Wednesday, 29 October 2008

"Accidental genius" and the secrets of Barack Obama's success

The reasons for Barack Obama’s success – and John McCain’s failure – have been succinctly summed up by, of all people, George W. Bush.

[Before you say “yes, but Obama hasn’t won yet”, fear not – I learnt the hard way about the difference between political chickens and eggs, some 25 years ago. My point is, Obama is ahead and is clearly winning the official campaign.]

Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine featured this fascinating article, by Robert Draper, on John McCain’s continuing failure to find a compelling narrative for his campaign. It focuses heavily on the role of his chief campaign strategist, Stephen Schmidt. He was in charge of rapid rebuttal on Bush’s 2004 campaign. Schmidt recalls a meeting with Bush at a stage of the campaign, when things weren’t looking too good. Still, the president remained very confident.

“There’s an accidental genius to the way Americans pick a president, Schmidt remembers Bush saying that day. By the end of it all, a candidate’s true character is revealed to the American people.”

A bit later, Draper explains:

“What campaigns peddle is not simply character but character as defined by story — a tale of opposing forces that in its telling will memorably establish what a given election is about.”

The gruelling campaign of 2008 has given both candidates plenty of opportunities to tell and to live their stories, so that the voters can work out or, perhaps more accurately, gain an intuitive sense of whom they want to see in the Oval Office.

In promising “change”, Obama has found the ideal narrative for a disgruntled, discontented electorate, whose demographics are changing and shifting. A post-baby boom, biracial first-term Democratic senator certainly represents a new face, a new direction, a new sense of possibilities. (For instance, he promises that an “Apollo project for energy independence” will be his first priority in office.) His “change” story meets the needs of the voters he seeks. Obama has stuck to his story all year.

Whatever has been thrown at him, Obama has held his nerve. Time magazine’s Joe Klein, has written an insightful piece on Obama’s campaign and why he is winning. He describes how Obama has developed over this year, becoming more confident and steadier in his gut instincts. Klein concludes:

“Obama has . . . remained levelheaded through a season of political insanity. His has been a remarkable campaign, as smoothly run as any I've seen in nine presidential cycles. Even more remarkable, Obama has made race — that perennial, gaping American wound — an afterthought. He has done this by introducing a quality to American politics that we haven't seen in quite some time: maturity. He is undoubtedly as ego-driven as everyone else seeking the highest office — perhaps more so, given his race, his name and his lack of experience. But he has not been childishly egomaniacal, in contrast to our recent baby-boomer Presidents — or petulant, in contrast to his opponent. He does not seem needy. He seems a grown-up, in a nation that badly needs some adult supervision.”

McCain, by contrast, has failed to present a coherent, consistent story. Is he the straight-talking, maverick Republican senator who used to travel outside his party’s comfort zone on issues like taxes and global warming? Or the true conservative, who did a U-turn on Bush’s tax cuts?

McCain should have had a better chance when it came to telling a story about “true character”. McCain’s personal story, the reckless flyboy who was a POW and then a courageous patriot, has been part of American folklore for at least a decade. But Draper explains in detail how his campaign has agonized --and failed -- over how to turn the McCain “metanarrative”, into a winning campaign story. Why America should elect (as opposed to simply admiring) McCain?

Draper dissects the five – yes, five - McCain campaign narratives over the last year and says:

“In constantly alternating among story lines in order to respond to changing events and to gain traction with voters, the “true character” of a once-crisply-defined political figure has become increasingly murky.”

The campaign has seen some big dramatic set-pieces in which candidates have been able to act out their “true characters” – their integrity, temperament and judgement.

First, their choices of vice-presidential running mates. McCain’s hasty choice of Sarah Palin demonstrated his weakness as a potential president. As Draper tells it, McCain’s advisers were looking for a media celebrity; they did not stop to consider her inexperience or lack of knowledge about the issues. McCain met with her only briefly and seems to have fallen into the same traps. By contrast, Obama’s decision to go with Joe Biden was made quietly and carefully.

Palin put McCain into the lead in the first two weeks in September. [click here]. But she is now a drag on the Republican ticket. ABC’s pollster Gary Langer reported yesterday that 52 percent of likely voters now say that McCain's selection of Sarah Palin makes them less confident in his judgment.

Second, the way the two candidates handled the financial crisis at the end of September. McCain suspended his campaign, threatened to scuttle the first debate and caught a plane back to Washington to work with administration and congressional leaders to resolve the crisis. McCain’s advisers promised that their man would thrash out a solution -- and thereby advance his “character” narrative. But McCain’s contribution was risible. Says Draper:

"Scene by scene, McCain failed to deliver the performance that had been promised. ... [Given] a chance to show what kind of president he might be, McCain came off more like a stymied bystander than a leader who could make a difference."

To the consternation of some leading Democrats, Obama insisted on debating, as well as participating in the financial talks. McCain demurred. Klein says that:

“Obama’s gut steadiness . . . won the public’s trust and quite possibly the election.”

[See my earlier blog on how the cool, calm and disciplined Obama faced up against the “hot” and frenetic McCain]

Klein may well be correct. The financial crisis appears to have been a major turning point in the campaign. The RCP Poll Average of ratings shows that, at the end of September (when the crisis broke), Obama was just 2 percentage points ahead of McCain. This followed a difficult summer and McCain’s brief ascendancy following his convention. Obama’s lead climbed all through the first part of October to reach 7 per cent, dipped a bit in the third week, and is now back to 6 points.

RCP also shows that, over summer, Obama’s net “favourable” rating was between 18 and 21 points. After slumping in the second half of September, it recovered at the end of that month and has been on the up for most of October. His net “favourable” rating now stands at a steady 22 points.

McCain also had a net “favourable” rating, of between 16 and 20 points, over the summer. But at the end of September it collapsed, to 11 points. McCain’s net “favourable” rating has kept on falling and now stands at just 8 points.

Last week, the ABC’s Gary Langer also showed how voters seem to have become convinced about Obama’s character and competence, whilst McCain’s negative politics has failed to have the desired effect. Yesterday, he found that likely voters give Obama a 4-point lead on whom they trust more to handle an unexpected crisis, compared to McCain’s 17-point advantage after the Republican convention. Obama also has a big lead for having the best personality and temperament to be president; but then he has had big leads on that one all year.

The “accidental genius” works in Westminster-type elections too – even though it may be called “comparative credibility”. And our elections are becoming more “presidential” all the time. In 1992, British voters sensed that Neil Kinnock and Labour were not quite ready to govern. Tony Blair was unpopular in 2005 but still more credible than the main alternative. The same test worked for Australia’s John Howard, at least twice. Howard lost in 2007 when he lost touch with the electorate on the big issues and the Australian Labor Party found a credible leader.

Big long list of policies, anyone?

[Thanks to my sister Louise and my friend Redmer for putting me on to the NY Times Magazine article]

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The difference that Sarah Palin makes

Sarah Palin has been one of the political phenomena of 2008. On the one hand, she energised the Republican base, for a time. Someone had to do it. On the other, liberals - my side of politics – initially did not know how to respond to the youthful “hockey mom” with kooky views about global warming and much else. Some of the commentaries, from both sides of the Atlantic, were simply embarrassing.

What the voters think matters more. Today, syndicated columnist Froma Harrop explains the impact that Sarah Palin has had on her. Ms Harrop is an “independent” -- that’s a non-aligned or floating voter, for those in Westminster-type countries. She supported Hillary Clinton, had doubts about Barack Obama and, over the summer, considered voting for John McCain. Now she’s backing Obama.

"What happened [?] Sarah Palin happened.

"Independents like me wanted two things out of a McCain running mate. (1) A capable leader who could step into the top job should something happen to the not-very-young No. 1. (2) Someone who would temper McCain's recent efforts to woo social conservatives. They got neither in the Alaska governor.

"Sure, Palin gave him a bump in the polls right after the Republican convention. She gave a rousing speech, written by a crack speechwriter. But once on her own, she quickly displayed a shocking ignorance of world affairs and a general inability to talk coherently on policy matters. Her habit of dividing America -- even individual states -- into good and not-as-good sectors comes off as downright weird."

Froma Harrop uses Real Clear Politics poll averages to show that she’s not atypical of voters like herself. The drop in McCain’s ratings started in September, straight after he named Governor Palin as his choice for Veep and before the sharemarket crashed. Ms Harrop says:

"Independents tend to be fiscally conservative, socially liberal and strong on defense. They were McCain's natural constituency and in mid-September gave him a 13-point margin. That lead has since flipped over to Obama, and Palin is a big reason."

Ms Harrop is correct in identifying the Alaska governor as a Republican liability, though the full Palin effect may have taken a little longer than she suggests. According to MSNBC yesterday, fifty-five percent of respondents say Governor Palin is not qualified to serve as president if the need arises, up five points from the previous poll. For the first time, more voters have a negative opinion of her than a positive one, by a nine point margin. In September, she held a 47 to 27 percent positive rating.

The Palin effect may be more about competence and credibility than issues. ABC News polling analyst Gary Langer says that, in a survey taken on Monday, 52 percent of likely voters said McCain's pick of Palin has made them less confident in the kind of decisions he'd make as president. That’s up 13 points since just after she was picked. Public doubts about Palin's qualifications (well-expressed by former secretary of state Colin Powell on Sunday) have grown. Just 38 percent say it makes them more confident in McCain's judgment, down 12 points.

MSNBC found that Sarah Palin’s qualifications to be president rank as voters’ top concern about McCain’s candidacy - ahead of continuing President Bush’s policies, enacting economic policies that only benefit the rich and keeping too high of a troop presence in Iraq!

And having Sarah Palin on his ticket has clearly not helped McCain to win support from women. Yesterday, ABC’s Langer reported that 50 per cent of male voters support Obama, compared with 46 per cent for McCain. But women favour Obama by a 57-41 per cent margin.

What a choice John McCain made.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

An end to Nixonland?

If Barack Obama wins the presidency, he may put an end to one of the most significant and malevolent political phenomena of our lifetime.

In his brilliant book, Nixonland, Rick Perlstein explains how Richard Nixon came "to power by using the anger, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s." 

He defines Nixonland as the state of total political warfare over class and cultural conflicts.

A disgraced Richard Nixon left the White House in 1974. But Nixonland, pitting the “silent majority” vs. the “liberal elites”, ramming racial and cultural wedges through the electorate, remained a staple of American politics for thirty-odd years. Ronald Reagan told stories about welfare queens. In 1988, George H.W. Bush used convicted rapist Willie Horton as a metaphor to depict his Democratic rival as soft on crime.  John Kerry was swiftboated in 2004.  In each of those cases, Nixonland worked.  And conservatives have set the American political agenda for the last four decades. Democrats have occupied the White House only three times since 1968. Bill Clinton worked with this grain, not against it, especially on big policy issues like welfare reform.

Let’s not be too morally superior over the Americans. Nixonland has also oozed its way into the politics of other countries with which I am familiar. Margaret Thatcher shrewdly played the immigration card in the late 1970s. Later, she used crime and defence as wedge issues. (The Conservatives’ 2005 campaign was a case study in dog whistle politics.) 

Another long-serving prime minister, John Howard, tapped into Australia’s cultural divides. These tactics came to a head with the Tampa election of 2001. False reports that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard in an attempt to blackmail their way into Australia, prompted Howard's notorious campaign slogan: "We decide who will come into this country." 

New Zealand readers may recall the National Party’s 1975 election campaign. For part of their tv ad on the cities (really about immigration), click here. The Nats’ (narrowly unsuccessful) 2005 campaign was also made in Nixonland.

Back to the US election. Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries marked another signpost. Nixonland cannot be separated from the politics of her 1960s baby boomer generation. It takes two sides to fight a culture war, after all. And Hillary Clinton played with the fire.  She told 60 Minutes that Obama was not a Muslim, “as far as I know”. Her “3 a.m. phone call” ad reframed the Texas primary as being about national security. 

Now Obama gets to take on the real thing. The New Republic’s Howard Wolfson says:

"John McCain, raised in Nixonland, calls Senator Obama a socialist, trots out a plumber to stoke class and cultural resentments, and employs his Vice-President [sic] to question Obama's patriotism by linking him to terrorists. Nixonland 101 -- and if its rules still applied, Senator Obama would be in trouble."

Wolfson argues that the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the economic turmoil have shattered the foundations of Republican dominance. America’s demographics are very different from Nixon’s time. 

"The old tactics aren't working and the American public is ready for change. Senator McCain seems old, and tired, as if he is speaking an ancient language."

With American conservatism in retreat and the baby boomers seeing their time passing, Barack Obama could have a unique opportunity to change the face of American politics. His speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention gave some early clues as to what his new politics may be about:

"there's not a liberal America and a conservative America — there's the United States of America." 

So did his major speech on race in March. Writing during the summer about Obama’s victory over Senator Clinton, Gail Sheehy said:

"Hillary’s campaign had failed to understand that America was in the midst of a national passage from the old-style confrontational politics of the boomer generation—a divisiveness perfected by both the Clinton and Bush administrations—into a new style of Netroots politics, open-sourced and inclusive, multi-racial and multicultural."

We can but hope.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Would-be presidents fall short on Lib Dem narrative

Linda Jack asked the three candidates for president of the Liberal Democrats twenty questions, about their plans and their political views. As someone who hasn’t decided how to vote, I found this really useful. [Click here for the answers: Ros Scott, Lembit Opik, Chandila Fernando]

Anyway, one of her questions was on what the party’s narrative should be. This morning, Linda was kind enough to ask me for my take on their answers.

I thought that none of the candidates really provided a Lib Dem narrative. Here is Linda’s assessment of their answers to all the questions. My response to her invitation appears as a comment.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

McCain vs. his narrative - a quick update

Here’s a quick update on John McCain’s sterling efforts to wreck his own brand. To use the lingo, he no longer embodies his narrative – and he’s done it all by himself.

McCain was the meant to be the straight-talking, non-partisan breath of fresh air. Lately, he's looked more like a risk-taking, negative-campaigning Republican.

The original, "good" McCain seemed to turn up for most of the second tv debate. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne jr. asked:

"Who is the real John McCain? Is he the man who used to tout himself as a problem-solver, or is he the desperate candidate who lurches from attack to attack?"

But since then ABC’s pollster Gary Langer has found that voters, by a 24-point margin, say that McCain is more focused on attacking his opponent rather than addressing the issues. In August, that margin was just 3 points. And voters, by a 42-point margin, think that Obama is mainly addressing the issues, rather than going negative. Rasmussen Reports has found that Obama is seen more favourably than McCain.

The new figures follow McCain’s harsher attacks on Barack Obama and Sarah Palin’s accusations that the Democratic nominee has been “palling around with terrorists”.

Jafapete summed it up earlier this week when he invited the embattled Republican nominee to take a reality check.

"You’ve managed to screw your own brand, without so much as smudging your opponent’s. You were supposed to be the straight-talking, independent-minded, tough, honourable one, remember? The war hero who could keep a cool head in times of crisis. When people are losing their jobs, homes and pension savings, they expect a little more than vague fear mongering about rather tenuous associations with a couple who never actually harmed anyone, a long time ago. The voters think that you’re more interested in personality attacks than policies. And they’re right."

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Cool Obama, Hot McCain

The importance of personal heuristics (mental short cuts) based on
presidential candidates’ (for which read, party leaders’) character and narratives is being highlighted yet again. Character and narrative are helping to tilt the presidential election contest Barack Obama’s way.

Just after the first presidential candidates’ debate – and McCain's abrupt and somewhat weird foray into Washington's negotiations
over a Wall Street bailout bill, followed by his unsuccessful attempt to postpone the debate -- E.J. Dionne jr. observed:

“McCain, once the candidate of tested experience, must now battle the perception that he has become the riskier choice, a man too given to rash moves under pressure. Obama, whose very newness promised change but also raised doubts, has emerged as the cool and unruffled candidate who moves calmly but steadily forward.”

The New York Times’ Patrick Healy has explained the two candidates’ actions over the bailout bill like this:

"Mr. McCain, who came of age in a chain-of-command culture, showed once again that he believes that individual leaders can play a catalytic role and should use the bully pulpit to push politicians. Mr. Obama, who came of age as a community organizer, showed once again that he believes several minds are better than one, and that, for all of his oratorical skill, he is wary of too much showmanship."

Some commentators who are less sympathetic to Obama have reached similar conclusions. Charles Krauthammer has noted that, with all the fundamentals favouring the opposition, McCain has little choice but to “throw long”. Each time, it has failed.

“[McCain’s] frenetic improvisation has perversely (for him) framed the rookie challenger favorably as calm, steady and cool.

“In the primary campaign, Obama was cool as in hip. Now Obama is cool as in collected. He has the discipline to let slow and steady carry him to victory.

Krauthammer’s key point is that:

“[Obama] understands that this election, like the election of 1980, demands only one thing of the challenger: Make yourself acceptable. Once Ronald Reagan convinced America that he was not menacing, he won in a landslide. If Obama convinces the electorate that he is not too exotic or green or unprepared, he wins as well.”

Since the convention Obama has altered the tone and style of his campaign, to be moderate in policy and temper; acceptable, be cool, and reassuring.

Barack Obama’s new persona carries some risks. For instance, he may not appear to empathise sufficiently with the deep anger and anxiety that many Americans feel about the economy. And McCain’s approach may yet be vindicated. Jafapete notes that McCain’s campaign director Steve Schmidt, who learnt his dark arts at the feet of Karl Rove, is a believer in the Boyd cycle, an approach to military engagement that seeks to overcome a superior opponent by means of rapid movements that disorient and confuse, and cause him to over-react or under-react. September may have been Obama’s month, but August was McCain’s.

There’s still a long way to go. As Jafapete says:

"Expect to overdose on fear and smear in the coming weeks. The celebrity ad worked a treat, and there’s plenty more negative ads where that came from."

Right now, however, both candidates have shifted the centre of gravity of (but not rewritten) their narratives – John McCain from warrior-in-command towards a feckless risk-taker and Barack Obama from unfamiliar outsider to calm, thoughtful decision-maker.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Myths, legends and why Churchill and Thatcher may be Nick Clegg's biggest challenge

What interesting times we live in! One thing that many voters say they don’t like about Gordon Brown is that he’s been in office too long. Now the PM says that “experience” is a good reason to trust him and many people seem to agree. David Cameron has spent nearly three years trying to be everyone’s little friend. But in yesterday’s conference speech, he presented himself as a Thatcher-style conviction politician, ready to take tough, unpopular decisions.

What’s really going on here is a lot of myth-making and story-telling. Well, it’s more than that. Both the Labour and Tory leaders are trying not to be “out-mythed”. And they are both trying very hard to change their narratives.

Check out this fascinating article by Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He writes about America’s “true” election campaign . . .

“. . . the deep campaign, the subsurface campaign, which concerns not just what the candidates say but who they are and what they represent -- what they

“The candidates become, in a sense, walking archetypes. To warm to a candidate is to align not just with a person but with a myth, an ideal.”

What makes the 2008 contest so intriguing, says Gitlin, is that it pitches against each other two archetypes: one familiar, one unfamiliar. John McCain is the rugged, plain-spoken, straight-shooting; a John Wayne, take-charge, warrior-in-command –type. Republican-leaning voters like that. Remember Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.

According to Gitlin, Barack Obama is the quintessential exotic outsider. He hails from exotic Hawaii, foreign Indonesia, “elegant Harvard” and “down-and-dirty Chicago”, all at the same time! He is also, in some respects, an intellectual and, yes, a celebrity. He scrambles the stereotypes, jumbles up the myths and symbols and represents the unfamiliar.

“So that’s the clash. McCain, the known quantity, the maverick turned lawman, fiery when called on to fight, an icon of the old known American story of standing tall, holding firm, protecting God’s country against the stealthy foe. Obama is the new kid on the block, the immigrant’s child, the recruit, fervent but still preternaturally calm, embodying some complicated future that we haven’t yet mapped, let alone experienced. He is impure — the walking, talking melting pot in person. In his person, the next America is still taking shape.

“The warrior turned lawman confronts the community organizer turned law professor. The sheriff (who married the heiress) wrestles with the outsider who rode into town and made a place for himself. No wonder this race is thrilling and tense. America is struggling to fasten a name on its soul.”

British politics may seem more sophisticated, the discourse more party- and policy-oriented and less personal. The voters are probably less credulous than their American cousins, their prevailing myths and legends more subtle and refined. Perhaps: the British sense of shared identity may be clearer, making the “culture wars” less important (amongst the dominant groups) than across the Atlantic.

We shouldn’t brush aside the power of archetypes too easily though. Previous prime ministers have evoked mythical symbols. Margaret Thatcher did Elizabeth I and Churchill at different times. John Major morphed from decent guy next door to hapless, almost comedic man-out-of-his-depth. Tony Blair was the charming, youthful, urban family man who would renew Britain; later, he was the doughty war leader, the Christian soldier who would boldly defend his island nation. And leaders are surely now more important than ever before in shaping voter perceptions of the UK parties.

If Gordon Brown has evoked any myth over the last year, it’s a dismal one: the stolid, over-serious, long-serving number two and pretender to the throne who finally becomes the king and fails utterly to rally the nation. You are more likely to find his archetype in Greek or Shakespearean tragedies – or perhaps, TV dramas and comedies -- than in the nobler pages of political history. People see it though: why else did Vince Cable’s “from Stalin to Mr Bean” gibe work so well?

David Cameron’s personal narrative has been remarkably similar to Blair’s. He has posed as the youthful agent of change who has made over his party and promises to do the same for the country. But many people still don’t see the plan, the end of the story. Nor is there a well-understood story of political struggle. Whereas Blair took on his party and won, with a symbolic triumph -- the end of Clause IV-- Cameron’s old Tory dragon has not been slain so much as chloroformed out of choice.

Since the nightmare on Wall Street, Gordon Brown has seized the opportunity to convert his existing narrative into a new archetype: the wise man; stead hand at the tiller, the calm and experienced manager of a crisis. The PM invited people to compare that with the “novice” David Cameron. (What a frame!) The ComRes poll in Tuesday’s Independent suggested that his new gambit could work, at least for a time.

Cameron tried to share some of the neo-Churchillian glow by looking stern and serious and publicly offering to help the government where he can. After all, Tony Blair’s original “have it all ways” brand of politics was born of good times and would be little use in a recession. But if all Cameron does is follow Brown, he risks becoming irrelevant and also closing off his political options for the future. His narrative could leave him behind meaning that a new one was needed. So, in his conference speech, Cameron evoked the myth of Margaret Thatcher, claiming that he has the judgment, character and leadership skills to rebuild Britain’s economy and society. The Tories loved it.

Whether that works for Cameron or not, Nick Clegg needs to gain a good part in this morality play. When it comes to archetypes and symbols, his options seem pretty limited. Past Liberal heroes? Even if they fitted, the likes of Asquith and Lloyd George wouldn’t be much help. A century on, most voters aren’t familiar with their myths or their rhetoric. Vince Cable, the party’s plain-speaking, well-respected authority on economic matters? Nick Clegg can’t plausibly claim to be someone else who is still very active in politics, though Vince is becoming part of the Lib Dem brand.

Nick Clegg’s best (and, I suspect, most likely) persona could be as a kind of outside, independent voice in the system, who looks out for “ordinary people” and demands financial policies that put them first. There is a parallel with Obama, in that’s not a familiar archetype. It could mean taking a few calculated political risks, but without stumbling down the path of cheap, anti-banker populism. What I am suggesting is that the Lib Dems should combine speaking up for ordinary people with sound thinking and straight talk on economic policy.

If you think that sounds too clever, remember that empathy with “ordinary people” is becoming central to the party’s brand once again. It also seems that Nick can embody such a narrative, with Vince Cable doing the same for the party’s economic credibility. And after all, something similar ending up working well for Charles Kennedy on Iraq (though Charles did not know that before he took the position he did). Maybe there’s a Liberal Democrat political myth, an archetype in the making. One vital, positive point is that we believe it.