Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Strategy Less Traveled (Updated) - What Senator McCain MUST DO To Engage "Teflon" Senator Obama

Ned Barnett (c) 2008
Updated 3/4/2008


The primary purpose of this blog is to analyze candidates' public tactics (their PR efforts) and derive from them their behind-the-scenes strategies ... then, when appropriate, to critique those strategies based on more than three decades of PR and political campaign experience.

However, this post is a bit different, and with a reason. It appears that, in spite of her "big win" on Super Tuesday II, Senator Hillary Clinton has still not evolved an effective strategy for taking on (or taking down) Senator Barack Obama - when Obama's team pulled a fast one in Cleveland, Hillary's hands were tied - as Brit Hume said, "if she objects, she's likely to raise objections in the black community" - shorthand for "she'll look racist" ... or "Senator Obama is "Teflon" - if it touches on race, you can't touch him.

Beyond that, based on Senator McCain's recent disavowal of a conservative talk show host's introduction in Cincinnati (and his rather lackluster campaign performance since he first became the presumptive nominee), it seems that Senator McCain hasn't evolved a decent (i.e., a "winning") strategy for dealing with Senator Obama, either. He's so intent on being "above" politics-as-usual that it seems he may be giving Senator Obama - or even Senator Clinton - a free pass.

While Senator Clinton had a re-creation of her campaign tonight - after her three-out-of-four wins on Super Tuesday she's "alive," probably all the way to the convention - Senator Obama is still in the lead, and at this moment he's the odds-on favorite to go head-to-head with Senator McCain in November. And, as we've seen in the last two weeks (as I write this on March 4th), Senator McCain has already begun challenging Senator Obama ... but with kid gloves.

If nothing else, as Cincinnati demonstrated, Senator McCain is once again apparently turning members of his Conservative base back off by seeming to coddle Senator Obama's delicate sensibilities about his name and heritage, as well as his political voting record. Senator Obama, the most liberal Senator in Congress, doesn't like being called a "Liberal" any more than Senator Barack Hussain Obama likes to be reminded that he's the son of a Muslim. So, instead of taking Obama on by addressing the real issues, he skates around the edge citing credentials and issues that have not - to date - ignited the interest of the American electorate.

However, Senator McCain has got eight months to change that.

So - instead of outlining Hillary's current strategy (even though she won on Super Tuesday II, she still doesn't know how to engage Senator Obama, and frankly, panic isn't much of a strategy), I'm going to suggest what she should have done (and could still conceivably do,, though I doubt she'll dare to be even this bold) - and more important, what Senator McCain SHOULD do if he wants to win while still running a civil campaign against his Teflon-coated opponent-to-be, Senator Obama.

Full Disclosure - I first presented this strategy option in an interview earlier this week - before the debate - with a political reporter from Gannett News Service.

The Problem

Senator Obama is black, and that makes criticizing him particularly dangerous, especially among likely voters in the "politically correct" Democratic Party primary. Democrats and their liberal media allies are, by nature and choice, more concerned with political correctness than are Republicans and their conservative media allies - yet all but a few of the most self-confident conservatives still recoil in stark terror from any charge of racism. To an extent, this makes Obama "untouchable" to both Senator Clinton and Senator McCain.

To date, Hillary hasn't been able to evolve a strategy that:

a. Matters to voters - and is also strong enough to move the Democratic Party majority away from Senator Obama; and,

b. Is politically correct enough to pass the rigid Democrat/Media PC-Sniff Test without inviting a charge of racism

Bill Clinton tried - in a remarkably clumsy fashion, considering his own adroitly-Teflon-coated reputation - to raise the race issue without raising the race issue - comparing Obama's success in South Carolina, for instance, with that of Jesse Jackson in '84. That approach blew up in his face, and Hillary's, and some say it might cost her the nomination. However, it's not his inept effort, but Hillary's lack of an acceptable and effective "take down" strategy that is really stalling her campaign.

The Strategy:

Instead of taking Senator Obama on, head-t0-head, with criticisms that might be taken as racist, petty or mean-spirited, Hillary should have (are you listening, Senator McCain?) been painting word pictures - then raising troubling issue-oriented questions - questions that either Senator Obama can try to answer, or questions that voters will answer for themselves.

By "painting a picture," I'm talking about laying out a series of seemingly disconnected facts and conjectures on an issue. For instance, Hillary might have said:

"The Democratic Party has always been seen as a friend of Israel - from the time when Harry Truman boldly recognized the fledgling state of Israel in 1948 all the way to Bill Clinton's bold attempts to broker a lasting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. As a lifelong Democrat, I am proud of my own lifelong support for Israel - and while I recognize that Israel must co-exist with - and cooperate with - the Palestinians, this cooperation cannot come at the cost of Israel's security or long-term future as a bastion of democracy in the Middle East.

"With that in mind, I want you to consider the following mosaic - put together these pieces of seemingly disconnected facts, then decide for yourself what this picture says. Senator Obama is the member of a church led by a black-separatist minister who has published a twelve-point program of separatism - the "Black Values System" - that many commentators suggest includes a strong anti-Israeli bias. Senator Obama, though he didn't ask for it and has publicly repudiated it, has been strongly endorsed by notorious anti-Semite black separatist and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Senator Obama has a Muslim father and for a time attended a Muslim school - and while not all Muslims oppose Israel, some do, and some of that doctrinal anti-Semitism may have rubbed off on the young Barack Obama, long before he was old enough to form his own conclusions.

"Looking further, reports have also recently surfaced in the press that, while an Illinois State Senator, Senator Obama took a strong pro-Palestinian position. Beyond that, Senator Obama has repeatedly pledged to meet - without precondition - with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a notorious anti-Semite who is building nuclear weapons technology and who has pledged to destroy Israel.

"Each of these items, taken by themselves, appear to be trivial - but put together, this paints a potentially troubling picture that, especially if you support Israel as I do, suggests that a President Obama might well be no friend of Israel. But don't take my word for it - consider these facts carefully and dispassionately, then draw your own conclusions."

This same approach can be taken on many of Senator Obama's less voter-friendly positions, especially those that seem at odds with his public statements. For instance, taxes. In a debate - or in a speech, Senator Clinton could have said:

"Senator Obama, some call me a "tax-and-spend liberal," and while that's a right-wing knee-jerk reaction to progressive change, it is true that I intend to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to fund essential new social programs. However, it appears - if you look at the programs you advocate and the tax increases you've publicly supported - that you have taken this virtue and stood it on its ear. For instance, you have called for (list half-a-dozen expensive new social programs Senator Obama has advocated). To pay for this you - and other, independent experts - suggest that America will have to shell out $4 Trillion Dollars in new spending. From where I sit, Senator Obama, the only way to raise that kind of new revenue is to tax not only the wealthiest Americans - as I propose - but to also heavily tax the middle class.

"Toward that end, you have suggested removing the cap on Social Security taxes, and you have proposed (list three or four other new tax initiatives that Senator Obama has endorsed). Now I ask you: while each of these tax initiatives, taken by themselves, appears trivial, especially to the hard-working middle class whom you claim to represent. However, put together, the image of these across-the-board tax increases paint a picture - especially if you support tax relief for the middle class as I do - that suggests that Senator Obama intends to implement a major tax increase for America's hard-working middle class to fund his grab-bag of social programs. But don't take my word for it - instead, I invite you to paint for yourself, and draw your own conclusions."

This "Socratic"-like approach, especially if handled in a low-key, friendly manner - instead of in a confrontational and argumentative manner - does not come across as harsh, disrespectful or inherently racist. Who can argue against a friendly invitation to consider all the facts on issues that will really matter to broad segments of the electorate?

This approach does not directly attack Senator Obama. What it does do is pull together, jigsaw-puzzle-like, facts about Senator Obama's positions and his public statements - then invites either the audience to draw their own conclusions or Senator Obama to explain away these troubling facts and inconsistencies between his public face and his private actions.

Senator Clinton failed to do this - she's instead sniped at petty issues of little importance to Ohio voters - and to date, she has failed to dent the rising tide of Obama-mania. Shortly, Senator McCain will face this same challenge. He's made it clear that he won't "go negative" - but if he wants to win, he's got to convince independent voters to look at Senator Obama in a more inclusive light than is visible by the light of the halo the media's surrounded him with - and in doing so, to help independents make their own decisions, based on facts carefully linked together to show the man and his positions.

Remember, you heard it here first.