"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

Monday, November 03, 2008

Your Chance to be a Part of History


This is your last chance to be a part of this historic presidential campaign. Sign on to my.barackobama.com to volunteer to be a part of the final push to get out the vote for the Obama campaign.

The race is tightening in key battleground states, and everyone -- no matter what state you live in -- can help out by calling voters in these states to remind them to vote on Tuesday, and to remind them where their polling location is. The great news is you're only calling people who already support Obama, so there's no chance of any arguments or tension with the people you call.

Anyone can also volunteer to canvas on Tuesday to help get out the vote. Political professionals know that winning elections isn't just winning hearts and minds, it's moving butts to the polls.

And this is where you can help. I canvassed for Obama yesterday, and it was just great to feel like I was playing a small part in the "ground war" building up for election day. It really does feel great to play even a small part in a big idea.

So, I personally vouch for it feeling great to participate, and I think you might also enjoy contributing to this unique moment in history. Now's your chance. There might not be another.

Go to http://my.barackobama.com, sign up, and start calling people. And, find your local campaign office, meet some great people, and help out as much as you can in "getting out the vote" on Tuesday.

Election day (and the eve of) is the time when words no longer matter. Only action does.

Take action. Be a part of something extraordinary. Make a difference. Now.


Friday, October 31, 2008

An Economical Endorsement


I hold The Economist in high regard as a global news publication. Though, while reading it, it is important to recognize and acknowledge that it advocates a fierce ideology that maintaining free markets is by far the most advantageous strategy for improving the state of the human condition. Thus, when analyzing American politics, they are not going to be too inclined to endorse a Democrat for President. In fact, in articles throughout this year, I sensed The Economist strongly leaning toward McCain in their election coverage.

So it was to my great surprise that they have announced their endorsement of Barack Obama for President. Unlike its only two prior endorsements of Democrats (Kerry as "incoherent [and] far from an easy call," and Clinton as representing a party that "deserves a chance to try"), this endorsement is full-throated:

"The Economist does not have a vote, but if it did, it would cast it for Mr. Obama. We do so wholeheartedly: the Democratic candidate has clearly shown that he offers the better chance of restoring America's self-confidence."
Note: There is, of course, an argument made by Republicans that all the Economist does is endorse the "non incumbent party" nominee. This frame is clearly being advanced as a way to discount this powerful endorsement. However, it's simply not true: In 1984 and in 1988, The Economist chose to endorse no one.

This endorsement is powerful on two fronts:

1. The President of the United States is not a single-issue position. This is a free-market (i.e., anti-socialist) magazine weighing all the factors involved in what a President is and needs to be for America. Being a British enterprise, The Economist has traditionally seen America as a crucial gravitational force for the world's stability, safety and morality. From their perspective, America is much more than a nation -- it is a (now withering) symbol of what people and nations can do at their best: fearlessly innovate, explore, give, work and grow.

From this vantage point, even the virulent free-market editors see the balanced scorecard: international relations, terrorism, the economy, race relations... all of these factors go into picking a modern-day President. The Economist reminds us that picking a President is so much more than a tax plan.

2. Obama is more like Ronald Reagan than most on either side of the aisle party want to admit. This is prescient OKR speaking; meaning, this is not a tactic that is necessarily going to win Obama any votes, hearts or minds in the next few days. But I'm going to advocate this frame nevertheless because I want to be out in front of it.

Actually, I'm not the one who is out in front of it first -- Obama was when he said that Reagan "changed the trajectory of America... He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it." And he meant what he said -- it's just that he quickly learned that he couldn't say such things in Democratic primaries without being bludgeoned by a nearby Clinton.

Nevertheless, it's an important parallel. In 1980, Reagan was seen by many (right up to the end) as a vapid two-bit actor who did not have the experience or foreign policy chops to navigate America through the Cold War. Yet, no matter what your opinion on his philosophies and actions, he was a transformational President. He fundamentally shifted the domestic political landscape for decades, and dramatically changed the status quo of world events.

But how did this "unknown" and "inexperienced" candidate do it? Reagan transformed the nation -- and the world -- by restoring America's self-confidence.

Think about this while reading the Economist's endorsement again.

It's true that Obama's political philosophy is quite different from that of Reagan's. But his leadership philosophy is quite reminiscent.

During the primaries, there was a darn good reason why Republicans were so distressed about a potential Obama candidacy (distressed to the point of outright shilling for Hillary Clinton) -- they saw the Democrats' Ronald Reagan rising.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Talking Points for Softies

Obama Supporters,

Despite Obama's seemingly Bradley-busting buffer in the polls, this lead is unprecedentedly soft. People who are "soft" Obama supporters are people who were swayed by a speech, a tag line, or party affiliation, but were not completely comfortable with the candidate.

Many argue that this softness is due to Obama's skin color. Maybe. Not much you or I can do about irrational decision making.

Some argue that this softness is due to his lack of experience. This is a seemingly rational rationale, but it's not. And many are concerned about a traditional liberal philosophy of higher taxes stunting real economic growth. Both of these arguments are bunk, meaning they need to be debunked. And that's what I'm going to do right now:

Bunk Rationale #1: "Barack Obama just doesn't have the experience to handle the tough challenges facing our country."

Debunking talking points:

  • Senator Obama not only has close to 12 years of experience as both a state and federal Senator, but he has shown America his executive experience as CEO of a small business for the past 2 years: The Obama 08 Campaign.
  • As CEO of his election campaign, Obama has attracted the best and brightest talent to run his campaign -- a campaign that has been miraculous in its effectiveness, innovation, financing, and discipline. He has crushed entrenched competition (Clinton, Inc.), and is now showing he can win against the mudslinging and character assassinating Republican, Inc. machine as well.
  • Obama has just enough Washington experience to provide him with the discipline, judgment and confidence to run this great country, and has just enough "outsider" experience to change it for the better.
  • Most importantly, Obama has shown us that he has the competence and stature to be President. Just look at how well he handled the economic crisis in September, and how he quickly gained support overseas from our allies during his in-person visits in August. Even if you think he doesn't have as much experience as McCain, it's hard to argue that Obama has the competence, stature and natural skills in all the right areas to be President. If I were hiring someone for a job, I would take experience into consideration, but I would be more interested in their skills, abilities and level of competence.

Bunk Rationale #2: "Barack Obama represents a liberal philosophy of taxing more, which will stunt economic growth and give the government too much involvement in our lives."

Debunking talking points:

  • Senator Obama only needs to restore the 1990s tax rate on the most wealthy Americans because someone, somewhere needs to pay for the Iraq War. We need to pay for the tremendously expensive mistakes made by the Bush administration, and whoever is President is going to have to do that.
  • Senator Obama is actually much less liberal than a traditional Democrat. A 1970s/80s Democrat would be raising taxes on everyone to reduce the deficit. Not Obama -- he's only going to restore the 1990s taxes -- as John McCain put it in 2003 -- to the people who can comfortably afford them.
  • Contrary to what Senator McCain says, Senator Obama will not be taxing the most successful small businesses so that they cannot hire workers and grow the economy. In fact, it's the opposite -- President Obama will restore the 1990s tax rate on income (not revenue) above $250k/year, but he will also provide a $3,000 per employee tax cut for every business owner who hires an on-shore citizen over the next two years. This is not a tax increase at all -- it's a tax reduction to help small businesses grow the economy and increase jobs here at home.
  • Senator Obama's tax plan is better than even Bill Clinton's tax plan that served us so well in the 1990s: President Obama will reduce taxes even more on people who make under $250k/year, and tax folks who make over $250k/year just as much as they did in the 1990's. As far as I remember, folks making $250k and above did pretty well in the 90s.

Of course, there are other slams against Obama out there, but these are the two big issues that turn people soft on Obama in our country. They just need to hear counter-points like these to give them the confidence that the warnings and fear being launched at them daily are refutable.

I ask each of you to find a softie between now and election day, and ask them what concerns them about Obama as President. First, listen carefully: "I see..." Then bridge: "I can see how you'd see it that way..." Then counter: "Have you thought about [insert above talking point here] as well?"

The Obama campaign relies on each of us not to convince people out of an ideology, but to ensure that they at least see both sides of the issues represented in a fair way. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but their opinions will mean more after they carefully consider both sides of the argument.

I am convinced that a truly open-minded voter will see that these talking points trump the vacuous drivel that the McCain campaign has been peddling. Why? Because these points are substantive, and in tough times, people do tend to gravitate toward substance over spin.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Introducing: Between the Columns

Our Karl Rove subscribers, readers, and passers by,

As an Our Karl Rove reader, you know that I only post my most thought-provoking and strategic ideas. Yes, sometimes this can mean days or weeks between posts, but in exchange, I aim to provide columnist-quality perspectives and advice to my readers.

I think this model works well for Our Karl Rove, and I don't want to change the format.

Yet I have found that there is a lot more I would like to share with you on a more regular basis. To help address this gap, I'm launching a new blog:

Between the Columns
: A Breeding Ground for the Next Generation of Political Analysis, Punditry and Messages.

My new blog will be different than Our Karl Rove in two fundamental ways:

  • It will be authored by "me," Jon, not the persona "Our Karl Rove." That means the tone of voice will be different. You'll have to assess for yourself if you like "my" voice as much as the one I strap on for OKR posts.
  • It will be updated far more regularly -- more like a normal blog.

Some of the ideas blogged at Between the Columns may gestate into Our Karl Rove posts, but the overall approach will be more punditry and analysis, and less advocacy and advice.

Similar to Our Karl Rove, Between the Columns will continue to challenge conventions, assumptions and existing frames in an entertaining and engaging fashion -- but as a political analyst and pundit, not a strict progressive advocate.

Lastly, I hope to see my Between the Columns posts become topics for discussions where visitors and I can collaborate and further parse the stories and further flesh out ideas. Unlike many blogs, comments posted on Between the Columns will most likely be responded to by me personally as a way to engage in an on-line conservation. As a interactive community, I believe that we can advance the state political thinking.


PS - If you like the content and style of Between the Columns, I invite you to sign-up for an RSS feed or email alert to be alerted to new posts. Both sign-up options are available on the left margin of the new blog. And, feel free to email me at jon@betweenthecolumns.com with any feedback (good or bad).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Final Frame

Obama Campaign,

As we turn the corner and head for the finish line in this campaign, it can be difficult to convince ourselves that introducing a new frame/meme/competitive advantage is the right thing to do. After all, if the campaign has proven anything to us, it's that it likes to play defense when it's ahead and only take chances when behind.

Still, hear me out: There is one frame you can deploy during the final stretch that is completely risk-free, will resonate universally with all voter demographics, and will also subtly touch upon key differentiators between Obama and McCain.

Obama/Biden: Working Harder

The Working Harder frame plays on multiple levels that can only improve the ticket's positioning in the electorate:

  • Americans are a hard-working bunch. Hard work is just as much of our national self-image as freedom, democracy, and religion. Advancing this frame plays into our self-image, which can only benefit the ticket. To prove the point, look at what advancing freedom and democracy did for George W. Bush's election prospects in 2004.

  • Hard work -- not spin -- is exactly what will get us out of our economic crisis, and everyone knows it. Americans will feel even more secure with Obama/Biden if they are promised and re-assured that hard work will accompany all the knowledge and education (i.e., so-called elitism) that comes with the ticket. Nobody questions Obama's intellect -- it's just that too often Americans believe that a leader relies on either intellect or hard work to succeed. The Obama campaign needs to make it clear that Obama / Biden will not just be smart, but will work hard.

  • Obama/Biden have already proven that they are working tirelessly to prove to Americans that they are the right ticket for America's future. Everyone who's paying attention knows that the Obama campaign had to out-work (as well as out-smart) Hillary Clinton in order to win. So, while hard work has always been the ethic, a hard-working narrative has yet to be introduced to the voter directly.

  • Hard work is a frame that will directly impact the demographics that are the hardest for Obama/Biden to reach: working class Democrats, struggling middle-class independents, and non-ideological/moderate Republicans. Heck, even racists might get past the half-black thing if they are convinced that Obama/Biden will work hard. Much of "racism" in America is actually not racism, but culturalism -- a belief that blacks in America simply don't want to work hard to get ahead, and expect our tax dollars to subsidize their lifestyle.

There is certain obviousness to this that is far too easy to overlook, and therefore not too difficult to explain, nor to prove. Obama/Biden have already proven they're willing to work hard to make America great again, and when the voter comparison shops based on this frame, they will see I'm-72-and-I-don't-work-on-weekends McCain and I'm-a-mouthpiece-and-not-a-worker--just-like-Bush-and-who-by-the-way-has-five-kids-to-raise Palin don't even have to be called out explicitly on these issues. The voters already implicitly feel these truths.

Beyond the rationale, there are two compelling attributes to this being a killer final frame:

  • There is no down-side to introducing the frame of working harder. There can be no media blow-back (it's not negative, and it's a subjective assertion), and there's really no counter-punch opportunity (McCain simply can't afford to make his age and energy level a focus at this stage in the game, especially with his wildly unqualified VP pick waiting in the wings).

  • It is incredibly simple to introduce as a campaign message. Just two steps are required: 1) Alert the media that you will be introducing the new working harder message so that the analysts and pundits get their ears tuned. 2) Simply sprinkle the working harder message into existing speeches wherever it makes sense (i.e., "America needs and deserves new leadership. Leadership that will work harder for you.")

When the campaign introduces this final frame, the American people will not only feel better about the ticket than they already do, but they will instinctively connect the dots around the age and qualification gap between the tickets, and hand the election over to Obama/Biden with a decisive victory.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

And Then There Was One

My Fellow Americans,

As members of a capitalist society and culture, we are all tuned into the value and long-term strength created by healthy, fair competition. This extends well beyond the free market -- our Presidential races follow the same model. We whittle down our candidates through a primary process, and the winners compete for votes in the general election.

Yet, one of these winners has just suspended his campaign for President. For those of you counting at home, that leaves us with one presidential campaign. I am quite concerned about this development, as I think an Obama campaign without healthy competition will overwhelm our nation in vast swaths of hope and change. Unencumbered by distractions like pig cosmetics and lies like sexy kindergarteners, the Obama campaign will ruthlessly rampage our electorate with their savvy policies, relevant philosophies, and wicked smarts to boot.

John McCain has not only let this country down by suspending his campaign, but he has also shown the American voter that, even if he does re-start his campaign, John McCain is the kind of no-email, no-internet, single-tasking guy that reminds us more of our grandfathers than our CEOs.

Here are some other things that we've learned from McCain's decision:

  • America requires fundamentally strong leaders as Presidents who can handle a crisis without suspending their responsibilities. We've already had 8 years of a President who has panicked in a crisis. Look where that's gotten us.
  • The job of the American President requires juggling 20 crises in any given hour. John McCain has just demonstrated to us that he can't handle any more than one at a time.
  • We know John McCain doesn't use email or the internet. But what we didn't think about is how that means he needs to be everywhere in person for every single event that affects him. Times have changed since the 1970's, John. We now can do a web conference without having to fly anywhere. We now can check our emails on our Blackberries and monitor situations remotely.
  • We now better understand and appreciate Carly Fiorina's assessment that John McCain couldn't run a company.

And while these new insights into John McCain's character and nature are revealing, I have left the most fascinating observation for last:

In his heart of hearts, John McCain is a Senator, not a President. When looking at the choice of how to spend his time during a crisis, he would rather legislate than lead.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Don't Debate. Debase.


There are two success factors for you in your first debate with John McCain:

  1. Make him look unelectable.
  2. Make him look unelectable.

I bet you were thinking that one of them was going to be "make yourself look electable." However, that would be the politics of hope, and as your campaign as already acknowledged, that page has turned. This is no longer about whether America can deal with a black candidate, whether you're experienced or not, or how "liberal" you might be.

Now the race is down to simply what kind of President Americans want. And because you are who you are (thoughtful, courteous, silently tough, contemplative, nuanced), there's really no point in emphasizing these characteristics because these are not what Americans generally look for in their President.

Americans want our presidents to be passionate, ideological, visionary, and likable. John McCain actually fits this bill pretty well (other than the visionary and some ideological bits) -- which explains why he is even above 20% in the polls as a Republican this season. For those who are already in your camp, you clearly are seen having these assets as well. But for those key 10% undecideds (and possible converts) it's critical to acknowledge that these people are not fully enamored enough with your candidacy, and may still be drawn to McCain's folksy, narrative-oriented style. When you boil it all down, these debates are for those remaining 10%, so best to tailor your debate for them.

Which, ironically, puts you in the deficit column in terms of who will "win" the debate. This is why your two success factors are about being on offense, and are focused around tearing down vs. building up. And, if you do it right, you will not only win the debate, you will effectively end the race by opening up an 8-10 point lead.

Let's look at John McCain's attributes that make him seem like he might be a better President to undecided voters, and what we can do to eviscerate them:

John's passion is contagious because he makes you feel he's really going to do something about it. It's just how interpersonal communications work.

Passionate behavior can be undermined by creating a contrast: Passion only works when it matches the perceived need for the amount of energy being expended on a topic. There are many situations in life when a passionate person losses out to the measured, reasoned and sober person because the latter made the former appear to let their emotions get the best of them. In other words, the passionate person can be made to be seen as someone who loses sight of the big picture because their emotions don't allow them to see clearly. To this end, there are plenty of opportunities to make McCain seem too emotional. Little quips like "I see John is quite passionate about this subject" or "I think we all need to settle down a little so we can get our heads around this problem."

John is a traditional Republican candidate in one fundamental way: he has a strong ideology in terms of foreign policy, and has a basic "not my job" approach to domestic policies. Like most modern Republicans, John believes that the government should get deeply involved in how all other countries govern themselves, but should stay out of America's business.

This can be deconstructed and turned against him in two very easy ways:

  • On foreign policy, simply argue that John is an ideologue just like George Bush and Dick Cheney; that all three of them wanted to go to war with Iraq right after 9/11, and focused more on their "grand scheme" than the safety, security, and budget of the American people.
  • On domestic policy, it's quite easy to argue that the last thing America needs right now is a "limited government" President who wants the government to get out of the way. People all over this nation are demanding better health care, safer communities, better education and, of course, a reliable and trustworthy financial industry. Government has been "getting out of the way" for eight years, and now we're seeing firsthand how the Republican approach to domestic issues pans out.

This will be the most difficult attribute to undermine. John is charismatic, has a good sense of humor, and definitely comes off with a folksy wisdom vibe.

What I say about McCain's likability is: easy come, easy go. For as much John gets ahead with his likability score, he can also completely undermine it with a single eruption. And everyone knows what I mean by an eruption. Your job is to get him to erupt. To do so, you need to infuriate him by asserting something that he knows to be false, but will have a difficult time defending because it will force him off his talking points:

  • Challenge his wisdom and his experience in foreign affairs (make him tell the nation that he has spent almost 30 years crawling around Washington).
  • Challenge his ability to lead us out of an economic crisis (make him explain his free-market, low-regulation philosophy).
  • Challenge his notion of "Country First" when he picks a VP candidate who is clearly not ready to be President, but who has energized his Republican base. In other words, he's put winning first, country second.

Of course during the debate you will be dapper, substantive and have the right answers for all of the looming challenges that we face. This is a given -- nobody as far as I can see is questioning your intellect or your relative youth. The challenge for you, however, is to also view the debate through the personality lens: Despite the conventional wisdom in Democratic circles, it's not entirely about how well you address the issues -- it's about how these 10% undecideds compare the two of you as people, and who they think best fits their model of an ideal President.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Drill, Baby, Drill

Obama Campaign,

You've made good progress drilling into people's minds that John McCain voted with President Bush over 90% of the time. This groundwork will now come in handy as we build upon it to drill the McCain campaign into the ground:

Since John McCain is a 90% investor in the Bush administration's strategies, he is to be held responsible for 90% of the problems we're experiencing today.

I understand that the more decent-minded among us might be troubled by the notion of directly linking McCain's voting record to all of the problems we have in America today. Hardly seems fair to hold a mere Senator accountable for everything, right?

Wrong. John McCain's voting record is the best indication the voters have as to how he would run his White House. McCain's votes mirror the Bush policies that got us here. President Bush's policies might have made our current national problems possible, but they've been fully supported by McCain. Some in the Obama campaign will surely not be comfortable with this kind of free-form extrapolation.

Correlating McCain's voting record to all of today's problems is solid politics that it will be revered for it's political savvy rather than be seen as dirty, nasty, politics-as-usual. At a minimum, the audacity of it all (audacious, that is, for the otherwise highbrow Obama campaign) will generate press interest, and propagate this frame.

We can message this (at a minimum) in two ways. The first approach is to touch on each of today's problems individually, and attribute them to McCain:

The "Thanks, John!" Campaign

"600,000 jobs lost and growing unemployment... Thanks, John McCain, for your hands-off approach to the economy."

Today's big-business bail-outs are using your tax dollars... Thanks, John McCain, for supporting the bailing out of Wall Street investment firms."

John McCain said 'Government should be on businesses' side, not in their way'... Thanks, John McCain, for being Big Business's Best Friend."

Companies are outsourcing jobs like yours every day... Thanks, John McCain, for voting NO on repealing tax subsidies for companies that move U.S. jobs offshore."

"Global Warming is threatening our very existence... Thanks, John McCain, for voting NO on reducing oil usage by 40% by 2025."

"We're addicted to foreign oil, and rely on undemocratic nations for our livelihood... Thanks, John McCain, for opposing energy independence at every turn." (McCain has a 17% rating by CAF, indicating opposition to energy independence)

The second approach is to turn John McCain's voting record into a narrative -- the very same noose that the Republicans planned on hanging Hillary Clinton with:

The "His Votes Tell the Story" Campaign:
"His votes tell the story: John McCain voted for this economy, for the never-ending Iraq War, and for 90% of the problems we have today. In November, you will have a choice: vote for the candidate and his party who brought us 90% of our problems, or vote for the new, Democratic candidate. It's your choice, America."

"His votes tell the story: As someone who is 90% in agreement with the Bush administration, John McCain has told us more about his beliefs with his voting record than his words ever will."

"His votes tell the story: Want more pro-business, pro-oil-industry, pro-war, pro-debt and pro-fessional lobbyists getting in the way of progress? Good news: the Republicans have found someone who votes just like the guys leaving the White House."

"His votes tell the story: John McCain voted against penalizing companies for shipping American jobs overseas. John McCain votes against your interests, and John McCain hopes you'll vote against your best interests, too."

"His votes tell the story: John McCain voted for the Iraq War, a war that is draining us of our resources, straining our military, and didn't even help us find Osama Bin Laden."

It's time to drill, baby. Drill into the minds of all Americans that votes matter, and that McCain's voting record provides us with a view into his politics that words, speeches, and Alaskan adventures simply cannot cover up. Sure, there are plenty of reasonable McCain votes (after all, he used to be a reasonable guy), but that shouldn't stop you from focusing on the votes that paint McCain into a corner.

NOTE: All assertions made in this article are sourceable.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Turning the Corner by Cornering McCain

Obama Campaign Team,

Maybe you just relish the idea of a close race. Or maybe you revel in everyone worrying about a tight race all the while knowing that you'll win outright in November due to your stellar ground game. But I have to tell you, this would be a much easier race for all of us if you would start painting your competition into a political corner.

Before you get all righteous on me and say that "we're running this campaign based on the highest of standards and integrity" and "we're not going to engage in politics as usual," I argue that painting your opponent into a political corner is simply an exercise to provide the voters with information about the opposition's views -- views that the opposition would rather keep secret.

So, you have to ask yourselves: is it worth hoping that voters figure out where McCain/Palin stand on the issues on their own, or is it your responsibility to not only inform voters about what Obama stands for, but also what McCain/Palin really stand for?

It's time to turn the corner. It's time to focus on the fact that you're in a competition, and that it's part of your responsibility to shed light on your opponent as a service to the voters. To do this effectively, you need to do three things simultaneously:

  1. Hold McCain accountable for everything he and his running mate have said and stand for.
  2. Have the gumption to direct your questions towards McCain personally so that he feels the need to respond personally.
  3. Ask questions designed to corner McCain into answering questions one of three ways: attack (temper, temper!), deny (makes for great media meat), or heartily accept (television ad bait).

The following are examples of questions designed to corner McCain that not only uncover information for voters, but help ensure his responses provide further political mileage:

"You have a woman on your ticket, yet you would support nominating Supreme Court justices that would take away women's choices. Do you think your new female supporters know that?"

"Sarah Palin thinks the Iraq war was sanctioned by G-d. Do you agree with your VP nominee?"

"Sarah Palin thinks that a community organizer has no responsibilities. Do you agree or disagree with her that community service is a waste of time?"

"Why do you support drilling for oil when you also know that it will contribute to global warming? You can't be for both. Are you for drilling or for cleaning up our environment? Pick one."

"I'm proud to be a Democrat, yet I notice that you never mention you're a Republican. Are you a proud Republican? You know, like the current administration?"

"You say you put your country first. Yet you picked the next-in-line for Commander-in-Chief after only meeting Sarah Palin twice. I think putting such little effort into such a critical decision really worries people out there. So, on behalf of the American people, I have to ask: Do you make all your decisions that impulsively and with that little preparation?"

"You used to rail against the Bush tax cuts, and now you are for them. You tried to pass reasonable immigration reform, and now you want to shut down the border. You used to be against offshore drilling, and now you're all for it. So, I'm really curious: Are there any other critical issues for America you're going to flip-flop on between now and November 4th?"

"Your most recent TV ads are simply ridiculous, petty and downright comical. Some say that you can tell how a President will lead by the way he runs his campaign. Is your campaign indeed a sneak preview of how your White House would operate?"

There are plenty more where these come from (if you need more, email me), but I think you get the point: I'm not talking about engaging in silly season politics. No; I'm talking about forcing John McCain to answer questions that the media won't ask, and forcing him to answer questions himself instead of hiding behind well-produced ads.

And, yes, there is an added benefit to asking questions that corner him into answering in ways that can be politically expedient. I know it's not within the Obama brand to be this way, but I think it's a reasonable concession in exchange for helping the voters learn about the Real McCain.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Republican's Bottom-Heavy Ticket


What with all the hoopla around the roll-out of Sara Palin for VP, it's hard to imagine that this could be bad news for John McCain.

Yet, as luck would have it, it is.

The pick of Palin not only showed those of us watching that John McCain is a bad decision maker on several fronts, but brings things into focus about John McCain and the Republican party that are unintended consequences of such a risky pick:

Sarah Palin Enthusiasm
It's clear that the right-wing Republican movement is ecstatic over Palin as VP. They are throwing money at the campaign hand-over-fist to show their pleasure in seeing "one of them" on the national ticket. Unfortunately, all this recent enthusiasm begs the question: why wasn't John McCain worthy of this money and adulation beforehand? It's clear that something is wrong with McCain as their candidate, because only the addition of Sarah Palin has "excited" the base and has Republicans "emptying their pockets" to support the ticket. If the base is only excited by the VP side of the ticket, what does that say for the P side of the ticket?

Sarah Palin Galvanization
There's no doubt that Sarah Palin has galvanized the Republican base. This creates two specific problems for John McCain: What is it about the top of the ticket that was not galvanizing his base, and, more importantly, Palin has galvanized the Democratic base. Sarah Palin is doing to Democrats what Hillary Clinton promised to do to the Republican Base if she would have won the nomination. The $10 million dollars Obama raised the day after Palin's speech speaks volumes to this unintended blow back.

Sarah Palin Experience
The Republicans have been trumpeting how Sarah Palin's executive experience in governing the "largest state in the union" (yes, they actually say that) eclipses that of Obama's and Biden's. Republicans are even saying that Palin fills in gaps in John McCain's resume. So, if we are to follow the Republicans' own logic, Sarah Palin has more relevant experience to the presidency than John McCain.

Sarah Palin is the Fresh Future of the Republican Party
Conservative insiders such as Rick Davis have already dubbed Sarah Palin "the future of the party." If Sarah Palin is the future, then, unfortunately, John McCain is the past. And I mean that in the most gracious way. John McCain has the heart and soul of a politician that precedes today's political atmosphere, today's challenges, and today's complexities. It's not his fault -- he's 72. I don't begrudge the guy for his age, but the point here is that Sarah Palin's youthful, spunky essence and energy quite unfortunately makes John McCain seem even older than he did before picking Palin.

In only 48 hours, the media frenzy spurred by John McCain's surprising pick of Sarah Palin has quickly transformed from "how exciting and energizing" to "Palin's bright light shows us how dim their chances really are."

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Picking Ms. Palin

Obama Campaign & Democrats,

The ultimate outcome of McCain's VP pick is an unknown, despite the fact that pundits are having a field day prognosticating, and partisans are earning their pay framing and reframing McCain/Palin. In dealing with the Palin wild card, the Obama campaign and Democrats will be best served by seeing through the noise, focusing on the most fertile issues that this VP pick raises, and framing the issues in a way that makes McCain's brand less impressive to the general public.

Most analysts have converged on the notion that picking Palin was the political equivalent of a "Hail Mary pass" in football. Most fair-minded people would agree that McCain picking someone he simply does not know is a strategic risk powered by optimism -- an approach to decision-making that Republicans appear to be addicted to of late. The more cynical among us have a strong case to make that it's worse than that -- that John McCain has been hijacked by the Republican Machine that has run Washington for the past eight years.

It really doesn't matter which is true -- both scenarios solidify the "3rd term" rhetoric quite effectively. And for the sake of argument and mass-consumption, let's presume that John McCain is still in full command of his campaign -- and that the "Hail Mary" Palin pick was simply a reflection of McCain's executive decision-making prowess.

Here's how we frame this for the media and the American people:

John McCain Let Us Down
The most important decision a presidential nominee makes is picking a Vice President, and McCain's pick failed this test in three troubling ways:

  1. John McCain unfortunately does put partisan politics in front of country. Barack Obama might not want to admit it, but John McCain has now shown us that he's willing to risk the safety and security of America in order to win an election. With America's deep economic problems combined with the monumental foreign policy challenges we currently face, it is shockingly reckless to pick someone like Sarah Palin to be a (72 year-old) heartbeat away from the presidency.

    Can you imagine if McCain died on-the-job in 2009 and our adversaries around the world saw a President Palin running the country? Can you imagine what the leaders in Russia, China and Iran would do seeing that weakness in America? John McCain has decided that all of this risk is worth it just to excite the Republican base and to sway Hillary voters. Country First, eh?

  2. John McCain makes decisions just like George W. Bush. John McCain has now confirmed that he would be no different than the Bush administration in making key decisions. Meaning, John McCain and George W. Bush both make critical decisions affecting our country with very little information, but with a lot of optimism and risk-taking. Picking Ms. Palin is the equivalent to going to war with Iraq, as both decisions were based on "gut" and, worse, do not have the nation's best interests at heart.

  3. John McCain remains a maverick and a fighter pilot; not a President. Being a maverick and a fighter pilot takes guts of steel and a love of death-defying risk. Nobody is going to deny John McCain that. But the traits that make him a great maverick and fighter pilot are actually the exact opposite of what we want in our President. We need our president to be a solid, sober decision-maker who listens, learns and then executes.

All three of these points help reinforce that John McCain's interest in making "Hail Mary passes" is what got us into war with Iraq in the first place, and taking unnecessary risks is what has gotten us into our current economic slump. I think everyone would agree that the last thing America needs is more of the same.

In summary, do not let Palin's gender, personality, family life or political beliefs drive the debate -- these issues will be driven into the ground automatically by raw media curiosity. Instead, zoom in on McCain and how his decision-making is a real sneak preview of how he'd be as President. Hone the debate around Palin toward one or more of the three above talking points, and overtly draw contrasts to Obama for each point. With the single exception of "the surge," Obama looks better every time he is compared to McCain's executive demeanor and judgment.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Our Nation Digs Obama's Indignation


Great job with the convention acceptance speech. It was crisp, precise, and direct. But, amongst all the words, imagery, and brilliant concepts, what stands out as your most effective rhetorical weapon is when you get indignant.

It's when you become indignant that the American people finally get to see what really matters to you. You pride yourself on being cool, calm, collected -- a steady mind and a steady hand. No doubt, these are optimal traits of a commander-in-chief and a president presiding over historically challenging times. We need sober decisions by good decision makers who are not unduly influenced by the tactical forces of emotion.

Yet, by the same token, Americans tend to like these traits more in our legislative and judicial bodies than in our presidents. There is a long history of Americans expecting the executive to be passionate, values-driven and leading through a fierce intensity of purpose. You have all of these things, but you keep them behind a bullet-proof emotional vest too much of the time. This is partially why people claim "not to know what Obama is really about" or worry that "Obama is a Trojan Horse." Americans really need to believe they see the man within. Everyone knows where your mind is, but when you get indignant, you give us a sneak peek of where your heart is.

I am simply trying to pull the golden needle out of an astounding oratorical haystack: Letting us "into Obama" to show us where your passions lie is just as important as getting us inspired around your vision for a better future.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biding Time for Biden: It Was Worth the Wait


Congratulations on joining the Obama 08 campaign.

Your proven, intelligence-driven passion to get to the bottom of America's most important challenges is a welcome addition to the Obama campaign.

You perfectly complement Barack -- the combining of his deep intellectual curiosity with your deep and substantive problem-solving skills is a slam dunk ticket for 08.

The McCain camp is going to try to paint this as "admitting" that Obama is lacking skills in foreign policy and governing. And, of course, they'll try to use your own words about Obama during the primaries to muddy up the waters. My strong recommendation is to utilize jujitsu politics -- graciously receive the incoming political fodder, and turn it around on them. I argue that your addition to the ticket means that the very concerns they're voicing are now nullified. Thanks to you joining the ticket, Barack will have the most senior foreign policy adviser at his side every day of his administration -- an adviser who will not only provide him with deep knowledge of foreign affairs, but who will also serve as his "chief navigator and bridge builder" on Capitol Hill.

Joe, you will restore integrity and honor to the position of vice president, and I believe you will work your tail off to undo the awful things that the sitting Vice President has done to this country for the past 8 years.

Congratulations to both you and Barack on forming a most formidable ticket.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Obama's Energy Plan Lacking Energy


I fear that you are really missing a key opportunity to not just catapult your candidacy into a double-digit lead, but to show America that Democrats embody the brand of economic, ecological and foreign-policy leadership.

Is there really reason for fear? Well, I recently saw your campaign ad, "New Energy," and what I see in this ad is essentially what I hear on the campaign stump: a series of initiatives that you know will help America move into a new era. Unfortunately, only smart, engaged people like you and your staffers -- those who can intuitively connect the dots -- can get excited about how these initiatives will intermingle to allow America to rise above our current challenges.

The first half of this ad simply explains why McCain stinks (fair enough, though not the "new kind of politics" you kinda-sorta promised us). The second half then outlines a few initiatives and vague promises. In fact, it looks like an ad that could have been run by the Kerry or Gore campaigns (ouch). This ad risks leaving many independent voters thinking "sounds like more-of-the-same Democratic government programs."

Barack, there's a big gap here -- aren't you supposed to be the young, smart, energetic and innovative candidate who's going to solve America's toughest problems?
Traditional Democratic frames of programs and policies might do the trick in today's anti-Republican environment, but they'll barely work, and your use of these frames won't advance the Democratic Party brand like many of us thought you might advance the brand.

In fact, you have a responsibility to live up to being the transformative leader you've promised us you are. And that means being a political leader -- that is, a leader of ideas, not just a smart administrator of programs.

Mainstream Americans don't want any more government programs -- they want solutions to their problems.

And here's the irony -- a solution to a problem might very well be a series of programs! But Democrats inextricably reverse the messaging orientation: they tend to extrovert the underlying policies and programs, and introvert the values and philosophies that power them. I call this Democratitis.

But, you, Barack, didn't seem to have this problem in your primary fight with Hillary. She was the one rolling out the litany of programs, and you stood above and bequeathed philosophy. So it befuddles me why, now, you seem to have come down with Democratitis.

Build Your Pillars
Like any structure designed to withstand stress and weather storms, strong campaigns require strategically placed and sturdy pillars. The Obama campaign already has a solid bedrock -- change -- from which to build. Yet, there has been precious little development on this bedrock.

This takes us back to your energy plan as a case in point: Your energy plan is simply sitting on the foundation, with minimal context, no related initiatives, and most importantly, no linkage to your broader strategy. Your energy plan needs a home -- a pillar -- where it is connected to a larger message; where it has neighboring plans that, together, create a community of plans that make up the pillar's raison d'ĂȘtre.

Ultimately, the Obama campaign should define 3-4 pillars that completely encompass your brand, your priorities, and your values. These pillars should be labeled aspirationally, and should act as sub-brands that people can use as linguistic shortcuts to easily and readily discuss the ideas.

To help make the point, which conversation can you imagine happening at the water cooler or over the dinner table?

"So, what do you think of Obama's energy plan, where he is going to make energy independence an urgent priority, raise mileage standards, fast-track technology for alternative fuels, and give us a $1000 tax rebate?"


"So, what do you think of Obama's energy plan, you know, that 'Free, Clean and Green Country' thing where we become
free from foreign oil while also cleaning up the pollution by investing in green technologies to help make America beautiful again?"

See the difference? People are much more likely to discuss and share your plans when they're wrapped in a compelling brand than if they are just a list of policies.

The immediate next steps required are:

  1. Collect all of your initiatives, policies and priorities
  2. Segment these into 3 or 4 broad categories
  3. Step back and decide what philosophy or American value powers each category
  4. Label the category from the solution perspective, and develop slogans based on the philosophy and values powering that solution

When you've built and communicated your campaign pillars, you will then be able to refer to them without having to discuss policies and programs. You will be framing your campaign in a solutions context from an emotional perspective. This is exactly what the voters want and need to hear.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Primal Anger Management (a.k.a. "The Democratic Diamond of Unity")


Yes, it's been a while -- two months, in fact. OKR has always been about providing insights when there's something of value to share in terms of advice, strategy and framing for Democrats. With the on-going Obama/Clinton slug fest, there was really nothing I could add that would help or otherwise matter. Unlike traditional blogs, OKR posts occur only when there's a good reason.

I am not in the prediction game, and I've already committed to not backing a candidate in the primaries. After all, as Our Karl Rove, my job is to ensure the Democratic Party is as strong, relevant and productive as possible. Yet as of Tuesday, May 6, a path appears to be clearing for the nomination of Barack Obama.

Both candidates have been amazing in their own, respective ways. Democrats have had a great opportunity to see two different approaches to politics under a banner of virtually identical policies. As we now know all too well, and with a tip of the hat to our friends in the Bush administration, approach matters.

Democrats - please read this carefully: What we've experienced to-date is a competition designed to divide, so it should be of no surprise that Democrats have, in fact, become divided. If Democrats were not divided, then I could argue that the primary process really didn't work. The good news: it worked. The two remaining contenders have learned how to fight each other in preparation for the fascinating fight awaiting Democrats in the fall.

A Diamond in the Rough
We're at the final stages of what I call the "bottom half of the diamond." Consider the basic, two-dimensional diamond shape. At the bottom tip of the diamond, the two lines are together, and they gradually separate towards the middle. At the middle -- the very widest part of the diamond -- the two lines are as far apart as they ever will be. This is where the Democratic party is now. But to complete the diamond, the lines must converge once again as they approach the top of the diamond. Once the party re-converges, the diamond will be complete.

But because we're currently in the middle of the diamond, Democrats are naturally at odds with one another: I know people who have come to hate Hillary, and people who think Obama is all talk. These are the artifacts of a manufactured fight. It is now time to start clearing the air...

I Hate Hillary
If you think Hillary is a pandering, trash-talking, lying, neo-con manipulator, this section is for you.

What you need to understand is that Hillary has spent her life in politics and sees it more as a career than a civic calling. No doubt, I think she started in politics for noble and civic reasons. But throughout her career, she was pummeled into cynicism.

Hillary is a professional politician, which means that she sees the political arena like a boxing ring. Just like a boxer, when she gets into the ring, she dons her boxing gloves, inserts her mouth guard, and tries to take the opponent down with all of her might. And, just like a boxer, when she leaves the ring, the match is over. There are absolutely no hard feelings. She is a professional. There's also the idea that her approach to politics reflects the culture of 10 years ago, and the divide-and-conquer approach to winning is showing its age.

So, whenever you felt that she was being a lying, trash-talking, pandering manipulator, just remember that those were just the punches that she felt were her job to throw while in the ring.

Barack Obama is an Empty Shell
If you think that Obama is a smooth talker who has a shady past, and is hiding more than he's showing, this section is for you.

What you need to understand about Barack Obama is that he is not an ideologue. He is not a traditional liberal politician whose sole goal is to push through progressive policies. No; Obama is about process. Obama is less the owner of the idea than the "architect" of how the process of politics should work so that the optimal policies are crafted and backed by broad majorities. He believes this is the only way to truly unite a nation that has been governed by 51/49% splits.

In fact, Obama believes his new political architecture will fundamentally change the quality and results of government. He is not going to fight for universal health care; he's going to create an environment where citizens and their representatives will collaborate to work out a viable solution for universal health care. It's bottom-up policy, not top-down. This approach reflects the future of American culture, although I admit Obama is probably introducing it a bit before it's time -- it'll probably be 10 more years before it truly goes mainstream. But at least this puts Obama ahead of the curve instead of behind the 8-ball.

For those who are used to politicians and politics of the past 50 years, this approach will appear foreign, and can be easily mistaken for seeming downright vacuous. But, to Obama, his platform transcends policy ideology, which he believes is infinitely more powerful and meaningful. Obama is not simply looking to steer the country in the right direction -- he is looking to reconfigure and optimize American democracy for a new era defined by globalization, information, and the resulting interrelations. Heady stuff, no doubt. But the framers of the Constitution were pretty heady in their time, too.

The Low Down
Democrats have been intentionally split into two camps through a process designed to divide. It's critical to understand that it's not Obama or Hillary that created this situation -- it's the very nature of a good primary process.

The key take-away is to acknowledge that if you strongly support either candidate, you're experiencing planned animosity towards the opponent. The sooner Democrats step back and understand that this is planned and not personal (and "see the diamond"), the sooner the Democrats can coalesce around the presumptive Democratic nominee.

To help complete the diamond, send this post to your favorite passionate Democrat so that they, too, can see that they are supposed to be angry with the opponent, and gain a wider perspective that this was all manufactured for the good of the party.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

John McCain: Lucky, or Set Up for Failure?


In a recent Time article, it is suggested that John McCain may be the luckiest guy on earth. I think Time might be right based on the 2008 presidential campaign thus far. But John McCain is going to need a bit more than luck if he plans on becoming President of the United States.

Surely, the Republican Party would really like for McCain to win the Presidency, but that's not really what they're expecting. They expect to lose. This is why John McCain is in the race in the first place, is why he almost went completely broke in 2007, and is why the money has not been pouring in since Romney left the race weeks ago.

You see, John McCain is their nominee in 2008 for the same reasons Kerry was the Democratic nominee in 2004 -- it's a throwaway election for the Republicans. Now, before you react to this, understand that this should be taken in context. It's not like the Democrats didn't try really hard to get Kerry to win in 2004. But the very premise and quality of the Democratic candidates in 2004 spoke of a Hail Mary pass to the nation: "Here's the pick-up team... let's see if we can't pull an upset!"

Now compare the Democrats' 2004 slate with the Republican 2008 slate. There is a similar dynamic at play. Look carefully at the Republican contestants: A pro-choice Mormon, a southern minister-cum-governor who says the darnedest things, a liberal Mayor, a sleepy actor, and a great grandfather who apologized to Krusty the Clown of The Simpsons when he called Rush Limbaugh a clown.

This is clearly the B-team, and assuredly so since all the internal polls told the RNC back in 2006 that there was no point of injuring the A-team in the current political environment.

None of this means that McCain is guaranteed to lose, of course. Kerry did almost win in 2004. But it does give Democrats a leg up in almost all aspects of this race:

  • The grand conservative coalition will not be united, even though they will claim they are
  • The good money will not come in unless McCain unexpectedly shows an ability to lead the party
  • McCain will spend a lot of energy navigating political land mines the entire race as he bobs and weaves between the competing demands of his electoral and political bases
  • The zeal that has powered the conservative movement since 1975 will be diminished
But, keep a watch out: Republicans will have no problem investing in negative attacks on Democrats, because those attacks are a good investment no matter how good or bad their candidate is.

Yes, I know it's tiresome that the Democratic candidates are set to continue battling it out across the nation. But, on balance, this is a good thing. Sure, there will be negative attacks, dress-downs, and money spent fighting amongst themselves. But, more importantly, these candidates will be practicing for the final fight, getting fit and prepped for the big event. In addition, each state that gets a real Democratic primary race will be more invested in that candidate overall. The brand impact and interaction of the two Democratic candidates will be deployed to most every important state in the general election.

The media will continue to get hung up on the mudslinging and the apparent waste of energy in the Democratic primary. But I see it as a great promotional opportunity for the candidates, and the party: the candidates' names, positions and platforms will continue to get tremendous news coverage, and the party will be seen as a dynamic, relevant, and democratically engaged organization.

Compare this to McCain, who, outside of New Hampshire and South Carolina, faintly campaigned for the nomination. And the Republican Party, by comparison, looks more like a coronation party that doesn't care all that much about what American voters really want.

In America, a country that has made it its business to further spread democracy around the world, it would seem like the political party energetically engaged in democracy would be seen as the preferable party at a deep-seated, cultural level.

The Democratic Party continues to demonstrate that it is the party of true American Values.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Lunar Eclipse Sheds Light on Karl Rove

I can't say for sure if my being within spitting distance of Karl Rove was the cause or the result of the full lunar eclipse last week, but the two events did converge at the same time.

This past Wednesday, February 20, we experienced a full lunar eclipse and I attended a Q&A "keynote" session with Karl Rove. It was not an intimate affair, so I was not able to introduce him to his quasi-dopplegÀnger, but I was able to listen to him speak in long-form about his beliefs, feelings, and approaches to the issues of the day and of the Bush Era.

I paid close attention to what he said, and how he said it in an effort to dig deeper into the mind of my antithesis. What I was able to re-confirm was that Karl Rove is every bit as bright, driven, and savvy as I had expected him to be. What I learned was that he is also quite ideological and protective, while still being a very effective communicator.

I have posted my brief review and analysis of Karl Rove on the Election Integrity blog (interestingly enough, Karl expressed a deep concern for election integrity).

Please post any of your thoughts and comments in the comments area here on OKR.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why You is Better than Me


No, I'm not going jive on you. You is better than me. When running for office (or, in fact, leading any organization), people utilize different levels of leadership in an effort to more effectively connect with their target audiences. During campaigns, voters have the ability to sense the level of leadership a candidate has mastered. And this matters, big time.

What do levels of leadership have to do with you being better than me? A lot -- and they're already having an effect on the 2008 primaries and presidential race. But before we jump right into the current races, it's important to see how leadership levels, and you and me, have played a critical role in prior elections...

A Look Back

The 2000 Election (Bush v. Gore) key messages:

  • George W. Bush ran on a lot of ideas (compassionate conservatism, lower taxes, unity [ha!]), but his campaign could be summed up as "I'm the guy who's more or less just like you, so of course I'll represent you the best in the White House."
  • Al Gore ran on a lot of ideas as well, which can be summed up as "I'm more responsible than Clinton, and I'm just plain smarter than Bush."
Revelation: For every "I" in Bush's message, there is a corresponding "you." Compare this to Gore's message of "me, them, me, them." Gore completely left you, the voter, out of the message. This can be boiled down to Bush's you-first message competing with Gore's me-first message. Guess which message voters preferred?

The big idea here is that one candidate had the confidence and wherewithal to always remember who he was courting, and was able to keep his head above water. People see this as a signal of superior confidence and leadership skills. And in national politics, these feelings can trump specific policy platforms (read this sentence a few more times, Democrats).

Now, onto the 2004 Election (Bush v. Kerry) key messages:
  • George W. Bush ran on "I'll keep you safe."
  • Kerry ran on "I'm ready for duty, and I'm just plain smarter than Bush."
You're smart. You see the pattern. Bush is still linking himself with you in his message, and the Democrat, predictably, is still all about "me, me, me!" (Yes, we all know that Bush vaguely, barely and shoddily won each race, but Gore and Kerry should have wiped the electoral map with Bush's gaffes and inexplicable track record.)

Onto the Democratic Primaries

So, how do the Democratic candidates measure up to the you is better than me leadership approach?

Hillary Clinton (primarily) focuses on the predictable Democratic message of "me"...
  • I'll be ready on day one
  • I am more experienced
  • I am a woman
Yet, she also has some "you" messages as well...
  • I'm going to worry about you every day
  • I'm going to fight for you
  • I care about you and your troubles
Yes, Hillary's you-first messages are bit depressing (which is another traditional Democrat message pitfall), but at least she has a few you messages in her collection.

Barack Obama (primarily) focuses on a less conventional message of "we"...
  • Together, we can change America
  • We are the ones we've been waiting for
Yet, Obama also has a secondary batch of messages, which are of the "me" variety...
  • I did not vote for the war
  • I will bring people together
  • I will change the tone in Washington
Like Hillary, Barack tries to focus on his primary message points whenever possible, but will fall back into his secondary messages when under the gun.

So, where do they stand? The answer lies in a simple leadership level calculus: You > We > Me. Simply put, you-first messages are stronger than we-first messages, are both are stronger than me-first messages.

If Hillary plans on winning, she's going to need to shift her focus from the less powerful me-first messages to her more meaningful you-first messages (she'll also need to clean them up to be less pessimistic). She can do this, but it's not very likely due to her depressingly piggish chief strategist Mark Penn.

If Hillary somehow does manage to shift to you, then Obama's movement-like 'we-first' messages get trumped -- he'll have nowhere to go but back to his store of weaker me-first messages. See the problem for Obama? He doesn't have any substantive you-first messages (did you catch that, Mr. Axelrod?). Fascinating.

The General Election

No matter who wins the primaries, Democrats will have a leg up on John McCain. Because, you guessed it, McCain is a me-first candidate:
  • I am a war hero
  • I am a maverick (ooh, sorry, I mean 'conservative,' my friends)
  • I was for the surge when nobody else was
  • I called for Rumsfeld's resignation when nobody else did
  • I co-wrote McCain-Feingold (notice whose name is first, my friends? Yeah, thought you did.)
Could this be the underlying reason why Republicans feel so skeeved out about their candidate? This kind of personality candidate sounds more like a modern Democrat ("me, me, me!") than a modern Republican leader who effortlessly stays focused on the you.

To John's credit, he does try to use some we messages as well, but these are secondary and not very popular with his base. Sadly, we as a pronoun rings very socialistic to Republicans.

Barring extraordinary factors, we can use the You > We > Me leadership level calculus to predict who has the best chance of winning races...

The Primary Calculus
Barack's we beats Hillary's me unless Hillary can quickly shift her message to one that says you matter more than she does.

The Election Calculus
Barack's we beats McCain's me. Even if McCain reaches into his backup store of we messages, it'll be hard to compete with Obama's primary we messages.
Clinton's me ties McCain's me, but Clinton has a backup supply of you messages she can deploy for the knock-out punch against McCain's backup selection of we messages.

In the end, while this is all instrumental to success, there is a very simple lesson for any candidate to glean: Voters are the ones voting. Think of them first, and the right words will follow.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Republican Debate Showcases Republican Abate


By now, you've read all the conventional analysis surrounding the debates leading up to Super Duper Tuesday. But as you also know, this primary season has been anything but conventional.

To make sense of an unconventional political season, best to be armed with unconventional wisdom:

The Republican debate was a great exercise in opposition research. We learned a few important things about the presumptive front-runner John McCain that can be taken to the bank in the general election...

  1. John McCain is tragically out of step with the fundamental priorities of most Americans. He sees the struggle against radical Islamic extremism as the "transcendent issue of our time: a fundamental struggle between good and evil." McCain asserts that "everything we stand for and believe in is at stake here."

    Wow - how quickly old timers can get out of step with reality. It feels like 1991 all over again, replacing George H.W. Bush with John McCain. Seriously, John, is the U.S. vs. Al Qa'ida really the equivalent of good vs. evil in biblical proportions? Or could it possibly be that America is seen as a neo-empire that is trying to control the flow of oil by keeping bases on Arab soil, and manipulating the power equation in the region as we see fit to protect our interests, and not the interests of the Arab people? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with protecting American interests, but what I am saying is that protecting our interests doesn't make them evil (or us good), and it doesn't make the problem transcendent. Rather, the issue is fairly geo-political, and only relevant for as long as we don't have alternative energy sources to rely upon.

    In the end, John McCain drank the Neo-Con Kool-Aid and is now apparently drunk on the power and force of Islamic extremism (or, the power of the military industrial complex). It's a shame to hear an American leader of such prominence giving so much credibility to such a marginal faction. Yes, Al Qa'ida has been quite destructive, but more damage from 9/11 has come as a result of America's fear of Al Qa'ida than Al Qa'ida's actual attacks.

    If we are determined to throw all of our money, military resources, and energy at trying to find a couple thousand extremists around the world, then we risk looking and sounding like the crazy uncle who tears up his own house looking for his dentures.

    By putting this stake in the ground, John is implicitly handing over the economy, global warming, and healthcare over to the Democrats to be their transcendent issues. That's a lot of political stickiness to give your opponent! The only way John wins at this game is if America is attacked again this year. Quite a bet to wage.

  2. John McCain displayed a few instances of old-guy-reaching-for-words-he-couldn't-easily-find syndrome. Look, it's not nice to use ageism as a political tool, but if you don't want political straight talk, then don't come visit Our Karl Rove.

  3. McCain dismayingly tried to use Bush-like debating strategies as he tried to corner Romney in his supposed support for timetables. He failed miserably. After McCain's campaign tanked over the summer of 07 due to his adoption of a "Bush III" campaign strategy, I thought John learned that he simply can't pull off the assoholic Bush campaign style. Apparently, John hasn't fully shed his Bush advisers. He should. The shoe just doesn't fit.
I'll briefly entertain Romney's problems just in case he becomes the nom:
  1. Romney is Their John Kerry. Need I say more?
    OK, a couple more...
  2. Romney is a center-less super-pleaser who may be smart and a great guy, but is simply not a good national politician. He's not politically savvy, he doesn't communicate well in the symbolic realm, and he is politically uncomfortable in his own suit.
  3. Romney plays a true conservative on TV, but is too much of a smarty-pants to be a virulent southern-fried conservative that tends to win Republican elections. He's like George H.W. Bush meets Steve Forbes with some hair on top. Blech.
In the end, when contrasting the Democratic and Republican debates, the Democrats -- refreshingly -- appear to be the party of the politically savvy, smart, and in-touch candidates. John McCain and Mitt Romney certainly have their positive attributes, but their debate looked like amateur hour compared to the primmed and proper Dems the following night. Obama and Hillary really put on quite a show, and are demonstrating to America that Democrats once again are relevant at the executive level. Kudos.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bush/Cheney the Reason for an Obama Blow-out in South Carolina?

What we've just witnessed in South Carolina looks like the New Hampshire effect all over again. But that's not even the big news. The big news is that the voters seem to have transformed in ways that are surprising to the Clinton camp.

The results are still rolling in as I'm writing this, but it looks like a wash-out for Hillary and Bill Clinton's candidacy.

Yes, I know I just outraged many people with the above statement. A Hillary and Bill candidacy? A Republican talking point! How dare I. But, you know what? That was Bill's doing. I am no Obama apologist, nor am I a Clinton hater. But the behaviors of the Clintons this week reeked of ugly desperation -- almost equivalent to what G.W. Bush did to McCain in 2000. Bill Clinton's behavior and style started allowing me to see him the way Republicans saw him in the 1990's.

And this is an important point to consider. Why am I drawn to Republican talking points to describe the Clintons? Because the Clintons create an environment ripe for such adversarial knife sharpening. And this from a guy who voted for Clinton twice. Even establishment Democrats began to be appalled by the Clintons' soft-peddling of R&R issues (Race and Reagan) in the past weeks.

The Clintons might be shocked to learn that these tactics don't seem to be working quite as well as they used to. Triangulation, R&R-baiting, destroy the opponent -- all tactics developed and honed by a frustrated "Clinton Democratic" party that witnessed the Reagan revolution and then the follow-up, Gingrich's Contract With America.

The media and many Americans are used to -- and generally expect -- this business-as-usual approach to politics. Most everyone in charge these days lived through the same events, and honed similar tools.

Yet Obama has changed the setting. Tools and tricks that used to fit and match the political decor now seem to fall flat. Strategies that used to be able to manipulate public opinion now seem to backfire.

Is it possible that the Bush/Cheney mis-administration itself is the X factor? Are we all now so keyed into being mass manipulated by this administration that we've developed a political 6th sense since the 1990s? Did Bush/Cheney actually help develop mad skills across the younger band of the electorate?


Perhaps the zero-sum game is still alive and well -- where the Misadventures of Little Bush have sharpened the electorate that was previously dulled by decades of administrations that did not routinely mislead Americans out of deliberate habit.

Hillary and Bill Clinton will either remain in their echo chamber of the 90s and plow through the only way they and Mark Penn know how to... or they will pivot and recognize that it's a new world -- a world not defined by Barack Obama, but appropriated and symbolized by him.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Democrats: Follow Your Inner Winner

Democrats running for office,

As most regular readers of this column know, OKR is not an election horse-race blog. So, don't expect a full analysis of the election escapades here. There are plenty of blogs who are more than happy to play-by-play the fun and sport of it all.

However, as a result of the current horse race, there are some key observations that I've made that I believe are worth calling out and sharing for the good of all the candidates:

Obama's Inner Winner

When Obama (narrowly) lost the New Hampshire primary, he approached the defeat like a winner -- he didn't acknowledge defeat. Instead, he acknowledged the success of his campaign, his message, and his candidacy. He did not -- and has not -- let the media's "shock and awe" of the NH results affect his campaign complexion. He didn't even acknowledge defeat in NH, which some might feel is arrogant. But is it arrogant to decide to believe you didn't lose, but rather believe that you virtually tied?

No, it's not. It's not wrong to ignore the pundits, polls, and conventional wisdom. Doing so (prudently) reflects American-style optimism. While it's clear that this AmeriOptimism is not one of the Democrats' favorite cultural attributes, it's a attitude that -- if embraced properly -- could help win elections.

Message-wise, Barack does need to take a cue from the NH loss and attenuate his rhetoric. Speech upon speech about "changing the world" is great stuff, O, but you're going to have to come down to earth once in a while to re-prove to the voters that you've got some meat on them philosophical bones. The voters need to be armed with information that you communicate verbally (i.e., not just your website) so that Hillary's attacks do not seem as jarring.

Yes, I know that details can ruin a coalition and a movement. Yes, I agree with the approach of staying above the fray, and that running on an idea is the preferable way to run a national campaign. But you're still trying to court Democrats. And, bless their souls, Democrats really do like getting caught up in the facts and details. You are going to have to give them something.

Clinton's Inner Voice

When Hillary (narrowly) won the New Hampshire primary, she told the nation that she "found her voice." Well, that's a good thing to find -- especially after being in politics for "over 35 years." Congratulations are in order, but... how long have you been looking, Hillary?

No matter -- finding one's voice is like establishing one's brand. It creates a center of gravity -- an organizing principle -- from which to grow all messages, platforms, and policies. If Hillary truly has found her voice and doesn't outsource it to her thuggy campaign advisers, she stands a chance of not only beating Obama, but representing a candidacy of meaning instead of a candidacy of policies.

Message-wise, the Hillary campaign just hired sloganeer Roy Spence, which should put the campaign message in capable hands. Hillary just has to try to keep her center close to her. In other words, Hillary, don't lose your voice to the experts around you.

Edwards' Inner Principles

John has displayed an impressive commitment to changing the dynamics of power in America. It seems quite fruitless to most of us, as the existing power structure is set up to give most of us just enough to keep us content with the corrupt and unfair status quo. Yet, John sees a trajectory of power dissemination that troubles him dearly, and is willing to go the mat to rein in unbridled capitalism.

These inner principles are actually quite forward-thinking. What John is touching on will inevitably effect more of us in the coming months and years. I just do not think that we are at the right time and place in American history to make this the central issue of a campaign.

No matter the cultural relevancy, John has shown a visceral passion for systemic change that is attractive to a lot of people (even some Republicans). If he could only broaden his focus to issues facing more Americans right now, his inner principles would be taking him much further.

In the end, Democrats are the winners.

All of this inner stuff is good for the party. The prior several political seasons have portrayed Democrats as outwardly directed -- where campaign messages and political theater have been driven by polls, punditry, and external forces (think Gore in earth tones, Dukakis in tank, Kerry in a swift boat) . Consequently, the American people tend to think of Democrats as "unprincipled" when compared to the "Polls? We don't change our views based on no polls!" Republicans.

The lesson? Focusing on the inner increases your chances of being a winner.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Candidates, Can You Spare Some Change?

Democratic Candidates (and, what the heck, Republicans too),

The media and the voters have decided that this is the election season of "change." And -- no surprise -- Barack Obama's campaign is the most directly associated with this campaign brand platform.

This is very good news for the Obama campaign, because now that virtually every politician has glommed onto this campaign keyword (see chart below), there is an implicit call back to the Obama change movement. As a result, every campaign now is -- at least indirectly -- an endorsement of the Obama campaign brand.

Advice for change-glomming candidates:

You're making a mistake by latching on to "change." It's taken, and all you're doing is showing that you can spot a successful trend, and follow it. That would be fine in a normal election season, but this season, you're in competition with Obama's campaign, which "owns" the trend. The media has written the narrative of Obama, which means that the brand has been set and will be continually reinforced (and eventually overplayed). Implicitly, voters are going to sense that trend followers are not change agents. So, while change-glomming might feel like the right thing to do, it's not.

I know, I know. You do represent change. Of course you do. Every candidate does. But the "change" brand is taken. Consider it trademarked. You need to be creative and come up with a brand that is distinctive in the political marketplace of ideas. Even messaging maven David Axelrod agrees: “unless a message authentically reflects the messenger, it’s likely to fail.”

The right thing to do is to now is to conduct a rapid brand evolution program within your respective campaigns. Assemble you key staffers (from all levels) and brainstorm and whiteboard all of the key attributes of your candidacy. Coalesce these ideas, boil them down, and settle on one-to-five words that describe why you're the best person to win the nomination --and then to be President.

You then need to map these concepts against what you think (or, preferably, know) the majority of the voters are looking for. In other words, once your find your core, distinct message, you then need to ensure that your core, distinct message is relevant.

Some examples:

  • Ready (Clinton)
  • Leadership You can Count On (Clinton)
  • Principled Leadership (Edwards)
  • Principled Change (Edwards) [and puts a knife in Obama]
  • Taking America Back (Edwards)

Advice for change candidates

This might be very difficult to digest, but you're going to need to get beyond "change" as your campaign evolves. I know, it sounds like asinine advice to a campaign that has the most successful brand of this election season. But hear me out.

You should not abandon change. But you need to build from it, creating a brand tree. This means viewing "change" as a foundational brand trunk, but then growing specific brand branches to keep ahead of curve. Keeping ahead will ensure that you avoid:

- attacks on change. The longer "change" is out there, the more time for competition (Democratic and Republican) to develop and deploy effective foils and cynicism around change.

- the "spare change" effect. Change is good, but too much change can weight down your pocket with too much of too little. Meaning, change is a big idea that doesn't mean much once you get beyond the big idea.

The good news is that there seems to be plenty of growth potential for the change brand. The challenge, though, is to define brand branches to grow from the brand trunk. This means looking at the hot political topics -- foreign policy, ecology, economy and the nation's spirit -- and developing brand platforms around each of these as extensions to the change brand trunk.

Some examples:
  • Change means: Regaining the Moral High Ground
    (foreign policy)
  • Change means: Treating Mother Earth with Respect
  • Change means: A Re-energized, In-Demand Workforce
  • Change means: One Nation, Under G*d, Indivisible
    (nation's spirit)

Advice for all Democratic candidates

There is a risk of relying too heavily on the "change" brand: a sudden shift of the political status quo could blunt its effectiveness.

George W. Bush's legacy will be firmly grounded in political success (i.e., having a Republican successor). So you need to be mindful of the potential for a shifting political dynamic in 2008. Bush will likely pull all the levers he can to create a political environment friendly to a Republican nominee. If Bush succeeds in creating a more positive outlook in 2008, "change" won't resonate as much as it does now -- just like the Iraq War doesn't resonate as much merely 4 months after it was widely considered to be the #1 campaign issue.

Number of times "change" is used on campaign websites:*

Barack Obama: 66,600
John Edwards: 23,800
Hillary Clinton: 3,670
Bill Richardson: 1,450
Mitt Romney: 952
Mike Huckabee: 795
John McCain: 347

*Conducted through a basic Google search [site:campaign_site_name change -climate] to exclude any pages where "climate change" would be the topic. Obviously, not all instances of "change" represent the campaign concept of change, and the number of hits are likely relative to the size and depth of the respective websites.