If there’s one piece of advice Barack Obama should heed, it’s this: Don’t listen to advice. As John McCain overtakes Obama in the polls, pundits and bloggers have turned into political versions of “Dear Abby.” They advise him about his message (Mark Halperin says: Talk about the economy!), his style (Arianna Huffington wants to see more MLK references), and his themes (Ellen Malcolm of Emily’s List says, “Talk about who really is able to change the direction of this country”). So many people have added their two cents, no wonder Obama’s breaking fundraising records.
It would be logically impossible for Obama to follow all this advice. It would also be unwise. To understand the first point, let’s review some of the advice he’s received in the last few weeks:
Link McCain to Bush!
Everyone says this, as if Obama doesn’t do it every day. It’s the Democrats’ grand strategy. Unclear if it’s working.
Don’t Just Link McCain to Bush!
“The problem is not that Obama hasn’t hit McCain hard enough or linked him to Bush often enough,” offers columnist Michael Goodwin. “The problem is that he hasn’t done anything else.” The problem with this advice, unfortunately, is that McCain is Obama’s opponent.
The consensus on the left is that Obama is a wimp. People want passion. And that doesn’t just mean saying you’re “mad” and that wage disparity makes your “blood boil.” It’s like they say in film class: Show, don’t tell. It’s time to get furious—maybe even nasty— about McCain’s lies and distortions and carbon sequestration agenda. “They know that’s how the game is played,” said one miffed Democratic strategist.
Don’t Get Mad!
Stop whining about McCain’s “lies,” advises Slate’s own Mickey Kaus. It makes Dems look weak; it’s impossible to prove 100 percent that something is a “lie”; and it reinforces stereotypes of preachy, self-satisfied liberals. The only person you’re swaying is yourself. Michelle Cottle suggests “urgency” rather than anger: “[U]nrelenting cool may not be what voters are longing for this election.”
Take the High Road
Judge not the message by its messenger—in this case, Karl Rove. “Stop the attacks,” Rove advised. “They undermine your claim to a post-partisan new politics. You soared when you seemed above politics, lost altitude when you did what you criticize. Attacks are momentarily satisfying but ultimately corrode your appeal.”
Lie Like McCain
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Truth-telling and “fact-checking” are a joke. As it turns out, Democratic voters don’t punish their candidates for lying as much as Obama might think. And every once in a while, they do like winning.
Go After Palin!
She took earmarks! She banned books! She supported the Bridge to Nowhere! She never went to Iraq! She doesn’t even know what the Bush Doctrine is! (Gasp for air.) Some armchair advisers view Palin as the ever-yielding river of oppo gold rather than a Teflon mom. Dems complain of a “perceived lack of aggressiveness” on Obama’s part. Fire away! they say. Particularly on abortion. A combative Bernard-Henri Lévy would have Obama “speak directly, solemnly, to the women of this country, asking them if they are prepared to see themselves in this caricature of a free woman who plans to deny her peers one of their most cherished and hard-won rights, the right to an abortion. … I would advise him to assign this task to Hillary.” Although perhaps “assigning” her a “task” isn’t the best way of framing it.
This is one area in which Joe Trippi and Karl Rove agree. “Don’t react,” says Trippi. “Not directly. Let somebody else do that.” Obama “won’t come off well” if he keeps comparing himself to Palin, writes Rove. Others argue that she’s impossible to defeat because she’s smart, attractive, fresh, and a celebrity—just like Obama. “She’s sort of bullet-proof,” says former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers.
Use the Clintons!
Hillary is stumping for Obama. Bill says he’ll do “whatever I’m asked.” Not enough, say adviserati. Repeat after me, Hillary, says Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe, “I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me?” Others think Hillary is the only one who can help Obama defeat Palin, but Clinton has been reluctant to engage. Howard Wolfson warns us not to expect a “catfight.”
Ignore the Clintons
Bill and Hillary “do not wish Barack Obama well,” argues blogger Bill Harrison. Don’t invite them on the trail because “some way the two will find a way to make those appearances primarily about themselves.”
Go Back in Time and Pick Hillary Clinton
After Palin’s speech, one columnist called Obama’s veep pick a “huge mistake.” Rudy Giuliani—suddenly Hillary’s biggest defender—agreed. Even Joe Biden admits as much. Is there a control-Z for campaign decisions?
Stop That Time Machine!
Second-guessing is normal. But buyer’s remorse doesn’t mean you return the puppy. As usual, Gail Collins talks the hysterics down off the ledge: “If [Hillary] had not been in the race, the Democrats would probably be bemoaning the fact that they hadn’t stuck with John Edwards and nailed down the critical swing-state philanderer vote.” Moreover, Palin was a last-minute decision made in response to Obama’s choice of Biden—McCain may not have picked her if Obama had chosen Hillary. Then again, maybe that’s the point.
Fewer Big Rallies!
By packing stadiums, Obama just plays into the Republican’s “celebrity” caricature. “I would recommend any possible stagecraft to minimize the event’s scale,” Michael Crowley of the New Republic suggested prior to Obama’s acceptance speech in front of 80,000-plus people in Denver. Replace the giant love-ins with small gatherings, says Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee: “[G]ive straight-up 10-word answers to people at Wal-Mart about how he would improve their lives.”
More Big Rallies!
Are you crazy? Obama is made for big rallies. Since when was popularity such a bad thing? Strategy ‘08 called Crowley’s advice “the worst I have ever seen this entire campaign cycle. Change Obama’s strength because the Republicans will attack it?” The solution is more, bigger events since they emphasize Obama’s “inspirational” appeal. “And, by the way,” he writes, “there’s no reason you can’t give concise policy specifics in that forum.”
Screw the 50-State Strategy
Sorry, Howard Dean. “Their 50-state strategy is insanity,” said former Clinton pollster Doug Schoen. Best to focus resources on the swing states that need them most—Ohio, New Mexico, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan. There are signs the Obama camp is heeding this advice, dialing back advertising and pulling staff out of Georgia.
Screw the Swing States
Why settle for 50-plus-one? Arianna Huffington calls itthe“tried-and-untrue swing voter strategy” and blames it for the party’s “prolonged identity crisis.” “[G]o after everything remotely in play,” recommendsNerve blogger Brian Fairbanks. Obama’s record-shattering $66 million August haul makes this strategy slightly less dubious—but only slightly.
Change schmange, hope schmope. Let’s get dirty. How would you provide relief for middle-income families? When would we be out of Iraq? Who would be your deputy secretary of transportation? Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland calls for “concrete, pragmatic ideas that bring hope and change to life.” Others want even more details. “It wouldn’t be bad if he came out early and said who his secretary of defense and secretary of state would be—that would address and stabilize the concerns about his experience,” said former Louisiana Sen. John B. Breaux. Our FOIA request for the complete 2009 schedule of the White House screening room is still pending.
… But Not Too Specific
Numbers scare people. Give them examples of change, but nothing too boring or fact-laden. A recent speech on education “started out with lots of numbers,” writes George Lakoff. “True, but dull. And he is promising more of the same policy wonk speeches. … [T]he old inspiring Obama just isn’t there.”
The point here, of course, is that Obama can’t possibly heed all this advice without occupying several parallel universes at once. It’s a good thing, too. Had he accepted past unsolicited advice, he would have picked Tom Daschle as his running mate, accepted McCain’s invitation to town-hall meetings, gone on the attack in January, and opted into public financing. Terrible ideas, all.
Which brings us to the second point about all this advice: Ignoring advice is an essential skill for any president. (And it’s one they can learn a little too well, as the last seven years have made all too clear.) During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy eventually rejected the advice of respected statesman Dean Acheson, who recommended an airstrike instead of a blockade. Obama is known for seeking dissenting opinion and calling on the quiet guy in the room. But there’s a fine line between soliciting dissent and being buffeted by contradictory advice, à la Al Gore in 2000.
The trick, says one decision-making expert, is to get the advisers to talk to one another. Michael Roberto, a professor of management at Bryant University, calls this the “point-to-point” model, as opposed to the “hub-and-spoke” model, in which the leader confers separately with each adviser. By having advisers debate, the decision-maker is more likely to spot counterarguments he might have missed. Plus, he won’t be biased toward more recent arguments.
Of course, Barack Obama is unlikely to gather all the advice-lending pundits, journalists, bloggers, party bigwigs, elected officials, and campaign staffers into the same room for a powwow. Not that anyone’s advising him to do that.