Two months ago Marcus and our mutual friend Jonny Cristol asked me two grisly questions: who amongst the possible Republican VP choices frightened me most, and, were I an HRC or McCain operative, how would I have set about beating Barack Obama? My answer to the first was Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin (Colin Powell never having been on any serious list). My answer to the second was closely tied to my answer to the first: Jindal and even Palin indicate the course of action through which HRC stood the best chance of beating Obama, and how McCain can still make his last, best run at victory: wresting the Change mantle from the Democratic nominee.
Three caveats before the argument. The first is that wresting Change from Obama was always going to be a Herculean task, because Obama not only preaches Change but actually embodies it – a white, middle-aged politician can talk about Change, but a young, African-American pol can actually be Change. The second is that both the HRC counterfactual and hypothetical McCain attack assume basic competence on the part of both their campaigns, which may be the farthest-fetched assumption I'll make in a long series of them. The third is simply to say that I do not wish any of what I am about to say had happened or will happen.
Let us begin with a counterfactual in the case of HRC. In late 2006, Hillary Clinton was sitting on head-starts in funding and polling – a post-Senate-run war chest of $10 million and a 22% lead over Obama in the horse-race question. The critical point, however, is in Obama's
numbers and the whacking 33% had no opinion at all.
This was the period of greatest danger and opportunity for both candidates. Simply put, his brand was up for grabs. Meanwhile, HRC was a universally known quantity. Both candidates had a choice: be the Change candidate, or be the Establishment candidate. It should
have been (and I'm sure at some level was) patently obvious to both that 2008 was going to be a Change year, perhaps THE Change year – 'Four More Years' would not be the winning rallying-cry this time around (as opposed to in 1988, when G.H.W. Bush effectively ran for
Reagan's third term).
The choice for Obama was obvious. For him to run in the Democratic primary as the Establishment candidate would have been ludicrous – he'd been in Washington for two years at that point, and his personal narrative was not exactly an Ode to the System. HRC, meanwhile, was a more likely candidate for the Establishment slot, based on her longer record in politics; indeed, positioning herself as the Change candidate would have required something of a re-brand, and would have meant fighting the dynamic Obama on his own turf. This is one of the
odd points about Change elections – not having name recognition is actually an advantage, because you can brand yourself however you need to (assuming you have the money to promote your brand, which Obama certainly did after Q1 of 2007). Name-recognition, so crucial in
Establishment elections, becomes a bit of a drag, because re-branding is harder than branding – you not only have to persuade people of something, but you must persuade them of something that conflicts with what they previously believed. That said, HRC positioning herself as the Establishment candidate meant being out-of-step with the electorate – and $10 million gives you a great head-start on rebranding.
HRC was faced with a judgment call: fight Obama for the Change mantle, or be the Establishment candidate in a Change year. She chose to be the Establishment candidate, Obama chose Change, and the rest is history.
It didn't have to be this way. Had HRC chosen to fight for the Change mantle, it would certainly have been an uphill battle, but she could have made a go at it, based on two strategies: bear-hug Obama to death, co-opting Change for herself, or, in classic Clintonian triangulation, attack Obama for not actually representing change.
Option 1: the Bear-Hug
A) Use the $10 million megaphone to get the words "Clinton" and "Change" associated: "Clinton: Change is on the Way" (to co-opt from Kerry) or some such. Again, $10 million buys a lot of media points.
B) Praise the dynamic young Senator who will of course
have a key role in the HRC Administration.
Option 2: Strangle the Obama campaign in the crib
A) Attack Obama as "more of the same". Selling Barack Obama as more-of-same is a very tough sell, but if John Kerry can be publicly framed as a coward and imposter to military honors than anyone's reputation is up for grabs. The best start would have been an ad campaign assaulting Obama's many 'present' votes in the Illinois State Senate – an examination shows them to have been perfectly reasonable (and imminently defensible), but presented as
"Barack Obama is just another do-nothing politician. He voted 'present' on over 50 bills, including important legislation on abortion, juvenile crime, and sex crimes. That's right. He was in the State Capitol. He was on the floor. He just didn't take a stand. Instead, he just punched in, collected his paycheck, and left. Barack Obama – present but unaccounted-for",
they take on a more sinister light, especially if that was the first thing you'd ever heard about Obama.
A campaign this aggressive would have driven up Clinton's unfavorables somewhat, but keep in mind the 22% lead and 3% no-opinion factor - a strong negative campaign on Clinton's part would have caused those who disliked her to dislike her more, and would certainly have turned off the 3% no-opinion crowd - a very small price to pay in order to cap the persuasion-universe (the 'no-opinions') of your up-and-coming opponent and destroy his brand before he can even establish it.
Obama would have naturally countered any of this with an "I am more Change than she is" argument, but he would have been stuck trying to establish a difference of degrees rather than drawing a shocking and sharp contrast, and been on the defensive about his record in the Illinois State Senate. This all would have tested his commitment to a new kind of politics.
Of course, HRC didn't do any of this. She took the Establishment mantle and wore it proudly while Obama claimed Change. HRC eventually came around to trying to make hay out of the 'present' votes, but this was December 2007, by which time Obama was already pulling away in
Iowa. She also came around on the Change mantle, but that meant trying a re-brand in the midst of a heated election after having ceded the title to the most dynamic politician of his generation.
That's an all-but-impossible task, and John McCain should know. He appears to be trying it right now, which brings us to Why Sarah Palin Isn't Change We Can Believe In.