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Friday, April 25, 2008

 
Pivot Point

by digby

From the unsolicited advice department.

I heard an interesting passing observation from John Harwood on MSNBC in which he more or less characterized Senator Obama's campaign as a process "reform" campaign that may be losing a little steam as economic events overtake his theme of post partisan transcendence. I think there may be some truth in that. When Obama conceived of his campaign, political reform and ending the war in Iraq were the winning Democratic messages coming off of the 2006 election. (And it's not to say that they are no longer issues at all; Iraq is certainly likely to take center stage again simply because it's McCain's white whale.) But some people are starting to get seriously worried about their own lives and when that happens they become skeptical that abstract assertions about "fixing Washington" is the way to fix their problems.

When Obama won Wisconsin, I assumed he had pulled together the Democratic coalition and that Texas and Ohio would prove that. But since that primary, events have overtaken his thematic campaign. Gas prices are rising dramatically. The stock market has been volatile. The housing market just gets worse. Working people are starting to get nervous (they are always much closer to financial ruin than the professional class.) His "change" campaign may seem a bit distant and abstract in the current circumstances. Unlike Perot, who ran as a reformer in a recessionary climate in 1992, Obama doesn't have the decades of business experience to use as a proxy for successful economic stewardship, so he probably needs to be more explicit in his economic message now. (And while Perot got 20% of the vote, his reform message was never taken up --- it was his deficit message that penetrated. With the help of other rich powerful jackasses.)

This problem is correctable. Senator Obama probably needs to ramp up his personal energy, which has been flagging, (people need to believe the president is superhuman in times of stress) and start talking about bread and butter solutions with a touch of fiery populism. That's where the mood is leading. It's boring as hell to the media and the comfortable creative class types who are looking for something transcendent, but it's what's necessary at times like these.

It will almost certainly be necessary in the fall, no matter who wins the Democratic nomination. When the economy goes south, a lot of voters actually want a big helping of wonk with their inspiration. (Maybe it gives them reassurance that the people they are voting for know what they're doing.)

I maintain my belief that this campaign is being driven by seismic forces in the political firmament that transcend personality. This isn't 1972 or 1984 or even 1988, no matter what people say. The Democrats aren't running against Republican incumbents or even a popular Republican predecessor. The economy is rapidly deteriorating. We are in the midst of a moneypit, quagmire overseas and there actually are terrorists out there who require attention. Oh --- and the US is now considered to be a force for evil in the world due to the fact that we kidnap people off the streets of foreign countries, torture them and keep them in prison without trials or any hope of being set free. Oh, and we invade countries based on lies.

We are in a hell of a mess and the country knows exactly who is responsible for it. They will logically vote accordingly. But with the economy now a huge part of the equation, I don't think political reform is the best campaign theme for Democrats. It's early enough for him to pivot off reform and put some meat on the bones of the Hope and Change message. But he should do it soon. The Democratic candidate can ride to victory on a tsunami, but he or she still needs to stay with the wave.



*By the way, McCain is also a "reform" candidate and he can't successfully pivot off of it because he's trapped in failed GOP orthodoxy on the economy. His approach to reform is "pulling the parties in a room together and cracking some heads until they do what I tell them to do." There are a lot of Americans who will believe that's the best way to reform the way Washington works. (Especially cranky guys who like to tell everyone else what to do.) He's going to go head to head with Obama on reform in the fall and I don't know if Obama will actually have the advantage. The issues of the economy and health care are the Democrats' for the taking. They should take it.



Update: I hadn't actually read this Krugman column before I wrote this, but as readers point out it makes some similar observations.

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