Editorial: President Obama's Political Style and the 2014 Demise of the GOP, Part I
I’ve characterized Mitt Romney’s as adopting a Pig in Poke political strategy. So what strategies does President’s Obama use?
The best way to illustrate President Obama’s approach is to look at his Senate election against Republican candidate Jack Ryan. In The Audacity of Hope, President Obama explains how Ryan had a cameraman named Justin “follow him” around constantly. As Obama described it on page 64 of The Audacity of Hope, it was more like stalking, Obama wrote,
“From morning to night, he followed me everywhere, usually from a distance of no more than five or ten feet. He would film me riding down elevators. He would film me coming out of the restroom. He would film me on my cell phone, talking to my wife and children.”
Senate candidate Obama attempted to reason with Justin but he wouldn’t stop. Most politicians may have complained but Obama took a different approach. On the third day, Obama strolled into the press office with Justin on his heels and asked the reporters who were having lunch to gather around. And then he said,
“Hey guys, I want to introduce you to Justin. Justin here’s been assigned by the Ryan campaign to stalk me wherever I go.”
Obama had created a media event.
On page 65, Obama wrote
“People might not have understood our contrasting views on Medicare or Middle East diplomacy. But they knew that my opponent’s campaign had violated a value
civil behaviorthat they considered important.”
Perhaps Ryan perceived Obama to be weak for those two or three days where he allowed Justin to follow him. Then, came the press conference where Obama introduced Justin to the world and Ryan was instantly and perhaps permanently labelled as a jerk.
President Obama’s political style is to pin or expose the most outrageous aspects of his political opponent’s values and then put them on display and contrast them with his values. I’ll refer to Obama’s strategy as value pinning but pinning-the-tail on the Republican is another name. The approach has his roots in value contrasts that I have discussed elsewhere. The approach confronts voters with a contrast in values between the candidates and can be very successful because most voters will vote for the candidate that they believe shares their values on the issues that are most important to them.
After Obama’s media event, Ryan began to trail badly in the polls (48-40). Then, Ryan announced his withdrawal from the race — four days after the Chicago Tribune persuaded a California court to release child custody records.
Obama may have got his ideas about values from his only election loss to long time Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush who portrayed Obama as less concerned about the middle-class and too academic. After that election, those around Obama said they saw him display a greater concern for the plight of the middle-class.
Value Pinning is a strategy requiring a great deal of patience because it can take a long time for voters to pay attention to an issue sufficiently that they will recall a candidate stand on an issue. President Obama tends to wait for his political opponent to become wedded to a position that he believes he can take advantage of by contrasting his values with values suggested by his opponents actions or statements. A successful value pin can destroy a political opponent by assigning a negative label to the politician’s values.
Jack Ryan was replaced by Republican Diplomat Alan Keyes. According to page 209 of The Audacity of Hope, Keyes was picked because he was an African-American Ph.D. who would nullify Obama’s advantages. However, it would be fair to describe Mr. Keyes views as pre-Tea Party and for that reason he had already lost four elections. In addition, Mr. Keyes was a very recent resident of Illinois and had to start his campaign late.
Obama noted Mr. Keyes habit of pronouncing himself to be morally and intellectually superior to others. According to The Audacity of Hope, Keyes labelled all homosexuals as hedonists, claimed adoption by gay couples led to incest, accused the media of an anti-life anti-marriage agenda. He also said Obama’s pro-life position was a “slave holder’s position” and claimed Obama was a “hardcore academic Marxist” for his positions on health care. He also said Obama shouldn’t call himself an African-American because he isn’t a descendant of slaves.
Undoubtedly, all of this helped prepare President Obama prepare for the Tea Party. In this campaign, senate candidate Obama highlighted Keyes approach to the middle-class and compared them with his own ideas about how the country could move forward. However, this was a weak opponent so Obama acknowledged that his main strategy was to simply let his opponent talk.
According to Wikipedia
“Obama’s 43% margin of victory was the largest in the state history of U.S. Senate elections. The inequality in the candidates spending for the fall elections – $14,244,768 by Obama and $2,545,325 by Keyes – is also among the largest in history in both absolute and relative terms.”
The 2008 Campaign
Early on in the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, the main Obama campaign theme became the idea that Washington must change. This approach was designed to turn Clinton and McCain’s experience against them while diminishing concerns about his own relative lack of experience.
He succeeded in this message by contrasting his values with his opponents. He used uplifting speeches about his concerns for Americans and presented his values that focused on reviving the middle-class through universal health care, green energy jobs and a foreign-policy that focused on America as a leader and not as a bully. This theme played well against the backdrop of the recession and criticism of George W. Bush.
In addition, his campaign left voters with the impression that Sarah Palin had violated certain values of civil behavior. She had called Senator Obama a socialist said she only would represent what she defined as “real Americans.” This wouldn’t have been possible if for several weeks the Obama campaign allowed Republicans to showcase Palin without drawing out any value comparisons.
Senator McCain was portrayed in Obama ads as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. His inability to recall the number of houses he owned was an example repeatedly used by the Obama campaign. Another statement the Obama campaign focused on was McCain’s claim that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Finally, they used his history of hawkishness to suggest that he would slow the place of exiting the Iraq war which is something the majority of the Americans were publically against.
The 2012 Campaign
President Obama also used the value pinning strategy successfully in his 2012 re-election. In this election, President Obama pinned the GOP as the party that supports millionaires not paying their fair share in taxes. But first he had to pin them to higher tax rates which Grover Norquist had already done. But just to make sure, he allowed the GOP to maintain the Bush tax cuts in 2011 as part of a “compromise” in which he said he was only going along with the lower taxes for the wealthy in order to get what he wanted which were breaks for the middle class. Over the course of the year, he made sure that no one forgot what the GOP stood for despite efforts by the GOP to brand things as they had in the past – as tax cuts for everyone.
The President pinned Republicans on more than just taxes. For example, in his approach to dealing with insurance coverage for contraceptives, he seemed to set up a situation where it was likely the Christian right would strongly object. After allowing them to hammer at him for several days, he then introduced his politically popular approach which allowed employers to supply money for insurance that employees could then use to buy insurance that includes contraceptive coverage. He emphasized that it was a pocket book issue and not a values issue. He also pointed out that employers shouldn’t impose their values on the people who work for them.
President Obama knew the strategy of opposing tax cuts for the rich would be popular because it worked for Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota two years earlier. He also knew that contrasting his position on taxes with Republicans would help him to contrast his values with Romney’s which became a major theme of the campaign.
By the end of the 2012 elections, voters knew that Romney had attempted to deceive them in several of his campaign ads including attempting to convince Ohioans that their car companies were going to ship their jobs overseas. Again, the Democratic and Obama campaigns painted this as a violation of civil behavior.
The Obama campaign also focused on other behavior that painted Romney as insensitive to the needs of others including the middle-class. His strategy spilled over to other Republicans who had also promised to not raise taxes on the rich, engaged in voter suppression of minorities and who seemed unconcerned about Americans who lacked health insurance.
President Obama didn’t just win the 2012 election for himself. He defeated the Tea Party. Jim DeMint is leaving the Senate and Dick Morris is not appearing on Fox News. Dick Army and Matt Kibbe are out of Freedomworks which they founded and funded the founding of the Tea Party. These actions make it clear that the even the Republicans believe the Tea Party is over.
The 2014 Mid-Term Elections
In the 2014 election, President Obama will again try his pinning strategy. In the last election, Obama focused on middle-class workers, women and minorities. For 2014, he may go after one of the Republicans’ last strongholds: older Americans on Medicare.
Over the last several weeks, Obama has said he won’t compromise on tax cuts but he has allowed Republicans to claim that there is a looming fiscal cliff when in reality it’s a fiscal curve. When the Obama administration has allowed Republican efforts to go unchecked, it suggests they are pinning Republicans to the idea that we are going to go over a fiscal cliff and something must be done.
How could such an idea benefit Democratics?
It’s clear the Republican leadership is not going to allow the remaining gerrymandered Tea Party congressman to push them over the politically suicidal cliff of holding out for tax cuts for the rich. However, will congressional Republicans take the bait if offered Medicare cuts?
Some have suggested that President Obama is going to allow the GOP to get what it wants: Medicare cuts. If the GOP gets its wish and cuts Medicare. Senior citizens will have plenty of time to realize what has hit them before the 2014 election. And if seniors realize Republicans have cut their services, the GOP is going to become a southern regional party on the trash heap of history.
If President Obama does decide to make Medicare cuts over the next two years, Obama and the Democrats will make certain that every senior knows that Republicans negotiated to have them pay more and Democrats only gave in to avoid the fiscal cliff. If the strategy is successful, the strategy could cost the GOP one of its last long time bases – older Americans.
Meanwhile, progressives will scream loud and long about how President Obama’s negotiations with the Republicans have once again betrayed them. Glenn Greenwald will devote 27 stories about how naive progressives were to vote for President Obama. Fire Dog Lake may erupt in a ball of fire and Grayson and Kucinich will turn themselves inside out. And, every Democrat in congress who is up for re-election in 2014 will be screaming right along with them.
“We’re the good guys! We didn’t vote for this!”
Come 2016, most small children will only learn about the GOP in their American history class. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who is known for having an understanding of such matters, will be laughing so hard that they may have to be put him on depressants. His glee and the ease with which his material will flow over the next few years will not easily be contained. Perhaps, that’s what Ezra Klein is for.
President Obama knows his approach upsets the progressives but my advice is to not look at the headlines but at the chess game and note that the GOP is playing with its hands tied behind its back by its own Tea Party.
Even if the fiscal cliff doesn’t pan out as I’ve suggested look for similar themes in GOP negotiations for the next two years and for Tea Party Republicans to help President Obama pin them to values that most Americans do not share. As in the video above, the President will continue to argue that his values are focused on helping the middle-class.
by Todd Miller
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