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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Obama's problem

In recent days, Hillary Clinton's campaign has seemingly backed Barack Obama into a corner. They've been pounding him with various attacks about his foreign policy leadership -- even comparing him unfavorably to John McCain.
"Sen. McCain will bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign; I will bring a lifetime of experience; and Sen. Obama will bring a speech that he gave in 2002," Clinton said today after her event with the military leaders.
If Obama strikes back, in a conventional negative counterattack, that action would arguably undermine the central argument he's been making throughout this campaign about bringing a new kind of politics to Washington.

If Obama ignores the attacks, he runs the risk of the losing the nomination.

What should the campaign do?

I think Obama has to go negative in a way that is completely consistent with the arguments he's been making about the need for a new kind of politics.

Here's a line from one of his fall stump speeches:
Hillary Clinton is a colleague and a friend. She's also a skilled politician, and she's run what Washington would call a "textbook" campaign. But the problem is the textbook itself.

It's a textbook that's all about winning elections, but says nothing about how to bring the country together to solve problems.
At the time, Obama was criticizing Clinton for offering calculated campaign promises, designed to win narrow majorities.

Now, he could use that line to highlight the Clinton team's divisive and negative campaigning. Sure, there's some danger that he would reinforce the negative ads, but some scholars of political communication describe an "inoculating effect" of this tactic. Tell voters what they are going to hear from the opponent, and explain it away, even before the opponent makes the case. There's still time to do this in Pennsylvania and other remaining states (including perhaps Florida and Michigan)

The first part is actually fairly easy. Obama could readily list a few of the points Clinton has been making in regard to his alleged foreign policy inexperience.

Then, however, Obama must inoculate himself and that is going to be somewhat harder. Obama needs to make an argument about his own foreign policy experience that resonates. Ideally, he wants to make some comparisons that won't get either one of them in trouble against McCain in the fall.

What are his options?

1. Obama could highlight his form of smart leadership -- acting on issues that matter most, in an innovative way that brings together a broad political coalition. Recall, in 2002, he was opposed to a dumb war, rashly and cynically pushed by ideologues to distract from other issues.

In the Senate, Obama has linked himself to Republican Dick Lugar on the question of Russian nuclear weapons -- making site visits, cosponsoring key nonproliferation legislation, etc. There must be tape of Obama shaking hands with Russian military leaders. Perhaps a campaign commercial or youtube video could highlight this policy endorsement from Lugar:
I'm enthused and encouraged by Senator Obama's commitment to adding his strong voice and creativity to the nonproliferation challenge.
I want to see more photos like this in circulation with those words.

2. Obama could (though this might be risky to the Democratic base) point out some failed policies of the Clinton administration -- and even more explicitly use a variant of the "dumb wars" leadership argument he made in 2002 against the Iraq war.

It would be most tempting to attack from the left -- Clinton's failings on human rights (ICC and land mine ban) and global warming, perhaps. Bill Clinton's administration outsourced some of these policies to the Pentagon. Perhaps this is why Hillary Clinton is now surrounding herself with generals and admirals!

However, the "tough/dumb" point would probably work better. The Clinton administration in many ways let Afghanistan fester for years even as it signed the Iraq Liberation Act, presaging the current war. That ties HRC's 2002 vote to a longer history of failure and misunderstood priorities.

Somewhat more problematically, some Obama surrogate might want to laugh off his opponent's responsibility for these Clinton administration failures. After all, "Mrs. Clinton" served admirably as her husband's first lady for 20 years (12 in Arkansas). Can we really blame her for his mistakes?

Note: I forgot to reference an even more egregious statement by Hillary Clinton. Hilzoy is on it.

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