Sunday, February 17, 2008

Obama the Campaigner

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)?

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.

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.

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.


Jeff said...

There's many a slip between the cup and the lip. I don't think Clinton can be counted out quite yet. Wisconsin is key, as you say, and it will be interesting to see what happens in rust-belt, lunch-bucket Ohio, and among hispanics in Texas.

I'd be tougher on the way the Clintons have run this campaign and their fund-raising, but I think it's true that they honestly didn't plan on being in this position at this stage of the game by a long shot. It will be interesting to see if they can adjust, but it sounds like they are in disarray, with lots of finger-pointing and infighting.

For all of their vaunted strengths, I think the Clintons are NOT very good at organization. It always seems to be a "Perils of Pauline", last minute, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants kind of thing with them, with all kinds of entourage and hangers-on getting into the act. Most of the time they manage to pull it together by sheer force of will.

Plus, I think HE hurt her BIG time, coming out of New Hampshire. It was unneccesary for him to go so negative at that point, and he cost her dearly, just when she had seized the momentum back. He seems to know it now too. For all his savvy, I don't know what he was thinking, or even if he was thinking.

Good points about Obama being the same guy since day one. One of the things that so impresses me about him is his temperament. A lesser man really would have been rattled and intimidated, but he never lost his temper or his cool. I was very impressed and it boosted my confidence in him.

He does look good in that Cowboy hat.

crystal said...

I haven't totally given up hope for Hillary and still think she'd make a better president (wrote crystal, minority of one) :-)

Liam said...

There was an article in the Times about Obama and the question of race that had a couple of interesting points to it. Apparently at the beginning Obama was not interested in the race issue at the beginning. When it became obvious that he couldn't ignore, he seems to have approached the question with great finesse. He got Al Sharpton to support him but not to insert himself into the campaign. That's a subtle and capable hand, if you ask me.

cowboyangel said...


I wasn't trying to count out Clinton. Perhaps I didn't make myself clear enough. I'm not sure what's going to happen. But even if Hillary were to wind up as the nominee, I still think what Obama has achieved is pretty impressive. And more than that, the way he's done it.

I could've been tougher on the Clinton campaign, pointing out several flaws, but I was more interested in looking at Obama's accomplishments and what they might say about his ability to govern. To me, the biggest flaw of the Clinton campaign has been arrogance and a feeling of entitlement. A mindset,I would add, not unlike that of the Bush/Cheney administration.

But I agree that if Obama pulls off the nomination, the reputations of the Clintons as brilliant political players will be greatly reduced. Especially that of Bill.

Plus, I think HE hurt her BIG time, coming out of New Hampshire.

At least one of Hillary's super-delegates agrees with you:

A Clinton superdelegate who served in Bill Clinton's administration said the former president "has screwed this thing up for her big-time. They need to send him out of the country for a long, long time. I am angry at Bill Clinton and I think there are other Hillary people who are angry at Bill, who felt that she was running a very good, solid campaign - she wasn't the exciting one, but she was the solid one - and then he came in and made it nasty, and single-handedly pushed away black voters."

cowboyangel said...


There's no reason to give up on Clinton right now. I wasn't try to say she was done in this race. Simply trying to point out how well Obama has campaigned against two people considered to be the best at the business in the Democratic Party. If she wins Wisconsin, and I think she could, she will probably have the advantage over Obama.


He got Al Sharpton to support him but not to insert himself into the campaign. That's a subtle and capable hand, if you ask me.

You're too reserved in your praise. that's an amazing accomplishment in and of itself. I didn't think that would even be a possibility. The trick, should Obama go on to the general election, will be keeping Sharpton quiet and out of sight.

Thanks for the link.

cowboyangel said...

Oh boy, more evidence that the Clinton camp may not be the brilliant strategists we've been led to believe they were:

According to a Washington Post article today, the Clinton crew was surprised this month to discover the complex nature of the Texas Prima-caucus and how it might adversely affect Hillary.

Part of the Daily Dish response:

"Good lord, let’s see if I have this right. The Clinton campaign decides to cede every post-Super Tuesday state to Obama under the theory that Texas and Ohio will be strong firewalls. After – after – implementing this Rudy-esque strategy, they “discovered” that the archaic Texas rules will almost certainly result in a split delegate count (at best).

While they were busy “discovering” the rules, however, the Obama campaign had people on the ground in Texas explaining the system, organizing precincts, and making Powerpoints. I know because I went to one of these meetings a week ago. I should have invited Mark Penn I suppose.

cowboyangel said...

And The New Republic chimes in one the same story:

You know, for a candidate who says she'll be ready on day one as president, her campaign is remarkably ill-prepared. . . .

So let me get this straight: The Clinton campaign basically decided to bank almost everything on Texas (along with Ohio), without botheing to do due diligence on the delegate apportoinment procedures there? If she does wind up winning the White House, who's the lucky aide who gets to troop into the Oval Office and deliver the shocking news to her that we've got troops in Iraq.