Capital Caution

by digby

Mike Lux writes over on Open Left about the reflexive caution of the campaign and knowledgeably speculates about why it's happening:

I fear that, at least for the moment, the Capitol Hill Culture of Caution has taken hold of the campaign.

I'm not even talking about the much commented-on move to the center. While, as I have written, I don't think he needed to do this and in fact felt like a more open call for bold new thinking would have been a better general election strategy, I haven't minded the centrist shift as much as some others in progressive politics. It is, after all, a pretty predictable playbook move, one that most candidates in both parties have done for many years. And the Westen/Greenberg research I wrote about the other day showed that while Democrats could take clear stands on controversial issues and still win, it also showed that centrist-sounding inoculation language on those issues was necessary to win majorities on those issues.

What I'm talking about instead is the sense of overall caution that seems to have utterly infected the campaign. Instead of having the confidence to win the bigger argument on investing in alternative energy production and conservation, they make the shift on drilling. Instead of pushing back firmly and assertively on the race card accusation, they have the campaign's reply be "No, we're not playing the race card." Instead of having the confidence to really negotiate with McCain on debate formats, they fell into the we'll-just-do-what-candidates-have-always-done formats. Instead of having the confidence to lay out some of his good new ideas on foreign policy that are clearly different from the Bush doctrine in his widely watched Berlin speech, he stuck to cautious generalities. Instead of having the confidence to back up his strong and effective primary rhetoric on FISA and NAFTA, he cautiously moved towards the conventional wisdom.

I am haunted by this because of my past experience with Capitol Hill-shaped "wisdom" around elections- being told by my brilliant young friend David Plouffe, who was running the DCCC in 1998, that the PFAW/ time to move on regarding impeachment campaign was a huge mistake, when in fact it was the theme that ended up turning the tide on congressional elections in our favor that year; being told by Gore's people in 2000 that if they just didn't respond to the NRA's attacks on the gun issue, the issue wouldn't have an impact; being told by Gephardt's top aides in 2002 that the only way to win the congressional elections that fall was to "take the war off the table" so that Democrats could get on with other issues; being told by Kerry's team in 2004 that if they just ignored the Swift Boaters, they wouldn't get any attention.

Caution kills when it comes to national elections, and the caution of my friends in Obamaland is hurting him. It's why despite the good coverage of the overseas trip and one gaffe after another by McCain, Obama is drifting down in the polls. And in an election where it is very likely we will lose some older blue collar white voters a Democrat would normally get, caution will kill us in the fall by dampening the enthusiasm Obama has sparked among young voters and new voters in the primary.

I can understand the Obama campaign's desire not to rock the boat too much because the boat is already rocking quite a bit with the liberal/black/young/Muslim/radical theme that the GOP has successfully put in play. Their instinct is to project calm and cool to counteract the image of a foreign naif who makes everybody nervous.

A lot of it comes from the idea that many of us have that because the Republicans are so unpopular this race is in the bag. But something's wrong with that picture. Obama is running significantly worse than the generic Democrat in all the polls and it's not getting any better. So, we're not looking at a blow out, we're looking at a fairly typical presidential race of the past few years. That means it is probably going to be a squeaker.

But as Lux points out, it is also driven by a predictable reflexive caution among establishment Dems who are running the Obama campaign. Obama has, by all accounts, a magnificent field operation ready to go. He's got tons of money. The issues favor Democrats. As Lux says, when Democratic presidential candidates adopt the culture of Capital Hill Caution, they tend to lose.

I don't have any answers. This campaign seems to be ending up on the same tired terrain all of these campaigns end up and that's a disappointment. Maybe the campaign doesn't have to do anything too risky --- just not making any more overt moves to the right or give any more paeans to compromise for a while might be one way to go. I definitely think that particular tactic has outlived its usefulness.

(But hey, that Evan Bayh is a real firecracker so that ought to shake things up in ways we can't possibly predict. Or maybe we can ...)

Update: Steve Benen blogged this little nugget this morning:

I found this absolutely fascinating. The Boston Globe’s John Schwenkler compiled a graphic showing which words appeared the most frequently on the official McCain campaign blog and the official Obama campaign blog. As it turns out, one word appeared the most often on both: “Obama.”

I think we might need to see a few more mentions of McCain/Bush on Obama's blog at this point, don't you? This election should be a referendum on them, not him. They've been in power, they've got the record. If the election is all about Obama, the Democrats are giving up their argument.