Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Obama’s Next Move

I’ve been hesitant to talk about political strategy this season. Partly because it’s so cliched (everyone’s doing it), partly because it’s so ephemeral, partly because it’s just boring. But I think the situation Obama’s found himself in has larger resonances and coming up with a solution to it is genuinely difficult.

For those who haven’t been following things, the story is this. There are two candidates: Barack Obama, a young centrist Democrat who bills himself as the post-partisan candidate of “change” (i.e. not Bush), and John McCain, a fairly non-ideological 72-year-old Republican who has decided to give up on his centrist inclinations and run far to the right. For the first half of the campaign, Obama’s message has been that he’s change while McCain is more of the same (visual: McCain hugging Bush). McCain has argued that he’s got experience and courage while Obama is not ready to lead.

This was exactly the campaign Obama had planned on and their strategy was working perfectly; McCain was behind just about the whole time. So McCain decided to shake things up and picked Sarah Palin, an unknown, far-right woman to be VP and began campaigning on them being “the original mavericks”. (McCain’s lack of ideology led the press to call him a maverick for signing onto some liberal bills; Palin won her seat through a primary challenge against corrupt Alaska Republicans.) Palin is wildly inexperienced (and so is being kept from the press) and most of her claims to be anti-corruption are complete lies, but the press has been half-hearted in pointing this out.

So that’s the recap. Now the problem. Whenever they’re stuck, conservatives have two traditional responses: swift-boating and projection. Swift-boating is taking your opponent’s main asset and making it a liability. The classic example is taking John Kerry’s venerated war service and arguing that it was a fraud. But it can be used more generally as well. So when someone says “We need to increase welfare to help the poor,” the conservatives reply “Welfare doesn’t help the poor — it just encourages them to be lazier.” Projection is take your opponent’s main asset and claiming it to be your own. The classic example here is that when the media is doing an effective job of parroting your story, you get out in front and complain that it spends its time parroting your opponent’s story. The projection response to welfare is “No, we’re the ones who really want to help the poor — that’s why we’re proposing an ownership society.”

It’s tough to swift-boat Obama on the issue of change. He’s young, he’s black, he’s a Democrat. Calling him more of the same just seems laughable. But, because of McCain’s history, saying that McCain is also for change has more resonance.

So what does Obama do? Whichever direction he goes, McCain will just follow him there. If Obama says he’s for real change, McCain will just say he’s for real change too. To voters, it’ll seem like a toss-up. Worse, a lot of Obama’s electoral strategy hinges on his massive on-the-ground team of volunteers bringing out new voters. If he goes negative (the obvious response), he’ll take the campaign down into a mud-slinging match and turn all those new voters off. The only way to win is to go someplace McCain can’t. And the one place McCain can’t go is the issues. (Gasp! We might actually have to talk about issues.)

McCain’s plans have been the most nutzoid right-wing proposals: end employer-paid health care, permanent bases in Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, and head-in-the-sand about energy. They’re big juicy targets. But so far, Obama has been incompetent about going after them. Whenever his ads begin talking about issues, they suddenly switch into policy-wonk mode and begin using so many long words that even I don’t understand what he’s going on about. And when they criticize John McCain they just seem like they’re making stuff up. To win, Obama’s ads will have to make the issues sexy — he’ll have to find a way to make talking about policy entertaining.

Crazy as that sounds, it isn’t impossible. There’s real substance to these policy disagreements — they’re genuinely interesting. John McCain, for example, thinks the big problem with health care in America is that people have too much of it. Employers buy health care in bulk for all their workers, whether they need it or not. Instead, he thinks each American should pay for health care on their own. That’s crazy, but it’s substantive crazy.

Instead of taking the campaign further into the mud, Obama will seem as if he’s raising it back up to talk about the issues. Hell, the media might even feel the pressure and start talking about issues themselves. It’s too late in the game for McCain to rewrite all his policy proposals, so he’ll either have to try to defend them (a complete losing battle) or he’ll have to keep slinging mud at someone who is trying to have a serious discussion. Either way, he looks bad.

I have no idea if the Obama campaign is going to do anything like this. But it’s the only way I see out of their rut.

You should follow me on twitter here.

September 15, 2008



This is exactly what i’d like to see happening. If advertisers and marketers can get folks to think their breath is bad, they want a Hummer, and need Viagra, then advertisers can get folks to think talking about policy is cool, too.

Again, will the Obama team try this? will they succeed? hmm…

posted by Mike Amundsen on September 15, 2008 #

I still feel like when Obama is addressing children when he speaks about policy. I must be missing all the speeches where he pulls out big words. (Not that he is unique in this).

Anyway good points all around. Last week Obama kept saying he planned to stick to the issues (followed by dumbed down high level sounds bites about policy), so maybe you’re on the same wavelength with his campaign.

posted by Alex on September 15, 2008 #

I found this extremely “in context” :)


posted by Sérgio on September 15, 2008 #

What makes you think they’re in a rut? I’m aware that’s the media narrative, but I see little in reality to substantiate it. Surely you’re not taking the media narrative at face value.

posted by Scott Reynen on September 15, 2008 #

The polls say McCain has a 56% chance of winning; an all-time low for Obama (who used to be in the high 60s). And they’ve had no real theme to their messaging that I’ve been able to discern.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 15, 2008 #

What polls are you citing, and what makes you think they acurrately portray the state of the campaign? What was the sample? The methodology? Are the shifts you’re seeing for some reason not attributable to “convention bounces,” which tend to fade away? Obama is getting more donations than ever. Why shouldn’t they take that as an indication they’re on the right track?

posted by Scott Reynen on September 15, 2008 #

I disagree with much of what has been said here, but given the difficulty of finding the truth about both sides makes most opinion moot. I suspect we will not know the truth until power is acquired, by which time will be too late. I am for making the position sufficiently impotent to prevent any potential damage altogether.

“The truth is so precious that she often attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

“How do you know when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.”

posted by Joseph Weigel on September 15, 2008 #

You’re right to be hesitant, and concisely nail the problems with election talk — cliched, emphemeral, and boring.

Unfortunately, you fail to rise above.

So your advice is to focus on substantive differences, ie talk about issues, but in a sexy way. Gee, nobody has ever thought of that before. Not bad advice, but so cliched and boring that (lack of) ephemerality is irrelevant.

(My own utterly cliched and boring advice is that Obama/Biden need to be practicing and testing attacks/attack ads, substantive and not, focusing on the old, crazy, stupid and hypocritical McCain, ignoring the Palin sideshow.)

On the one substantive issue you, mention, you say McCain “thinks the big problem with health care in America is that people have too much of it” and this is nutzoid. I doubt McCain thinks this (I’d bet on the vacuous too much health care spending, see below), but as far as I can tell there is at least implicit agreement on that from policy wonks across the political spectrum — the only question is how to cut back, either as the rest of the developed world does (single payer rationing) or more market rationing, which presumably is the idea behind decoupling employment and insurance.

Of course there’s a difference between “too much health care” and “spending too much on health care” (the latter is what wonks agree on), but this makes your suggested tack incredibly easy to parry. Everyone, no matter what their proposal is, will claim that the result of their proposal’s implementation will be that people will get more health care for less, because it will be delivered more efficiently. The interesting question is whether any particular plan would actually accomplish this, though I don’t expect to see that debated.

Both plans do go on about reducing costs http://www.barackobama.com/issues/healthcare/ http://www.johnmccain.com/Informing/Issues/19ba2f1c-c03f-4ac2-8cd5-5cf2edb527cf.htm

The McCain link above says “While still having the option of employer-based coverage…” I bet the bizarro world right wing Aaron Swartz would write much the same post, but claim that Obama has the nutzoid idea of eliminating private health care.

Now, either claim would make for a good attack ad!

posted by Mike Linksvayer on September 15, 2008 #

I think the genuine contribution in my piece was largely in the swiftboat/projection dichotomy. I’m surprised to hear you say that making issues sexy is a cliche; I read a lot of political stuff (more than I’d like) and I’ve never heard it suggested before — can you give an example or two?

As for health care wonkery, McCain’s plan is to remove the tax credit for employer-subsidized health insurance. (I spoke carelessly and said “care” instead of “insurance”; sorry.) The theoretical basis for this is that employers tend to overprovide insurance to their employees, whereas if individuals had to pay for it they’d be more likely to purchase the right amount. The only problem I can see this solving is that people have too much health insurance.

The opposing case is: a) morality compels us to provide insurance for all Americans, b) universal insurance will increase economic efficiency by freeing people from the concern of finding it, c) adverse selection effects make large insurance pools necessary, d) most health care decisions are made by doctors, not individuals, so incenting individuals is pointless, e) empirically, people are very bad at picking what treatments they should get, f) HMO intermediaries waste tremendous amounts of money trying to keep care from people who need it. Thus the proposal is a single-payer system with an independent council of experts to decide what treatments to pay for.

I don’t know of anyone who says the problem is that we spend too much on health care. The claims I hear are: a) in the future, people may choose to spend growing disposable income on their health rather than even more consumer goods, b) because we lack single-payer the US spends the most money per capita on health care and gets some of the worst performance.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 16, 2008 #

“or he’ll have to keep slinging mud at someone who is trying to have a serious discussion”

I suspect you underestimate the effectiveness of that tactic as political strategy :-(.

[tedious:I’m not saying you don’t know about that strategy; I’m saying I suspect you UNDERESTIMATE how effective it can be].

posted by Seth Finkelstein on September 16, 2008 #

Re projection, don’t you mean introjection?

I didn’t have specific examples in mind (but search for ‘make issues sexy’ sans quotes, you immediately gets lots of examples), but it is in the heart of anyone who cares more about specific policies than the show around politics, whether the word used is sexy, interesting, or engaging, and whether it comes out in the form of awareness raising protests or charts with a bit of flourish.

Also, though I don’t have citations, so feel free to dismiss, but it seems that the constituency of nearly every losing campaign feels that if only the candidate had talked more about their precious issues, surely the result would have been different.

Re McCain’s health plan, I don’t see where in the link I posted above or a speech on his site it actually says the employer tax credit would be removed, though via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_United_States_presidential_candidates,_2008#Domestic_issues I see a story at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/the-trail/2007/10/10/post_132.html that says this is the case. I suspect the plan such as it is, is intentionally vague enough to wiggle out of many particular claims.

However, regardless of what McCain is saying, the rationale for decoupling employment and insurance would in part be that those who do have insurance have too much — “insurance” that is used to cover all costs, not just ones beyond expectations (which I believe is known as “catastrophic insurance”), doesn’t really seem like insurance, and can only add to overhead costs and overconsumption, which in turn increases medical costs and makes any health care unafforable for some.

I’m afraid you don’t make the case opposing a tax credit for employer paid insurance — your “opposing case” (which you make well, except I’m not sure about (d) unless you’re only counting decisions after one is already in a hospital) is for a single-payer system, which is a different means of decoupling employment and insurance.

To my ears (a — health spending will gobble up all future spending) and (b — the US spends way more than its peers) both sound like claims that we’re spending too much on health care, as does all of the rhetoric which all proposers of health care plans use, whatever those plans are, claiming their plans will reduce costs and increase efficiency.

posted by Mike Linksvayer on September 16, 2008 #

“I’m afraid you don’t make the case opposing a tax credit for employer paid insurance”

Er, I meant

“I’m afraid you don’t make the case opposing ending a tax credit for employer paid insurance”

posted by Mike Linksvayer on September 16, 2008 #

Re projection, don’t you mean introjection?


Re McCain’s health plan, I don’t see where in the link I posted above or a speech on his site it actually says the employer tax credit would be removed

Why McCain Has the Best Health Care Plan: “McCain’s main pillar is the elimination of a tax break that employees receive if their employer provides their health care.”

You seem to agree that the rationale for McCain’s plan is that people have “too much insurance”. You claim this leads to increased medical costs but I have trouble following your logic.

Keeping versus ending the employer credit isn’t the choice we face in this election, but since adverse selection is so problematic, surely it would be better to keep it.

I, for one, don’t think the fact that we’ll have the option of spending our disposable income on living healthier and longer lives is necessarily a bad thing.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 16, 2008 #

Isn’t projection when one projects one’s own attributes onto others? What you’re describing is Republicans attempting to claim the attributes of Democrats, which sounds like the opposite of projection to me.

How could too much insurance increase costs? Simple, it increases demand.

McCain’s health care issues page certainly gets marks for being misleading, as it doesn’t explicitly state what is apparently its main pillar.

I agree that being able to choose between spending more on health and more on say monster homes, is quite a nice conundrum. We are incredibly privileged, no matter how many times we’re in the midst of various crises. If we avoid nuclear war (and that’s the fundamental problem with McCain from my perspective, he seems more militaristic than Bush, and lots crazier), future generations will be even moreso.

posted by Mike Linksvayer on September 16, 2008 #

that even I don’t understand what he’s going on about

Arrogance personified.

posted by Callum on September 16, 2008 #

Obama’s initial claim to interestingness has faded with time: people get the story, but is he different from any other generic first-term congressional Democrat? (Voters, especially swing voters, don’t like that category of politician much more than they like Bush Republicans.)

Politics is theater, and Obama needs a dramatic next act — not a wonkish next act. McCain picking Palin was dramatic; Palin herself is dramatic; the idea McCain might be an ornery reformer pissing off the comfortable in both parties if president is dramatic (whether or not you find it credible).

Possibilities: stealing GOP issues to prove he’s not a generic doctrinaire young dem/progressive. Come out against racial preferences, or for school vouchers, or (even though I’d find it abhorrent) get to the nativist side of McCain on immigration.

Not what the idealist left wants to hear from Obama, but right now the battle is for independents who only pay attention in the last 60 days before an election, not idealists of any sort who follow politics all year.

Related: I find plenty to agree with in these analyses from Joe Trippi of the pragmatic left and David Brooks of the pragmatic right:

Trippi: “It’s Not Just Palin, It’s the Message” http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/09/its_not_just_palin_its_the_mes.html

Brooks: “Surprise Me Most” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/09/opinion/09brooks.html?ref=opinion

posted by Gordon Mohr on September 16, 2008 #

You can only campaign on the issues if the press is interested in covering the issues. But the majority of the press (with some exceptions in print media, few in broadcast) isn’t interested in covering the issues, because that’s hard. If you want to compare the differences between the McCain and Obama economic policy, you have to figure out what they are (somewhat of a challenge with McCain, since they don’t like to talk specifics), and then spend some time and effort doing analysis.

Or, alternatively, you can just report on the politics of the two campaigns, which takes no effort at all.

Traditionally, when you got to debates, you had real discussion, since they were organized and run by the league of women voters. Now they’re handled by the same broadcast media who isn’t interested in doing their homework, and don’t cover substantive issues.

The republicans go negative because it works. People say they don’t like negative campaigns, but they work.

I would love to see the campaigns focus on the issues, but McCain can’t because of his severe disadvantage there. So they will go negative, just like they did in 2000 and 2004.

The traditional democratic choice is to stay “above it all”. That worked great for Al Gore and John Kerry. If anybody could pull that strategy off, it’s Obama as he’s a rule changer, but given the way the campaign is going now, I’m not sure.

The republicans have been “win at any costs” for the last 20 years of so. They don’t care at all about staying true to their ideals or being civilized, all they care about is winning. Honesty and integrity are not important.

You can stay true to your ideals, and hope that people respond. Or you can decide that you really want to win.

I’m hoping the Obama campaign will not only stay where they are but go more negative in the weeks to come. I think it’s the only way to reconsider the image of McCain (and now, Palin) that they’ve painted. The “they’re lying” approach of past weeks has gained traction. That the Obama campaign is no longer asking the 527s to place nice is a good sign.

Negative, negative, negative. “Bush/McCain policies”. “Bush 45”. Lying. Flip/flopping. 4000 dead in the war. More terrorists. Bin Laden still on the loose. Republican economics. 5th from the bottom at the Naval Academy.

posted by Eric on September 16, 2008 #

While I agree policy can be presented in a more satisfying way, realistically I think that would have only a marginal effect on the race. People who respond to the “issues” are already solidly committed to one candidate or the other, and are least likely to peel off. “Swing voters” are, I believe, relatively daft, and respond more to a candidate’s charisma, temperament, and other nebulous qualities. You’ll see a lot of this during the debates: much attention on how candidates conduct themselves, little substantial analysis of what’s said.

And maybe it’s just me, but I also think you’re overestimating Democrats’ strength on what are referred to so monolithically as “the issues.” For example, McCain’s in a strong position on the whole sub-prime mortgage meltdown driving the recent financial panic, and can easily characterize Obama as sitting on his hands when reform proposals came up because he’s been in the industry’s pocket. There are “issues,” and then there are “issues.”

posted by sierra on September 24, 2008 #

“Swing voters” are, I believe, relatively daft, and respond more to a candidate’s charisma, temperament, and other nebulous qualities. You’ll see a lot of this during the debates: much attention on how candidates conduct themselves, little substantial analysis of what’s said.

Do you have any evidence for this? I didn’t realize that swing voters were mostly made up of TV debate commentators.

And you don’t think McCain’s in the industry’s pocket?

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 24, 2008 #

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