Saturday, October 18, 2008

Why Obama won the election

This will not be one of those cute posts where I follow up with another one titled, "Why McCain won the election." With 17 days to go, it seems clear that, barring anything dramatic, Barack Obama will become the 44th president of the United States. For McCain to come back now will require more than appearances with David Letterman (and isn't it telling that Letterman asks questions more probing than most of the pundits and "journalists"?).

So I'm going to offer up my take on why this victory is occurring. I'll leave to the usual suspects the standard explanations (it was the right time, the youth vote came out, the financial crisis made us realize that we didn't want any more Republicans in charge for a while). Those are all factors, but, to me, they were not the deciders. I've had a couple of thoughts, one that I haven't read anywhere else, the other one a variation on a common theme.

1) The Biden choice

I don't believe that Joe Biden will bring many votes to the Democratic ticket. I have favored the choice since it was made, believing that Biden lends some serious foreign policy cred to the team. But this veteran pol is not going to ignite massive excitement in the electorate.

However, I believe that Obama's decision (perhaps unwittingly) was the key moment of the 2008 campaign. Here's why.

Obama had a choice between two: Hillary or not-Hillary. There were a whole lot of people pushing him to put Clinton on the ticket, arguing that he needed the army of women that would only back another female. Let's say Obama had gone with that, let's look at where McCain would have been.

Before the convention, John McCain was in a most curious position. He was a Republican without his base, abandoned by the Rush Limbaugh wing (who essentially said they wouldn't vote), but perceived as a centrist due to his "maverick" status. In other words, he had done Clinton-style triangulation without having secured the base, which left him in a good position to compete with a relatively left liberal. That's, I believe, why the polls were relatively close - McCain had the spectrum from the near-right to a good number of the center, while Obama had the rest of the center over to the far left. Had it remained that way, I think the election would have been pretty competitive.

There was another problem, though. Most of conventional wisdom says that competence is important to surprisingly few voters. Image, shared sensibilities, a beer-drinking buddy, all these are considered more important.

But there are some voters who prize execution over ideology, and they (quite obviously) tend to be found in the center. Some of these are people who believe that Washington actions are so constrained that left-right distinctions are unimportant in terms of actual programs, so the crucial thing is how well the government pulls off their goals. Normally, these people are a small enough group that the campaigns don't see it worth their while to target it.

This election, however, coming after a profoundly inept administration (which probably made the group larger than usual), and perceived as so close, made this group potentially critical to success. For many reasons, one of which is mentioned below, the McCain campaign couldn't count on much support from these voters. So other groups would need to be brought in.

Let's look at the landscape the day after Obama chooses Clinton. The base immediately embraces the best of a bad lot, and flocks to McCain (they don't like him any more than they did, but the Blonde Devil in the Pantsuit must be destroyed). The women who weren't reliably for McCain except as a reaction to the Democratic primary are gone, but John didn't really have them anyway. The fight moves to the center, including the execution people, and McCain picks a running mate who appeals to that center and has a proven track record of making things work (a Romney or another governor, probably not Lieberman). In my view, McCain has an excellent chance to win.

But Obama screwed that up by not picking Clinton. He picked Biden, no hero to the base, but not objectionable enough to get Rush to hold his nose and go with McCain. The base stays home.

And Biden is competent, with a track record of making things happen. Suddenly, two parts of the electorate are much harder to bring McCain's way. If he tacks even more rightward, hard to do with his embrace of so many of Bush's policies, he loses whatever progress he's made with the center. What to do, what to do?

It was time for the last-ditch pass, and McCain went up to Alaska to find someone to catch it. He chose Sarah Palin, hoping that she would bring in the base, and that she would bring in all the disaffected Hillary supporters. Since she was a symbolic pick, almost no vetting was needed. She was a woman, she was far right, and she's a governor, she must be competent.

And we've seen what happened. The base was energized, so McCain's picked up support and money there. But women were unimpressed, since Palin's views are quite inimical to rights that many women value (I think McCain may have seen women as more malleable than they actually are, perhaps because he grew up before the women's movement was even a glimmer). For those in the center who value competence, well, it took almost no time before Palin's record was examined (and she was asked actual questions), and her shortcomings became evident. McCain lost way more than he won in this deal, and, as a result, the election was lost.

But there was another critical factor on which Obama beat McCain badly:

2) Personnel execution

Another of the many lessons of the Bush debacle has been a recognition that it actually matters who a president chooses to have around him or her. We suspected it during the Carter years, when the late Ham Jordan was actually an important adviser. But Bush clinched it with his appointment of profoundly incompetent aides and administrators. Managing personnel is an important part of a president's duties.

Since presidential candidates are not required to pre-appoint Cabinet members, we're left to look at the way they handle their campaigns. Obama has done so expertly, McCain decidedly less so.

You may recall Samantha Power, foreign affairs adviser to the Obama campaign who stepped down after calling Hillary Clinton a monster back in March. Here's the thing: she's truly gone, we've barely heard a word from her since her departure. I've seen no articles suggesting that she slips ideas to Obama under the table, she's...just...gone.

You may recall Phil Gramm, former senator and economic adviser to the McCain campaign. Back in July, Gramm called the U.S. "a nation of whiners" (he's also likely the leading legislator behind the current financial crisis). Yet Gramm continues to be part of the McCain team, cited in TIME as a top adviser. Similarly, Carly Fiorina, failed head of HP and the "brain" behind the decline of Lucent Technologies, makes gaffe after gaffe but never quite seems to disappear.

To be fair to McCain, he may well be the ultimate team guy, a good quality in the military where loyalty and team cohesion is so important. One cannot help but be moved by stories of how servicemen always "go back for their own" as they recover their dead at great risk to themselves.

But this is not a campaign against the VC, it's a campaign for the office of president. Voters look at the people who surround the candidate, and decide whether they're acceptable. Obama has preserved an inner circle that has stayed on message, and shown a willingness to heave out those who can't. McCain hasn't done that; next thing you know, Brownie is back in charge of FEMA, and nobody thinks that's a good idea.

That's my take, anyway, as to why Obama is rolling to victory now.


Anonymous said...

Psychiatrists and wikipedia define maverick as schizophrenic, self centered, unwilling to belong, party-of-self, suppozably centrist, like Nixon, Giuliani, Dole (all selfish womanizers). Avenge Abramoff. We know McCain' retired Senate buddies did whatever Abramoff did. Jack's only sin was beeing too young and too successful and Jewish. Call him Maverdick. Damoto milked financial reform for donations, causing this crisis, and benefiting Dick Grasso, Lou Ranieri, Palmisano, and Chaminade's Gerstner. WHile they were all doing Diogardi's whore baths like Zenya Mucha and Mira Beretta.

Greg said...

Bravo Androcass. One of your most astute posts. (Though I'd love to know what Anonymous is smoking...)

Androcass said...


Thanks, and I have no idea.

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