I had a sudden revelation this week: Barack Obama has out-campaigned the Clintons.
Think about that for a moment.
Whatever negative feelings some people have about Bill and Hillary Clinton, few would deny that they've been the best political animals the Democratic Party has produced since at least John F. Kennedy. You may not like their economic policies, Bill's bimbos, or Hillary's vote for the war, but they have been great at what they do.
And, up to this point in the 2008 election process, Barack Obama has outplayed them at the game in which they were considered champions.
1. He has raised more money.
2. He has out-organized them on the ground, winning almost all of the caucus states, most by huge margins.
3. He has used new technologies more effectively.
4. He has overcome a seemingly unbeatable political brand name.
5. He has done better at understanding the mood of the nation: "A Change You Can Believe In" tapping into what people want now more than "Ready from Day One."
6. He has generated more enthusiasm among his supporters and the media, despite going up against one of the most charismatic figures in Democratic poliitics in Bill Clinton.
7. He has out-gained them in elected delegates, number of states won, and the overall popular vote.
There's still a long way to go in the primaries, but what Obama has managed to do up to this point is impressive on several levels.
Like other people, I've been concerned about Obama's lack of experience, and harbored some doubt about how competent he might be as president. There's still a lot of The Unknown involved in imagining an Obama presidency, but I will say that I feel better today than I did a few months ago, or even at the start of the week. In particular, I'm impressed by his ability to organize and manage a complex campaign - and to do so successfully against highly skilled adversaries.
Mark Halperin touched upon the topic this week at his Time magazine blog, The Page. What made Halperin's observations even more interesting to me was knowing how much he respects Bill and Hillary Clinton as brilliant political players.
A few months ago, I read his book (with John Harris, of the Washington Post), The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008. He and Harris analyze the mistakes of the Gore and Kerry campaigns (and there were many). Then they show how Karl Rove and the Clintons have been so successful running political campaigns in the midst of "The Freak Show," the treacherous minefield of mainstream media, cable TV, talk radio, blogs, etc.
The entire last section of the book is dedicated to Hillary Clinton alone, not including the chapters on Bill and her together. Halperin says of Hillary, "No other figure in public life knows more of the Trade Secrets required to tame the Freak Show and limit its ability to destroy reputations." One of the chapters is entitled, "Mastering the Senate, and the Freak Show." He raves about her campaign for the Senate in 2000. After building her up over six chapters, Halperin concludes by saying, "[S]he will be a formidable candidate, with significant advantages over every other plausible Democratic candidate, and over every plausible Republican candidate, with the exception of John McCain."
He lists six assets at her disposal:
1. Fund-raising ability
2. Name recognition
3. Being the Only Woman in the Race
4. Having the Best Political Strategist in the Democratic Party (Bill)
5. Knowing the Trade Secrets of Bill and Karl Rove.
6. Being a Freak Show Veteran
That's why Halperin's column this week, Sixteen Underappreciated Obama Advantages, made such an impression:
Obama’s February momentum, favorable press coverage, surging delegate totals, immunity from “Obama Fatigue” (particularly when compared with the unexpected, intense levels of Clinton Fatigue and Clinton animus within the Democratic Party), and still-viable donors are getting a lot of attention, but what else does he have going for him (that campaign watchers are not appreciating to the fullest)?I don't know what's going to happen in Democratic primaries. Tuesday's vote in Wisconsin seems pivotal to me. If Obama Wins, I think he will be our next president. (Yeah, I know, a big prediction.) But if Hillary manges to win, and it's a very close race, Obama will lose most of his momentum, with two weeks of press coverage to remind everyone of that fact, before heading into Texas and Ohio, two states where he could not do that well. If Clinton wins Wisconsin, this could easily turn into a bloody battle all the way to the convention. And I fear the worst for the party should that be the case.
1. A clear, consistent, constant message frame — change — that is patently inspirational and plays most favorably in the current media and electoral environments.
2. A strategic vision of how to win that hasn’t changed since day one – almost exactly a year ago.
3. The ability to arouse unqualified pride, excitement, and righteousness in his supporters (new voters, old voters, and superdelegates alike), who enjoy feeling fashionably forward-looking and passionate about politics.
4. A coalition no one has ever put together before in a Democratic nomination fight – the most loyal Democrats (blacks) and the least loyal ones (Volvo suburbanites).
5. A candidate with the skill to both write and deliver moving, eloquent, historic-feeling and momentum-inducing speeches at pivotal moments (victory speeches, major rallies, crucial battlegrounds).
6. A tight-knit staff that never fights with each other publicly and rarely in private – who respect and like each other.
7. No single, dominant strategic thinker who sets the campaign agenda, inspires eye-rolling and resentment among colleagues, and whose decisions are second-guessed.
8. A candidate who trusts his staff — and never wonders if they are working hard enough on his behalf, or questions their devotion.
9. A candidate with an uncanny natural sense — rare in someone so new to national politics — of timing, pacing, rhythm, and tone.
10. A candidate who generally has fun on the campaign trail — and shows it (even when he is tired).
11. Less bureaucracy.
12. The ability to control most leaks, and roll out endorsements and other announcements on the campaign’s own terms.
13. The ability to raise millions without requiring precious time from the candidate.
14. True grassroots organizing, often without direction from headquarters — both on the Internet and in real life (including canvassing and “visibility” activities).
15. A home base in Illinois–there are far fewer political distractions in Chicago than in Washington.
16. An electorate that seems oddly indifferent to conventional norms of preparedness for the job of commander-in-chief — and which appears even more indifferent to the existence (or absence) of detailed policy prescriptions despite the grave problems confronting the nation.
But whatever happens from here on out, I think Barack Obama has done something incredible. Anyone who can out-duel the Clintons has some pretty serious political chops. He's going to be a force for some time to come.
P.S. A Texan's style endorsement: The guy actually looks good in a cowboy hat. No small matter.