Sunday, January 27, 2008

Clinton Nostalgia vs Clinton Fatigue

The dynamic of the Democratic primaries (and of the general election, should Clinton become the Democratic nominee) has a lot to do with the tension between two opposing forces: Clinton nostalgia, and Clinton fatigue. Voters who long for the good old days of Bill's presidency tend to support Hillary. Voters who are glad the Clinton White House is over tend to support someone else. The question is, which force is stronger? I think the answer here is: fatigue.

Part of what makes nostalgia such a fine feeling is that often the past seems more pleasant in memory than it was in reality. Ordinarily, the reality of the past can't gainsay the pleasures of nostalgia because the past is, by definition, gone. But this is not the case in the election at hand.

The Clintons have injected Bill into the race to such an extent that a derogatory (yet not inaccurate) word I haven't much seen since 1996 -- Billary -- is back in vogue. I noticed it in Colbert King's column in yesterday's Washington Post (Billary's Adventures in Primaryland), then again this morning in Frank Rich's column from the New York Times (The Billary Road to Republican Victory).

In fact, the Clintons have played the Bill card so aggressively that judging from Hillary's news conference following her defeat in South Carolina, you would think Bill is the candidate and Hillary his spokesperson:

"Clinton was asked if she thought Sen. Barack Obama is the Jesse Jackson of 2008. She did not answer the question, and instead spoke about what she views as the great things President Clinton has done in his life. 'Bill Clinton is somebody who brought out country together. He understands what it takes to repair the breaches and hopefully mend the divides that have stalked us for so long and his record speaks to that.'

"Clinton continued, 'I think Americans from every community know what his life's work has been and they really know his heart.'

"When questioning turned back to President Clinton, the Senator said 'his life's work has been about bringing people together.'"

What the Clintons have done, therefore, is to make the past live again. And the sharp reality of the resurrected past seems to be eclipsing the fuzzy nostalgia that preceded it. In South Carolina exit polls, "Roughly 6 in 10 South Carolina Democratic primary voters said Bill Clinton's campaigning was important in how they ultimately decided to vote, and of those voters, 48 percent went for Barack Obama while only 37 percent went for Hillary Clinton. Fourteen percent of those voters voted for John Edwards."

In other words, about 62% of South Carolina Democratic voters who were affected by Bill's role voted against Hillary. And there's more:

"Meanwhile, the exit polls also indicate Obama easily beat Clinton among those voters who decided in the last three days — when news reports heavily covered the former president's heightened criticisms of Obama. Twenty percent of South Carolina Democrats made their decision in the last three days and 51 percent of them chose Obama, while only 21 percent picked Clinton.

"Bill Clinton's presence on the trail was 'very important' to roughly a quarter of those surveyed. Among those voters, Hillary Clinton edged out Barack Obama, 46 to 42 percent."

For me, that feels like Clinton fatigue eclipsing Clinton nostalgia.

If I'm right in believing the unwelcome reality of the past will trump the nostalgia of the present, then the longer Hillary and Bill are in the limelight, the more Hillary's candidacy will falter. Even if she manages to survive her growing weakness throughout the primary and become the Democratic nominee, Clinton fatigue will continue to worsen, and the Democrats would be sending an increasingly debilitated candidate into the general election. I hope the Democrats will be smarter than that. Nostalgia is a weak foundation for a campaign. Not just because campaigns are and ought to be about the future, but because when reality intrudes upon nostalgia, it tends to ruin the reverie.

P.S. I've received quite a few messages asking if I'm a Democrat. The answer is no -- I'm neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and have voted for candidates from both parties. More than anything else, I would describe myself as a libertarian, which means I probably won't ever have a comfortable home in either party. Regardless, I think the Republicans have so lost sight of their principles (small government, realistic foreign policy, fiscal responsibility, respect for individual privacy) that they need an intervention. If the Republicans lose badly, I hope they'll take advantage of the experience to get their act together. Which would be good for them, and good for the country. That's why in this election I've been more invested in the Democrats fielding a strong candidate than in who the Republicans might nominate.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Low Dollar Border Fence

It's clear to me from listening to snippets of the Republican debates that the Bush administration is taking heat for America's broken borders. But I don't think the president is receiving adequate credit for what he's doing to combat illegal immigration. After all, won't a plummeting dollar discourage illegal immigration? If I were thinking about sneaking into America to earn dollars that I could send home to my family, at this point I might consider a country in the Euro zone, instead.

If the Bush administration can continue to drive down the value of the dollar, it's possible they won't just discourage new illegal immigration -- they might even encourage illegals who are already here to go somewhere else, where they could be paid in a sounder currency.

Of course I'm being slightly facetious and I'm no economist, but I imagine there must be some correlation between the strength of a country's currency and its attractiveness to immigrants, legal and illegal, who hope to send money to family back home. If anyone knows more about this correlation and could send me a link or two, I'd be grateful.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Boxing, Judo, and Politics

Last night I watched some snippets from the South Carolina Democratic debate. As an Obama supporter, I came away frustrated. Hillary* offered up many of the same distortions she and Bill have been feeding into the news cycle over the past week. Obama seemed to think the debate was a good venue to set the record straight with some vigorous counterpunching. He was mistaken both about the strategy and the tactics. The response to a slime campaign like the Clintons' isn't boxing; it's judo. And the goal isn't to set the record straight; it's to change the terms of the debate itself.

Here's the gist of one exchange:

Obama: You and Bill are distorting my statements.
Hillary: The fact is, you said you really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last fifteen years.** And we can give you the exact quote.*** The Republicans had bad ideas.
Obama: I didn't say nice things about Reagan.
Hillary: I didn't say you did. I said you said nice things about the Republicans.
Obama: I said nice things about Reagan's style, but I fought against his substance while you were a corporate lawyer for Wal-Mart. And you praise Reagan in a book about to be published.
Hillary: I never accused you of saying nice things about Reagan by name.
Obama: Your husband did.
Hillary: You said the Republicans had good ideas.
Obama: I didn't say they were good ones.

Get the idea? Jab. Parry. Straight right. All people come away with is that a lot of punches were thrown. Probably Hillary stretched the truth in some places, probably Obama did in others (a pretty accurate assessment, I would argue, even if Hillary is worse). But this is a communications victory for Hillary because, as the one running the negative campaign, her objective is to suggest that at least some of her distortions are true while at least some of Obama's truths are distortions. A game of tit for tat suits her purposes.

Obviously, Obama shouldn't play Hillary's game. Here's the game I wish he would play:

Obama: You and Bill are distorting my statements.
Hillary: The fact is, you said you really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last fifteen years. And we can give you the exact quote. The Republicans had bad ideas.
Obama: Wait a minute, Hillary. Sure I said some complimentary things, mostly about Reagan's leadership style, but also about some aspects of the Republican party he led. Are you saying it's impermissible to say something nice about Republicans?
Hillary: Well...
Obama: No, really. This is bizarre. All week long, you and Bill have been attacking me for saying something mildly complimentary about another political party. Is there nothing worthwhile about the Republican party? Not a single nice thing we're allowed to say? They represent about half the country... you can't think of a single nice thing to say about half the country? What are you talking about? Half the country is all bad?
Hillary: You said you liked the Republican's ideas. That's a fact. I can back it up with a quote.
Obama: Hillary, I challenge you. Right here, tonight. Say something nice about the Republican party, which represents half the voters in our country. Don't be afraid. For once in your life, drop the triangulation and the doublespeak and the negativity and say one positive thing about the other side. I know you can do it.

Here, the best Hillary could reach for would be a joke -- something like, "Well, they could start a great white-males-only country club." Then, when the laughter died down, Obama could conclude this way:

Obama: Good for you, Hillary. You've proven it's okay to find something positive from time to time, even in the opposition. And now I challenge you to run your campaign that way. Drop the juvenile nonsense about "Obama said something nice about the other party!" and the other distortions and demagoguery and try campaigning on all that experience you claim to have. Even if it's not enough for you to win, you'll elevate the debate and do the country a service.

Yes, I have the full benefit of hindsight and no debate pressure in which to think this up. But the specific execution is less important than an understanding of the objective. And the objective is not to stand fast and slug it out, but to step away from the attack so that it's revealed for the foolishness it is and force your off-balanced opponent to respond now on your terms, not on hers. Obama tried this a little, but more in the way of counteraccusations (you were a fat cat lawyer!) than of an actual change in the foundation of the argument.

Hint: "You did it, too!" is a counter-argument. The question, "Are you saying..." is the prelude to a possible debate-changer. Obama needs to figure this out before Hillary drags him down to her level. At her level, she wins the nomination. And the Republicans win the election.

*Occasionally I've been criticized for referring to Hillary by her first name. I do so only as a matter of shorthand, to distinguish her from Bill. As Bill becomes increasingly prominent in Hillary's campaign, the shorthand becomes increasingly convenient. If there were another candidate with the last name Obama, I'd be calling Obama Barack.

**Here's what Obama actually said:

"I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I mean, I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. They felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the 60's and the 70's and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating and he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is, people wanted clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamic and entrepreneurship that had been missing, alright? I think Kennedy, twenty years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction. So I think a lot of it just has to do with the times.

"I think we're in one of those times right now. Where people feel like things as they are going aren't working. We're bogged down in the same arguments that we've been having, and they're not useful. And, you know, the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. I think it's fair to say the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last ten, fifteen years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom. Now, you've heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they're being debated among the Presidential candidates and it's all tax cuts. Well, you know, we've done that, we tried it. That's not really going to solve our energy problems, for example. So, some of it's the times. And some of it's, I think, there's maybe a generation element to this, partly. In the sense that there's a, I didn't did come of age in the battles of the 60's. I'm not as invested in them."

***Hint: when a politician tells you he can give you the exact quote, he is lying both about the quote and about what he claims it will support. The claim is intended to sound confident when spoken and the politician knows no one will follow up on it later. Even if anyone does, the politician will offer up something tangential, and by then the news cycle will have moved on. Also note how many times Hillary says she wants to "be clear" or "be very explicit" or "clarify the record" about something. When a politician talks that way, do you sense clarity on the way? Or obfuscation?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

You Betcha

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell acknowledges in an interview in the January 21 New Yorker that to him, being waterboarded would be torture. But he won't opine about whether waterboarding is torture legally speaking because "If it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it."

Engaging in it? What about the people who *ordered* it? The US is a party to the Geneva Conventions and to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment of Punishment. Both prohibit torture; both, by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, are the Law of the Land in the United States.

A violation of a treaty obligation is therefore a violation of US law. A conviction for violating of US law -- aka, "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" -- is grounds for removal from office pursuant to the Constitution's Article II, Section 4. That is:

ordering waterboarding = ordering torture = high crime = impeachment offense

Still wondering why the CIA destroyed the torture tapes?

Two interesting pieces from the front page of today's Wall Street Journal. First, "A CIA official apparently acted against superiors' wishes when he ordered the destruction of interrogation tapes, said Rep. Hoekstra after a closed hearing in which the agency's acting counsel testified." Second, "The White House said it reused backup email computer tapes before October 2003, possibly erasing messages pertaining to the Iraq war and the CIA-leak case."

Right now, the White House has two imperatives: (1) sever links between the White House and waterboarding to create deniability (the narrative then becomes, yes, waterboarding happened; no, we did not authorize or order it); (2) obscure any evidence that the White House has directed a coverup (the narrative then becomes, anyone who destroyed evidence related to waterboarded did so on his own initiative, or else the evidence was lost accidentally).

My guess is that the "lost" emails included information on who in the White House specifically ordered or authorized that prisoners be waterboarded. Expect additional such "accidents."

Unsurprisingly, McConnell insisted in his interview that "We don't torture" and instead use "special methods" of interrogation. Equally unsurprisingly, the "special methods" have worked:

"Have we gotten meaningful information? You betcha. Tons! Does it save lives? Tons! We've gotten incredible information."

Let me ask you something about this speech pattern. If it came from a salesman, especially one on commission, would you trust him? Would you believe in what he was selling?

Update: A great post on the CIA's destruction of its interrogation tapes, on why it ordered that such taping cease, and on how to address such problems going forward. More on my website discussion board.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Rove, McCarthy, Clinton

This morning, Bill Clinton claimed to have a "list of 80 attacks on Hillary that are quite personal by Senator Obama and his campaign going back six months that I've pulled."

I read this and wondered, "Why does this sound familiar?" And then I remembered: "Right, there was that other guy, although his list was longer, coming in at 205... what was his name again? Joe McCarthy, that's right."

I can't find Clinton's list, despite searching for it online, so I gather he hasn't gotten around to producing it yet. I doubt he ever will; after all, Joe McCarthy never released his. If Clinton is forced to release the list he claims to have compiled (I imagine advisors are feverishly putting one together as we speak), I expect that at best we'll find the former president has trouble distinguishing between a political criticism and a personal attack.

Doe Bill expect to be called on this? Yes. Does he care? No. His objective is to use the vestiges of his bully pulpit to get the "list of 80 personal attacks" into the news cycle and use it to chip away at the moral high ground Obama rightly occupies. The next step will be to resist calls for him to produce the list, thereby keeping the meme "80 personal attacks" in the news cycle and cementing it in people's minds. After that, Clinton will release highlights. After that, additional points, which will produce discussion about what's personal and what's political. And finally, when the smoke clears, people are supposed to remember, "Well, Obama's not such a prince... after all, there were those 80 personal attacks..."

I don't mean to suggest the Clintons are running exclusively on a McCarthyism playbook. They're also tapping Karl Rove, who in the 2004 election mastered the audacious technique of directly attacking your opponent's strength. Who would have thought that Bush, who hid in the Texas National Air Guard during Vietnam, could have successfully attacked for his service Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran! But Bush did, and succeeding in sowing what's known in the software industry as FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. I doubt many voters could remember or ever even knew the details of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (the name itself is a masterpiece of marketing) campaign; what they remembered was something vague, along the lines of, "Sure, Kerry was in Vietnam... but weren't there questions about his war record?"

And so, with Karl Rove as inspiration, the Clintons are now attacking Obama for is supposed inconsistency on the war in Iraq. Bill calls Obama's consistent stance on the war a "fairy tale." Hillary echoes the claim on Tim Russert's show. For the actual facts, though -- to understand just how superior to Hillary's has been Obama's record and judgment on Iraq -- you need print.

So this is how the Clintons hope to neutralize Obama's entirely justifiable claim to have demonstrated better judgment than the current "candidate of experience" on one of the most important foreign policy calls in US history. They use their celebrity status to make all kinds of claims on video that will go un-rebutted in real time, either because the interviewer is ill-informed or timid or an ally or some combination. Only later will the facts emerge, and then only in print. Which will have the bigger impact: the Clinton's ongoing televised repetitions of a lie? Or the print rebuttals? Again, when the smoke clears, even if people remember that Hillary voted for the war in Iraq while then-Illinois state senator Obama was speaking out against it, they'll also have some vague sense that Obama must have done something wrong, too... even if they can't quite remember what it was. "Sure, Hillary was wrong on Iraq... but so was he, wasn't he?"

What did Churchill say? "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Lies are faster, and the Clintons are using them to try to win a race.

What should Obama do about it? My sense is that he should continue to stick to the high road. A significant part of Obama's appeal is his call for an end to partisan rancor. I think his stature will grow if he continues not just to talk that talk, but to walk that walk, especially in the face of so many provocations from the Clintons. Yes, continue to set the record straight, but don't be drawn into the mud. Keep playing to your strengths, keep playing your positive game, not the Clinton's desperately negative one. Not only will such a positive campaign lead to an Obama victory, it'll make that victory even more worthwhile for everyone -- even for the Clintons, because they're American citizens, too, and for any of their would-be imitators.

Update: Another instance of the Clintons' obfuscation efforts regarding Hillary's war vote. Nice to see the New York Times pointing out the distortions.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Brand, Market Adoption, and President Obama

Watching the results from Iowa come in on Thursday, and listening to Obama's victory speech and Hillary Clinton's concession speech after, I realized why Obama is only going to get stronger and Clinton only weaker. It comes down to two business concepts: brand, and market adoption.

Simply put, a brand is the emotional connection a consumer feels to a product or service. It's what the product or service stands for in the consumer's mind. What does Apple stand for? Virgin? Marlboro? Harley Davidson? Generally speaking, if you can easily and simply answer the question of what a company stands for, you're talking about a strong brand. If you can't, the brand is weak.

Part of what makes a brand powerful is internal consistency -- that is, consistency between the elements of the message, and between the message and the underlying product. Inconsistency, that is, dissonance, weakens a brand. In other words, for a brand to have power, its various elements must organically cohere. Volvo stands for safety. How would Volvo fare if the company attempted to include in its brand the idea of speed, handling, and thrills? Not well, because thrills and safety don't easily fit together in the consumer's mind. Reliability, on the other hand, is something that does cohere with safety, and therefore, conceptually, Volvo would have little trouble expanding its brand to make it mean reliability along with safety. But because Volvos are not, in fact, reliable, the extension wouldn't work -- there would be a disconnect between the brand and the underlying product.

Now let's talk candidates. What is Obama's brand? In a word, change. Change is a perfect brand for a young, charismatic, black candidate relatively new to national politics. That is, the brand is perfectly consistent with the product. Not only is there no dissonance; between the man and the message, there is perfect resonance.

Let's stay for a moment with an analysis of the connection between the brand and the product. Then we'll discuss the connection between the brand and the market.

Okay, Clinton: Clinton's brand is, in a word, experience. Certainly not a bad brand to have, generally speaking, but how well-suited in this case is the brand to the product?

I think the answer is: somewhat well-suited. Clinton has been a US senator for seven years, and no one would argue experience like that isn't relevant to the top job. What about her time as First Lady? Brand-wise, I would call that a mixed bag. Some consumers will find it relevant, others less so (the most balanced analysis I've read on the subject, by the way, is by Slate's Michael Kinsley, here). Regardless, compared to a candidate like, say, George Bush Senior, whose 1992 "experience" brand was informed by a previous term as president, eight years as vice president, ambassador to the U.N., Director of Central Intelligence, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Ambassador to China, Clinton's attempt to brand herself as the experienced candidate is relatively unsupported -- certainly not as well supported as Obama's claim to be the candidate of change.

So Clinton's brand is less resonant with the the underlying product than is Obama's, meaning Obama's brand is the more powerful, other things being equal. But other things aren't equal, and experience isn't always the better brand to run on even when the claim to it is strong (note that George Bush Sr. the candidate of experience, was defeated by the young, inexperienced Bill Clinton in 1992). There's also the question of the suitability of "experience" and "change" as brands in the current market. And here, even if Clinton were the very embodiment of experience, she has the wrong brand for 2008.

"Experience" connotes establishment, status quo, the past -- not concepts likely to be favored in a market that has seen five years of catastrophic war in Iraq; the epic incompetence of the response to Katrina; a plummeting dollar; a nine trillion dollar national debt; etc. "Experience" suggests you might be part of the problems people now want fixed. By contrast, all the associations of "change" as embodied by Obama -- freshness, excitement, the new, the future -- suggest the product in question, rather than being part of the problems of the past, will instead be the agent for solving them.

Clinton has realized her "experience" brand is not nearly as well suited for the current market as Obama's "change" brand, and has therefore been attempting to make "change" a part of her brand, as well. You can see the results in her final pre-caucus Iowa television commercial. Note how many times she talks about how she'll be "ready on day one" -- to make "a new beginning." The message (which Bill Clinton has been broadcasting, as well), is that only the candidate with experience can bring about change. Logically, there's nothing wrong with this argument. But brands aren't driven by logic. They're driven by emotion, by unconscious associations, and the implicit question in the mind of voters ("if she's so experienced, why is she only getting around to changing things now?") cannot be satisfactorily answered by logic. In other words, "experience" and "change" are not elements that cohere under a unified, powerful brand. (For a hilarious take on the ultimate in Clinton rebranding, click here.)

(Clinton's refusal to apologize for her vote authorizing the war in Iraq is similar. As a matter of logic, she can argue that she has nothing to apologize for even though if she could do it over she would vote differently because based on what she knew at the time, it was the right decision. The logic of her argument, however, doesn't satisfy the nagging, unconscious, simple question: if you made a mistake, shouldn't you apologize?)

Remember that all the national problems enumerated above arose under the stewardship of a president whose father was president eight years before him. A nepotistic succession -- the antithesis of change -- produced disastrous results. Of course the current market is more hungry for change than it is for experience (and of course the market will be leery of anything that smells of further nepotism or dynasty). Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton = more of the same problems. Barrack Obama? Now that sounds different.

A last point about brands, and then we'll move on to a discussion of market adoption. Remember: for a pitch to be maximally effective, it has to be stated indirectly -- in other words, hidden. With this principle in mind, will Clinton's recent attempts to incorporate "change" into her brand work? "Hillary has always been a change agent" doesn't feel terribly persuasive. By contrast, Obama strikes me as much more subtle about responding to the "no experience" charge. I expect that both substantively and by a firmer grasp of principles of effective communication, Obama will over time put to rest doubts about the depth of his experience. Clinton will have a much more difficult time persuading people that she's not a representative of the status quo -- substantively; because of how directly she makes her claims of change; most stubbornly, because status quo is an inherent association of her brand. Most fundamentally, because at this point in their lives and in this campaign, the candidates' brands are well established, and brands can be changed only slowly, if at all.

Okay, let's talk about market adoption. Quite a few years back, I read an eye-opening book called "Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers" by Geoffrey Moore. Moore's argument is that a new, untested product, which Moore calls "discontinuous," will be taken up by the market in five stages: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Only when a product is being adopted by the late majority and laggards can it be said to have "crossed the chasm" to the mass market (in the book business, this is usually called "breaking out"). The point is, later segments of the market refuse to adopt the new product until they see that earlier segments have adopted it. You can only reach the late adopters, who won't initially trust you, by proving yourself with the early adopters first.

Let's apply this theory to Obama. He's young, fresh, and although in fact possessed of a significant amount of relevant experience, not running primarily on an experience brand. Most importantly for purposes of crossing the chasm, of course, he is black. And just as many technology consumers won't buy a new product until they see other people are buying it already, there are many voters who are reluctant to vote for a black candidate because they don't believe he can win.

The key word is "reluctant." Certainly there are some voters who won't believe a black candidate can actually be president until they have witnessed one with his hand on the bible at a south lawn swearing-in ceremony (and maybe not even then). But all other late adopters can and will have their doubts assuaged by witnessing the candidate's success. The leading curve of these late adopters will have been persuaded of Obama's electability by his resounding victory in Iowa. Others will continue to believe Iowa was a meaningless one-off... until they see him win in New Hampshire. And South Carolina. Etc. The point is, for a new, discontinuous "product" like Obama, the mass market can only be converted by the action of early adopters like the voters in Iowa. What this means is that, more than for any other candidate, every time Obama wins, it makes him dramatically stronger. By the time he wins the Democratic nomination, only lunatic-fringe laggards would still refuse to vote for him on electability grounds, and in any market, lunatic fringe laggards are ultimately irrelevant to a product's success. Which, among other reasons, including his brand, is why I believe Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. Why I hope for that outcome -- and I do -- will be the subject of another post.

P.S. Forgive me for not responding as often as before to comments here. I also post these pieces on my discussion board, and have been spending more time there. It's a fun forum with a lot of interesting people talking about writing, the Rain books, politics, single malt whisky, and anything else that strikes people's fancy, and we do a monthly chat on writing, too, so if you have a chance, stop by and say hello. It would be good to see you.