"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

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.