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?


Ana said...

I vote for you Barry. I like the way you think.
Since I live in P.R. my vote don't count, but what you observed in the debate is so true. In a way I am glad I don't have to vote.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I worry that with as large as our country is we will have a hard time really knowing what everyone's "platform" is when they are so busy doing the "he said oh no I didn't" game. And most importantly, I really liked your "ideal" of how the debate should have gone...or at least that portion of it. Thanks again Barry!

Anonymous said...

Good points.

I've pretty much given up watching the debates. I'm tired of hearing them snipe at each other instead of actually discussing and debating their different approaches.

I'm also annoyed because I can't vote in a primary election here in NY without losing my status as an independent, and I think that's just wrong. An independent voter is such so that the voter can CHOOSE the candidate best suited to the voter's beliefs, not pander to a party's political line.

I just feel like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are riding (even though that's not my religious persuasion/position) and I hope this election, in some small fashion, will somehow slow them down.

May I put you on my daily reads?

ssas said...

This seems to fall in with the Obama I'm growing to know through my research. I've worried all along that he can't hold his own under pressure. I don't think he's a bad man--quite the opposite!--just that he's not clever and quick and tough enough to stand up on the world stage.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Devon, I'd be honored. Sex Scenes, I don't read Obama's performance last night as a sign that he can't hold up under pressure or as indicative of any lack of cleverness and quickness. I've seen him display those qualities many times. To me, last night was a failure of preparation on the part of his team (for which, of course, he is ultimately responsible). Even the bravest warrior will have a hell of a time winning anything meaningful if he's sent our with the wrong weapons and the wrong objective, and that's what happened last night, IMO.

I've received a few posts that I've decided not to run because they struck me as overly harsh. I'm not a fan of the Clintons, but nor do I want to provide a platform for what strikes me as unreasoning Clinton hatred (or Bush or other hatred, for that matter). That's not the tone I want here on HOTM, for one thing, and for another, anti-Clinton rants do little other than creating sympathy for the candidate. Thanks for your understanding.

-- Barry

Anonymous said...

Good blog, Barry. I actaully like Obama's quote - very, very thoughtful. He is quite brilliant and I have liked that he has tried to run his campaign without the negative sniping at his opponents but that veil maybe lifting these days. Too bad. History might be made later this year with either a woman or a black man as president. No matter your political stripes or your personal preferences, that is history in the making. It would be nice to see.

Anonymous said...

I've applauded your concise and informed essays before - and now, once again - may I congratulate you for not allowing a platform for hate venting.

Give me an email - I've got some interesting political info you might want to see...

Ada [The Duchess] said...

Thank goodness I'm not the only one who feels the same.

I'm still itching over her so called 'cry' along with her 'some people are ready, and some people are not' comments through her oscar nominated tears.

I really don't have anything more to say as you have said it all.

OBAMA is the real agent of change here.

I sense fakeness. I would love a woman for president, just not her. She is not genuine, Obama is the only one who can bring about change for U.S.A

ssas said...

I just am failing to see any new ideas presented from Obama on his website, which I'm currently studying. It's disappointing, and I'd probably be ok with any of the dem candidates at this point (just ok, though, and that's a shame).

I also think Clinton's being herself, unfortunately.