Thinking about the upcoming midterms, I was looking at a piece I wrote the day after the November 2008 election, you know, back when Barack Obama seemed like an outstanding chief executive. (Who wants to raise their hand and say that Obama the President has been as good as Obama the Candidate? Yeah, I didn’t think so.) 

Trying to think of how many of these A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J rules are still relevant to the midterms that are about to happen in two weeks. Not really sure. What do you think?

November 5, 2008

Candidates don’t have the same biographies: some served in wars, some crusaded for the forgotten, some are closer to churches, some are from the margins of society – and some certainly aren’t. Not everyone can be a “first” something, a situation that may have helped Barack Obama in the end. And not everyone can duplicate Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts. Yet can any candidate try to duplicate the Obama campaign? Yes they can – and yes they should, and yes they will.

CNN gave Obama five keys to victory – timing, caucuses, money, a broad attack, and the wooing of independents. But most other candidates can’t expect the first three, and the last two were keys for every winning campaign in modern times. CNN missed ten other keystones used by David Plouffe, David Axelrod, and the other masterminds of the Obama campaign, ten things that will now be appropriated by both Democratic and Republican nominees for legislative and executive positions, conveniently arranged in alphabetical form below:

A. Attack as few as you can. Obama went after two people: George Bush and John McCain. He pretty much never uttered the words Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, or even Karl Rove, much to the chagrin of some of his supporters. In the third debate, Bob Schieffer practically begged Obama to criticize Sarah Palin, but Obama wouldn’t take the bait. This was in contrast to McCain, who personally mentioned Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko, whose website yelled at Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, and whose surrogates went after, uh, everyone. The fewer you attack, the fewer swing voters you alienate.

B. Branding matters. At this point it’s hard to imagine that the next successful Presidential campaign *won’t* have a symbol like the ubiquitous “O” – which managed to connect Obama’s name with patriotism, the prairie, and sunrises. Obama was presented in ruthlessly Presidential locales – in his infomercial, in Denver – but other candidates may not need that. The Obama campaign immediately jettisoned a Presidential seal-like sign that was too presumptuous, which is the other important point about branding – having flexibility and sensitivity to responses, just like Madison Avenue. Thus “Change We Can Believe In” became “Change We Need.” Thus not one single headline this morning reads “Signed Sealed Delivered He’s Yours” – because the campaign abandoned the song (it probably should have been “Won’t Get Fooled Again” anyway).

C. Consistency. Obama has been talking about the economy, getting out of Iraq, health care, and energy independence for more than a year, and you can never get him off-message for very long – instead, he uses every little incident as a sort of teaching moment for how this proves what he’s been saying. Of course, for other candidates to do this well, it will help to actually take defensible positions on issues, and probably pursue centrist politics. This may not be a bad thing.

D. Don’t sweat the small stuff. When the lipstick-on-a-pig kerfuffle surfaced and Obama said “I’ve had enough of phony outrage,” he had earned that (and thus, people agreed, and the matter ended) by assiduously never faking his own outrage over little nonsense and random gaffes from the McCain team. (On the other hand, he could work gaffes into narratives he’d already been building, like “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran” or “nation of whiners”.) When McCain claimed, in more than one debate, that it was Obama’s obligation to denounce or repudiate whoever, as McCain had supposedly repeatedly done, it made McCain appear obsessed with trivia – trivial.

E. Enable everyone. The “Ask not what your country can do for you”-like message has been at the top of Obama’s website throughout 2008. People feel engaged, for all sorts of reasons – and the Obama campaign is careful to disabuse as few of those reasons as it can. This is what the pundits mean when they talk about the internet and being plugged in – Obama seems to empower the lowliest of bloggers, giving them something to do or a way to feel included in the process.

F. Four moves ahead. When the Ayers thing came back, Obama said McCain was trying to divide America. My first reaction was huh? no, he’s attacking you. But Obama was way ahead of me, just as he was during the Wright controversy, Hillary’s bigger challenges, the economic meltdown, and on so many other issues…Obama and/or his people had a crystal-ball-like sense of how something would eventually look to average Americans (and, when they could, helped lead that perception). You might think that the highest-paid political advisers would always have the most predictive tea leaves – ask Karl Rove about that.

G. Grace. And this isn’t only for candidates that don’t have to worry about being seen as an angry black man. Very early on, someone in the Obama inner circle had to have said: we will be judged just as much by what we don’t say as what we say. Again and again in 2008, Obama showed restraint, refusing to engage with one silly story after another. It was like watching a comedy where the brash furious martial arts warrior bounces and spins around for 30 seconds before he attacks the Zen master, who sweatlessly juts out a pinkie finger and knocks down the braggart. Every candidate should/will now try to find their inner Zen master.

H. Hope beats hate. Of all the items on this list, this might be the most evanescent. Sometimes security trumps change – sometimes it should. But for now and probably for the next few years of economic woes, the candidate that talks about common hopes and dreams while repudiating divisive rhetoric will probably do pretty darn well.

I. Internet, internet, internet. It’s not just engaging people, it’s something that the TV doesn’t usually talk about: there’s nowhere to hide anymore. Before, in say 1988, you could get away with saying something stupid, but these days any 10-year-old can disprove you with Google (as with a repudiated “Bridge to Nowhere”). The idea of 24-hour news makes some pundits think that we’re just constantly moving on to the next thing, but in some ways the opposite is true: now people can use YouTube to nurse grudges (or mash up unflattering images, see McCain and a green screen). This is the transparency generation – if you put it on your website (as you must), you better be prepared to defend every nuance of every word. People see Oprah behind ordinary Americans in a Chicago audience, they read celebrity blogs, they may have read the passage in “Audacity of Hope” where Obama talked about his first D.C. apartment where he had to scrunch against the shower wall because the curtain was missing – we’re all exposed to everything now, so new candidates can forget about living behind a curtain. Coming from an era dominated by the still-President, who likes his insular bubble and who, his supporters admit, can’t do nuance, this is kind of a sea change.

J. Justices? What justices? Of the 25 issues on the “issues” tab of Obama’s website, not one of them has anything to do with courts or legal appointments. McCain named Scalia and Thomas as role models (perhaps to placate the base); Obama named no one. Why bring up divisive cultural issues at all? Granted this is more of a blueprint for blue (Demo) candidates, but considering where people rank Court appointments in their candidate criteria (always in the top 10), Obama just showed everyone how to dodge a bullet.