can’t be beaten. That has to turn around or we will be handed a self-fulfilling prophecy in November.
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