Thursday, 11 September 2008

The tactician versus the strategist

Every political battle has its strategists and its tacticians. One of the more intriguing aspects of the current US presidential election is that it is one campaign that is strategically driven versus one that is almost entirely driven by tactics. Who wins?

Obama's campaign is the strategic one. As long as your strategy is right then the strategist should theoretically be in the stronger position. They have appraised the context and devised a battle plan that can deliver victory. McCain is Bush Mark II, America is in economic crisis at home and floundering abroad, Washington needs change. Alongside that it has the most sophisticated movement-based national campaign ever constructed and a candidate who communicates like no political figure since Bill Clinton.

All the factors for victory are there. And yet, as things stand, the campaign has been struggling for a few days now. Why is the strategy stuttering?

When a cool strategist is faced with a wily tactician, what happens? McCain's campaigns has become a daily tactical play. Today's feint was to accuse Obama of a sexist attack on McCain's running mate when he dismissed McCain's economic plan with the colourful phrase, "You can put lipstick on a pig but it will still be a pig." (I guess that rather depends on how imaginative you are- I was always with Kermit on that one but I guess some others might have fallen for Miss Piggy's yanking and swinging charm. Maybe frogs and pigs can never be compatible. I don't know.)

It turns out that McCain had used the same colloquialism in dismissing Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan. Is it sexist or not?

The question is irrelevant. By stoking up the fire of a media row, McCain's campaign has managed to deflect attention from the issues. Here is the tactical concern. By a margin of 48% to 37% voters say that the issues matter more than the personalities. Amongst that 48% Obama has a lead of 56% to 37% so McCain's campaign has to desperately keep the daily news coverage away from the issues.

Once the issues rise to the fore, Sarah Palin starts to look weaker, the McCain campaign becomes less solid, and McCain starts to drift back towards Bush. As Obama pleads, the shift to change message by McCain/ Palin is 'phoney.' Tactical plays can be phoney in a way that strategic judgements can't (you lose very easily if they are.)

So the tactician wins by keeping the strategist on the back foot. Whether that can go on for another 55 days is a moot point. One place that McCain/ Palin won't be able to evade the issues is during the debates. Obama will need a hell of a confident performance that pins McCain back on economic issues as much as it is humanly possible to do. He has had a habit in previous debates to drift in the direction of the question and debate, wanting to give a whole and intellectually robust answer. This time, Obama will need to throw a few punches of his own to gain the initiative.

He will be having lunch with Bill Clinton tomorrow. If I was Barack Obama I'd listen intently and maybe ask for James Carville's number at the end of the conversation. To regain the upper hand the strategist needs some shrewd tactical plays of his own.

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