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.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Biden on abortion

Joe Biden, a Catholic, articulated an argument on abortion that I thought was astute when asked the Rick Warren 'when does life begin?' question. He said that his personal faith was that life begins at conception. Though that is his belief, he declined that legislation should be enacted to impose his faith on others.

It struck as an utterly pragmatic and sensible way to rationalise his faith with his politics. He also acknowledged that there has been a discussion within the Catholic church over the centuries. Thomas Aquinas believed, along with many others, that life begins at 'the quickening', i.e. when the foetus first shows signs of life.

Barack Obama has his own conciliatory position. He defines his outlook as being pro-choice but not pro-abortion.

Democrats are looking for ways to smooth the sharp edges of the culture wars. It has only taken them over three decades. At least, they are now looking anew at these questions.

Jury still out on Palin

I described the choice of Sarah Palin as VP nominee as capping a good week for Obama last weekend. Despite her over-rated speech and the performance of the media/ bloggers who played right into the Republicans' hands in exactly the way I suggested that the Democrats had to avoid (and they did at least), on balance I still feel that Sarah Palin is a choice that will benefit the Obama/Biden ticket.

The reporting here has focused on the method of the choice and there is little doubt that it was an impulsive choice. By adopting an outsider candidate, McCain has been able to seize the reform mantle. His grip on it is slight. There is still a couple of months to go in the campaign so there is only so much longer that asserting McCain as a 'maverick' and Sarah Palin as the outsider who is coming to shake up Washington can last. There is a strong sense of tactics driving strategy in the McCain campaign. They couldn't concede the change argument in a year of change so they tried to seize the argument themselves.

While necessity may be the mother of all invention, the invention is incomplete in this case. McCain's platform is woefully thin. Its depth is simply the biography of the man at the head of the ticket with a bit of pizazz added by his running mate.

The polling responses to the Palin selection are instructive. By a margin of 2 to 1 voters 'approve' of McCain's selection of Palin and there is a plus 6% likelihood of voting McCain as a result of the pick according to an ABC News poll. By contrast, Biden has a +12% impact on the likelihood of voting Obama. Underlying these data Palin has a -8% score on the experience question while Biden has a whopping +45% score on this measure!

So McCain/ Palin still have a huge job to do to build confidence in Palin. As her novelty wears off, these underlying issues will start to rise to the surface. Unless McCain/ Palin can substantiate their change argument and unless Palin can render her lack of experience irrelevant through strong performances in TV interviews and the Vice Presidential debate on October 2nd, eventually the ticket will start to look brittle. Both these challenges are considerable but any sort of slip up or evasion will have a damaging impact on the ticket. The riskiness of allowing tactics to drive strategy remains. It may come off but there are a series of tests that have to be passed.

The Democrats, rather than those who purport to speak for them, have been playing the Palin challenge well. Joe Biden stuck strictly to the issues this morning on Meet the Press. That is exactly the right approach as it will keep pressure on Palin. At some point she is going to have to move off script and that is where, unless she's very good, things could start to get interesting.

Of course, all these issues are far less important than the men at the top of the ticket and their policies. Palin is an issue in that regard. If she continues her good start then that will say something substantive and beneficial about John McCain's judgement. If she falters, it will have the opposite impact.

Friday, 5 September 2008

A powerful riposte from John McCain

For the first third of the speech, it seemed like McCain was allowing his opportunity to drift. It was just generic Republican ideology in non too poetic language. He declared at one point, "We need to get this country moving again." George W Bush was there in title but not in name and it was as if John McCain wasn't and never had been a Republican.

Then he started to get onto the issues. On education, energy, foreign policy, work and welfare he put something concrete out there. Now he was starting to get into the swing of things as the issues were starting to bite somewhat even if they were off-the-shelf conservatism. He was now taking on Washington though and that worked if you can suspend disbelief for a moment. His party may have been in control for eight years but now he was taking back the corrupt and bloated Washington that has captured his party nonetheless.

And finally, having earned the right to move onto biographical territory, he told the story of his incarceration from his own perspective. It was touching and in many ways profound. With that, he moved onto a rousing conclusion.

To uproarious cheers, he implored America to 'fight with me, fight for what's right....stand up to defeat, stand up, stand up, stand up and fight...we are Americans, we never give up....we don't hide from history, we make history.....'

Obama's poll bounce is almost certain to deflate and there are some signs that it is doing so already. The media reaction to Sarah Palin's speech has been almost universally warm and excitable. It's slightly over the top given that it was actually a very thin speech and snide in parts. Her attack on Barack Obama's community organisation work is unforgivable. I've spoken with a lot of people who worked with Barack and knew him. His work in the 1980s still has a legacy today. His experiences will have shaped him and given him a deep understanding of the significant issues that America faces.

That aside, she is a new story and she can deliver a speech and that is enough for the media (which ironically is being criticised for being too hard on Sarah Palin!) It will not be enough as time goes on. I'm starting to feel a degree of empathy (as much as a British guy can do!) with your typical American mom who is expected to fall for Sarah Palin because she is a mom too. I can't imagine any more condescending notion.

Tonight's John McCain speech was infinitely better though. Formidable, patriotic, powerful, reformist, outreaching, there was no particular vision for the future but he asked for the people's forbearance based on his character and record. The question is whether the nation is willing to accept John McCain the anti-Republican. Barack Obama will need to fight for his life to ensure that, in his words, the Republicans 'own their own failure.'

Don't think that this is anything other than close. Has the game changed this week? Yes, to a degree the McCain campaign has repositioned its message to one focused on reform. Does he have the answers for a nation that is staggereing abroad and stumbling at home? Will the repositioning acquire credibility? The next few weeks will be the test of that.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Obama's Convention poll bounce

Obama is starting to bounce following a highly successful Democratic Convention. DailyKos reports a USA Today/Gallup poll that shows significant movement in the Senator's underlying ratings:

- A lead on the "strong and decisive leader" measure over McCain by 46%-44%.
- A 19% lead on handling the economy, slight lead on handling Iraq, narrowing of his deficit on combating terrorism.
- The 'experience' concern about Obama has narrowed by 7%.

Most polls are now showing that Obama's lead over McCain is widening again following a tough August. Meanwhile, the Republicans are having a hard time competing with Hurricane Gustav. There are two more hurricanes on the way for later in the week, likely to hit the key battleground state of Florida, where Obama recorded a poll lead a couple of days ago. 40million or so watched Obama's speech last Thursday. It will be difficult for McCain to attract the same interest if he is competing with extreme weather events.

Every storm cloud has a silver lining. At least it has kept George W Bush and Dick Cheney away from the Convention.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Change we can believe in

Or as a homeless person said to me in Denver:

"I believe in change. Can you spare some?"

The myth of McCain the maverick

As is constantly pointed out, people are not electing a Vice President this November. They are electing a President. In the case of John McCain that truism may be slightly less applicable than is normally the case. Putting morbid analysis to one side, what does the choice of Sarah Palin suggest about John McCain?

There is little doubt that the choice underscores his maverick status in the media but it does so in a rather superficial way. Sarah Palin is an outsider just as 'straight talk' McCain has positioned himself as a politician independent of his party.

Sarah Palin has indeed gone against her party machine, become a staggeringly popular Governor in Alaska, and shown herself capable of making strong decisions. Her outsider status is undeniable. John McCain's is laughable. He has voted with George W Bush over 90% of the time, he is a Senator of 22 years standing, 26 years in Congress in total. A military veteran of distinction, he now has adopted almost all of his party's orthodoxy across the gamut of social values, economic policy, foreign policy and everything in between and beyond with the one and slightly debatable exception of environmental policy. It is very difficult to imagine a more establishment figure.

Somehow, despite of all this, he still manages to maintain a maverick reputation. The selection of Sarah Palin indicates why. He gambles and the media love a gambler. There is no richer media content than an all-in poker play. That is exactly what this choice is.

The reality is that McCain is not a maverick at all. He is impulsive and there is a huge difference. This choice smacks of impulsiveness. It has superficial attractions that do not seem to hold water on closer inspection.

She is a woman so she will appeal to Hillary supporters is the basic and misguided underlying tactic behind this selection. She does but only if you ignore what she actually believes. Make no mistake, Sarah Palin is an attractive personality with a Hollywood-esque biography (if she doesn't become VP, I can see a movie of her story being made very soon but with her becoming President following a mishap to the President and going on to save the world from environmentalists or pro-choicers or some such.) The reality is though, her beliefs directly conflict with the vast bulk of Hillary supporters. She believes in placing creationism alongside evolution in schools (this should be enough to disqualify anyone from holding high office) and she is pro-life. As James Carville put it last night, there aren't many Pat Buchanan Hillary supporters.

Michael Murphy, the engaging and astute Republican strategist who worked for McCain in 2000 put it eloquently on Meet the Press this morning. His basic argument was that he would rather have more people loving McCain less, than fewer people loving him more. His fear is that Palin merely shores up the core vote. Those (few) Hillary supporters, male and female, who are more motivated by social conservatism than other issues, were likely to vote McCain anyway so there is no additional boost from Palin. Why they were voting Hillary in the first place, God only knows. Murphy feels that if the Obama campaign can get Palin on the issues rather than her biography and record, then it could actually swing other Hillary supporters to Obama.

So this impulsive choice, while seizing the news agenda spectacularly from Obama's incredible speech on Thursday evening, is likely to start to unravel unless Palin can produce some truly remarkable performances. The national gaze will be particularly on her performance in the field of foreign affairs and security.

The broader point is of greater concern, however. This impulsive side of John McCain's character is a highly unsuitable characteristic for a potential Commander-in-Chief. What if Kennedy had responded impulsively to the Cuban missile crisis? Or Carter/ Reagan to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? McCain had only met Sarah Palin twice when he made his decision. The Obama campaign has begun to draw attention to McCain's 'temperament.' This decision is one more question mark over that temperament. Even if it ends up working out for him (and it could despite the likely outcome), the very process by which he made the decision suggests why it is not the greatest idea to have him in charge of the world's most powerful military.

We've just had one shoot from the hip President with disastrous consequences. The last thing we need is another. McCain the maverick is a mythical beast. McCain the impetuous is very real and in our midst.