Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Sam Smith

Stop talking like them. As Harry Truman said, "Give the people a choice between a Republican and a Democrat who talks like a Republican and they'll choose the Republican every time." Ever since closet conservative Bill Clinton conned his party into thinking that his narrow 1992 win thanks to Ross Perot 19% of the vote was some sort of triumph, the Democrats have been under the illusion that the way to win is to play Republican. It hasn't worked. Since then the number of Democratic governors, senators, representatives and state legislators have declined markedly. The biggest Democratic margins - under FDR and LBJ - have occurred when there was not the slightest doubt what Democrats were and what they were going to do for you.

Answer the important question: There were only two really important questions in politics: what have you done for me lately and what are you going to do for me? There is no major candidate running who can give a good answer to the first question but there is no reason why Obama can't give a better answer to the second than he has so far. The answer needs to be not grandiose and abstract - like $150 billion for alternative energy over the next decade - but specific and personally appealing and without a lot of ideological baggage:

Here are a few examples:

- Add to the Obama healthcare plan that nobody can really understand this simple proposal: lower the age of Medicare from 65 to 60. There are ten million people who will like this. If you want to try for more, add Medicare for children from birth to five and when the Republicans oppose it, just say that Democrats, unlike the GOP, don't believe that the sanctity of life ends when a baby leaves the birth canal. Where's the money going to come from? Well, we're getting out of Iraq aren't we?

- Come up with a major plan to revive passenger trains in America with particular emphasis on places that are currently short changed (like a lot of red states). Biden, the DC-Delaware Amtrak commuter, is the perfect guy to push this. Most people don't know much about solar collectors or wind farms, but they do know about trains and could easily appreciate how they could make moving things and people cheaper.
- Attack credit card usury. Sure, Biden is the Man from Mastercard but if he's vice president he won't need them so much. No issue would be more easily supported by more people than a proposal to return credit card interest rates to their 1980s single digit levels.

- Help homeowners rather than just lenders. Stunningly ignored in all the talk about the Fannie and Freddy bailout is that it grossly favors lenders over borrowers. If we can have socialism for the biggest and the richest, let's have it for the little ones as well. One plan: shared equity in which the feds help qualified first time homeowners and those facing foreclosure by taking over some of their house equity. You can reasonably bet that a decade from now the government would do better financially with such a plan than with lemon socialism for the big guys.

- Reduce National Guard exposure to overseas adventures. The abuse of the country's state militias in recent decades has been astounding. In Vietnam, for example, only 23,000 were called up but by the first American Iraq invasion, the number soared to 75,000. More than 270,000 National Guard troops taken part in George Bush's escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan, more elsewhere. one. Many have had their service extended beyond the original twelve months and many are subjected to double tours. Among other things, the foreign abuse of the National Guard reduces reenlistment and while the numbers directly affected is not that large, when you add in families, friends, fellow parishioners and co-workers who learn of the disruption being caused by the use of National Guard by politicians as political toy soldiers, it becomes a significant issue.

Speak United States - Obama needs to get out of the pulpit and give voters more than a crowd handshake. Speaking to 75,000 of the fully converted doesn't amount to much when you compare it with the number of undecided voters. Obama efforts often come off as haughty and above it all. He needs to stop talking so much and start listening more, to stop preaching and start chatting. He needs to toss around more basketballs and fewer bromides.

Get real. Perhaps by now Obama has learned that those of who live by spin can also die by it. His relatively benign con of the conventional parading as special and superior worked fine for the primaries but almost instantly deflated. One reason was even noted by Obama: the GOP is far better at campaigning than at governing. One reason for this: they are much more willing to lie. Watching the GOP convention was like being at a talent show of a mental institution. The theatrics were great but much was based on psychopathic, hypocritical and dishonest rhetoric. If you are going to try to outspin them without being a crook you're probably going to lose. The alternative is to keep steering the public back to reality such as constantly asking the question Ronald Reagan raised: are you better off than you were eight years ago? And Obama needs to dump the hope thing unless he starts giving specific reasons for the hope.

Forget law school - From the start, the image some of us got of Obama was not primarily that of a black man but of a law school graduate. One of the major problems with this is that lawyers can drain the life out of any topic and Obama has well developed this questionable skill. He tries to come across as thoughtful and balanced; instead too often his lawyerly equivocation raises concerns rather than answering them. This is not his problem alone. It is part of the culture of Washington which has been overwhelmed by the culture of lawyers, so much so it is highly like that Social Security, a minimum wage or Medicare could never be passed today. Washington's political lawyers would find too much wrong with them.

Give David Axelrod some help - As Mark Cunningham noted in the NY Post, neither Obama nor his campaign guru have much experience dealing with real GOP opposition: "Barack Obama has never run a campaign against a real Republican. And his main strategist, David Axelrod, is way out of his areas of expertise. Axelrod specializes in urban politics. He's run a bunch of mayoral races (usually in cities with lots of blacks), plus contests in true-blue states like Massachusetts and New York. . . Obama has lived a lot of places, but his adult life has been overwhelming anti-Palin country - urban and/or elite: here in New York as a Columbia undergrad, and later with NYPIRG; Cambridge, Mass., for Harvard; Chicago." Obama desperately needs some James Carville types to help him learn how to deal politicallyt and rhetorically with much of America.

Don't blame voters for the ethnic divide; cross it - Sure there's a lot of racism in America but most of it was already locked up for McCain long ago. And liberals do themselves no service by confusing the normal hesitancy of ethnic unfamiliarity with racism, implicitly blaming the very voters they're trying to reach. Black politicians have a particularly hard time because they have so long operated in the comfort of places with large black constituencies. It is amazing how few models of cross-ethnic black pols (Doug Wilder is a rare exception) that Obama has.

It is, however, a skill that Obama has to learn fast. Among the best models are the old Irish politicians who instinctively understood that the only way a minority could truly win was by leading the majority and to do that you had to turn one's own ethnicity into something everyone could share and enjoy. This is why since Martin Luther King Jr, the African-American figures who have been among the best at reaching into white culture have been black comedians.

Similarly, political scientist Milton L. Rakove, credits Irish dominance in Chicago partially to the fact that the Irish ran saloons that "became centers of social and political activity not only for the Irish but also for the Polish, Lithuanian, Bohemian and Italian immigrants. . . As a consequence of their control of these recreational centers of the neighborhoods, the Irish saloon keepers and bartenders became the political counselors of their customers, and the political bosses of the wards and, eventually, of the city." As one politician put it, "A Lithuanian won't vote for a Pole, and a Pole won't vote for a Lithuanian. A German won't vote for either of them -- but all three will vote for an Irishman."

Obama needs to act more like an old Irish pol or a black comedian.

Don't raise McCain and Palin's status; lower it - Abused Democratic candidates have a tendency to unintentionally increase their opponents status by the ponderousity of their outrage. The alternative is to steadily, gently and with humor lower that status by helping voters to not take them so seriously. One of the best examples of this was Earl Long when he ran against Fred Preaus, a church deacon, head of the chamber of commerce and a scrupulously honest car dealer. Earl would combat these virtues by saying: "Fred Preaus is an honest man. If I were buying a Ford car, I'd buy it from Fred Preaus. He would give me a good deal. If I had trouble with the car, he'd give me a loaner while he got it fixed -- that's just the kind of man he is. But if I was buying two Fords -- well, he's just not big enough to handle a deal that size."

Obama needs to make people understand what size deal McCain and Palin could truly handle which, at best, is somewhere between one and two Fords.