"Our Karl Rove is the blog you should be glad that Democratic strategists don't seem to listen to"
-- what they're saying on Republican blogs

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Secret Sauce for Democratic Candidates

Democratic Candidates for President,

While OKR is not in the business of siding with a particular nominee, Their Karl Rove's insertion into my domain forced my hand to provide Barack Obama campaign advice.

So, in the spirit of fairness, below are messaging strategies and talking points for each viable candidate (i.e., at least 5% in national polls or at least $5M raised). If deployed effectively, this "secret sauce" has the potential to catapult one campaign message over another.

Creating deep impact amongst all the campaign noise requires using one of the best Republican campaign tactics seen in the past decade: Using your supposed negatives as your strong suit. Doing so challenges the conventional wisdom and forces people to take a break from the media-driven narrative and truly ponder your candidacy for a moment.

[FYI - Barack Obama: See the 2nd half of the previous column for your OKR advice]

Memo to Joe Biden: Admit That You Have Limitations


Your nascent campaign has a bit of kindling lit beneath it, and even Zogby is saying that you might have a shot at this after all. But simply telling people you knew all along how to solve the Iraq problem just isn't going to do the trick (nor should it).

You need to address head-on what many are intuitively concerned about: that you are a one-trick pony -- a great Secretary of Defense, but no President.

To change this dynamic, you need to attack this perception head-on... by agreeing completely. No excuses, no blather. Just meet the voters face-to-face with the fact that you are uniquely passionate about America's role in the world, and that our nation's future is directly tied to how well we clean up the mess we are in today. Tell them that Joe Biden is the only candidate that has the passion, leadership and expertise to recapture America's position in the world. And tell the voters that you'll bring on a strong and capable cabinet to bring the right focus to the other critical issues that need to be dealt with at the same time: economy, health care, jobs, innovation.

Yes, I know you know you can lead in all of these areas. But that's not the point. The point is the narrative has been written, and you need to acknowledge this and work from there to be as relevant as possible.

So, what's the positive way to say that you have limitations? "Joe Biden is committed to recapturing America's leadership in the world."

Memo to Hillary Clinton: Admit That You're Not Perfect


Because you have old-school strategist Mark Penn by your side, there is little-to-no chance that anyone from your campaign will read this or pay any heed to my advice. Still, I want to be on the record that Mark Penn represents last decade's politics that simply doesn't feel very relevant, and is becoming increasingly irrelevant every day. Only time will tell if this tried-and-true-yet-semi-antiquated approach to politics can hold out long enough for you to win the race.

If you were to engage in post-modern politics, I would advise you to go-to-market with the antithesis of your current "coronation persona" -- start looking more human (vs. superhuman) and real (vs. political machine). In other words, show the voters that you're not perfect.

Contrary to what people say, nobody really wants a perfect candidate. They want someone who is tough (you), smart (you), can manage power (you), and can overcome adversity (you). But they also want someone that reminds them of themselves (not you). Because of all these wonderful traits of yours, people will actually become suspect that you're putting on airs, and as a result question your sincerity and integrity. Or, if you're seen as too good for the room, there will be an intuitive concern that you will create a bad environment for good decision making in your administration (like our buddy Dubya).

Tell the voters what's got you concerned about the presidential race. Tell the voters about your internal struggles as a Senator and First Lady as you tried to balance your inner idealism with your knowledge of the realities of the political process. Tell the voters that you're only running because of your passionate belief that America needs Democrats back in power -- and you truly believe that you are the only candidate that could possibly know what it'll take to beat the Republican Machine.

While it might sound counter-intuitive to your trusted beltway advisers, show the voters that you're not perfect, and they will trust you more.

Memo to Chris Dodd: Admit That You're An Afterthought


You have the the money, but are lacking traction with voters. You suffer from Senatoritis, and it won't be easy to shake. Yet, your style is strong, moral and clear. You have the make-up to be an executive. So, how to begin gaining traction?

Starting now, make your own position in the race the focus of your candidacy. Turn your message from experience and wisdom to the underdog campaign -- the little campaign that could. The fact that you have a lot of money in the bank means that you can actually promote yourself as the underdog on television and radio ads now.

Get the voters involved in your uphill battle for relevancy, and invite them to join you as you look to climb the biggest mountain in your political career. If you get people invested in your story, they will be investing themselves in you through the process.

How to admit you're an afterthought as a way to turn your campaign around? "You probably don't know much about Chris Dodd -- and that's a problem that needs to be fixed, now."

Memo to John Edwards: Fair or Not, You're the only Viable White Guy

OK, let's quickly get this out of the way: I'm not advocating that you play the race or gender card. What I am advocating is that you own the fact that you are the most likely to win the Presidential race when paired up against each Republican candidate. You, John, are the candidate with the least risk because you do not bring any untested configurations to the campaign: gender or race.

To be clear, I do not see gender or race being meaningful factors in the 2008 race, no matter who wins the nomination on either side.
But the fact is that there will be some who do (or at least believe that there are others who do). And only you bring the Democrats a form-fitting candidate that represents true progressive values with no compromise -- all in an attractive, uncontroversial, tested configuration.

Clearly, you do not want to overtly admit that you're the only white guy. But you do want to obliquely characterize your campaign as the most likely to win the general election. This means playing directly into the concerns and fears of voters. I openly acknowledge that this is not the most upstanding approach, but in can be an effective one if you believe that you are the only candidate that can deliver Dems the White House in 2008.

Now that the Rovian-style fear-based politics are out of the way, there are some positive, purer angles you should take as well:

  • You're the only candidate that has been part of a national presidential ticket (2004)
  • You're the only candidate that will not compromise with the right wing Republicans (i.e., you know right from wrong and will not compromise on these values)
  • You're the only Democrat that is a values-first candidate (i.e., you'll do what's right vs. what's popular [Clinton] or agreeable [Obama])
  • Like Hillary, you've been tested and vetted, and like Obama, you represent change.
In other words...

"In case you didn't notice, Edwards is the best of both worlds." Oh, and a white male.

Memo to democratic campaign staffers: Want to be a hero?

Send an email to jon [at] ourkarlrove . com if you are looking for embellishments or extensions to the strategies and advice provided in this column.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Memo to Karl Rove: We already have Our Karl Rove

Karl Rove,

What's wrong? Is the Republican field so abjectly depressing, politically savaged and land-mine-lined that you find more safety and comfort flexing your political muscles to help Democrats? If your recent political analysis for the Financial Times is any indication, then you better have a "Plan B" because not only do we already have Our (own) Karl Rove, but your analysis was one-dimensional. In fact, your opinions are actually sound and are in-line with many other commentators, which is why they have so little value.

Based on this recent article and prior analysis, it's becoming quite clear that your brand outstrips your capabilities as a political strategist. It turns out that you rode a political wave generated by conservative movements from every conceivable angle (security, religious, economic, moralistic, individualistic), and were then able to take credit by virtue of predicting that this perfect political storm would win Bush elections. In essence, you did exactly what you claim Bill Clinton did with the economy: you successfully took credit for something that was already happening.

In an effort to re-claim Our Karl Rove's turf from the insurgent Karl Rove, I will break with tradition and provide a presidential candidate with a political strategy prior to the nomination. Readers should feel free to publicly compare and contrast the opinions provided here with those of Their Karl Rove.

Memo to Barack Obama: Do Not Run Against Hillary


Contrary to the opinions of the media elite (which now include media-elite-hater Karl Rove), your best shot at winning the nomination is not to cast doubt on Hillary. Instead, you need to focus on your positive brand attributes: an independently-minded, globally-savvy, smart, capable, strategic candidate with fresh ideas that will inspire every American to feel good about being an American again. You can lift us up.

You simply don't need to bash your opponents to make your points if your points are self-evident. Consider these examples:

"I want to lift this country up out of its malaise; out of this funk; and into tomorrow with my vision for America. A vision rooted in the principles of our founding fathers: liberty, justice, equality, and the pursuit of happiness."

I am running for President not because I need to be President, but because I am confident that I am uniquely qualified to signal to Americans -- and to the world -- that America is ready to turn the corner. That America is ready to take on our challenges head-first. That America is ready to rise again as a great nation that not only earns the respect of our allies, but, importantly, earns the respect of those who might find it easier to hate us."

"I am quite aware that some of my colleagues think that I'm lacking the experience needed to take our country forward. While it's true that I might not have been a 5-term senator, a governor, or First Lady, I have spent my whole life being a leader. A leader of people, of ideas, of spirit and of serious solutions to serious problems."
In these examples, you are not only focusing on your positive brand attributes, but you are implicitly drawing a distinction between you and your competitors. It's positive sales, and a lesser candidate could not pull this off. Don't let conventional wisdom drag you down into being a conventional politician.

I know that you have too much respect for your democratic colleagues to truly throw them under the bus. It's a good slate, and you are too polished and decent to feel comfortable engaging in mud-slinging on the national stage. No matter what your advisers tell you, don't do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Barack Obama is compelling to America only when he's comfortable in his own skin.

But being comfortable doesn't mean you can't be tough. In fact, there is a real toughness behind the thoughtfulness in your character. You need to display it at the right time, but you can't feign it. For example, since Hillary is not a threat to national security, it's disingenuous to concentrate your toughness on her. Instead, you need to channel your toughness through issues that require being and appearing tough -- like national security issues. For instance, show America your strength by talking tough about the small number of extremists who are looking to plan another domestic attack. Explain how you'll be tough by disarming them before they can do any damage. Explain how you will not accept any foreign nation to harbor, help, or fund any violent extremists. You must keep your focus narrow to the areas where toughness is required. This distinction will separate you from Hillary's and Bush's broad stroke approach that casts terrorist nets as wide as Iran's National Guard.

Of course, there are also specific policy areas where you do need to convey your vision and how it is unique and compelling. But like applying for a job, it's all about selling your unique qualifications -- not dissing your competition. You can win this through your new kind of politics. Don't fall for the "he's being soft" rhetoric -- it's not about being soft. It's about being the best option.

Remember: In sales, facts and figures help get you in the door, but once you're in the running, emotions close the deal. You need to use your passion, conviction and confidence in concert to be The Closer. Nobody else in the Democratic field has your closing skills.

America has let you into their homes to make the sale. They trust you. Now it's simply about closing the deal.