Last night I saw Obama debate McCain. It was the most anticipated moment to date, in an election that has been more expensive and hyped than any in U.S. history. On the heels of a huge economic collapse, with the most hated president in our history as a backdrop, I was ready for something interesting. I went to a friend-of-a-friend’s where they were projecting it onto a wall. We were armed with wine and popcorn. Rather than the standard debate drinking games (drink every time a candidate says “terrorism”! And for every 9-11 reference!, etc) – we were all obliged to throw our snacks at the screen every time we heard something foul. We quickly made a mess.
I was really disappointed. It was boring. and despite what some polls say, I think Obama lost pretty clearly. I saw him constantly playing into conservative frames, spending most of his time on defense, and frankly being too complex and nuanced for his own good.
McCain spent most of his time reinforcing the same message: that Obama is inexperienced and naive. Every chance he got he would repeat the same line over and over again: “what my opponent doesn’t seem to understand is…” “Mr. Obama is naive because…” Obama (mostly) retaliated with facts, not with messages that appeal to values or emotions.
Obama, you are smarter than that! You know that it doesnt matter if you are right, it matters if you are convincing.
Progressives across the spectrum keep trying to be right instead of understanding how to reach people and shape ideas.
Obama instead could have thought of one or two simple phrases tying McCain to Bush, and repeated them every chance he got. Just like McCain attached Obama to the meme of naivete, Obama must do the same kind of thing with simplicity, consistency, and clarity. Obama could have also stuck to what he is good at: telling stories, and focusing on vision. In the process he could have framed the argument, rather than simply playing on McCain’s terms and frames he was putting forward.
As I was ranting to some of my friends it dawned on me: the main reason I found Obama compelling was that he was playing politics in a smart, savvy way that actually could win. Maybe others are drawn to him for his politics. I’m neither drawn nor repelled by them, really. I know many other organizers who constantly bemoan Obama’s positions on the issues: his increasing warmongering, terrible plan for climate change (support for coal and nuclear), or talk about how “Obama is gonna let us down.” That seems a bit silly to me. Obama is transparent about his positions. He’s not a Leftist, never claimed to be, and I have no expectations of him to be. I’m not sure how he can “let people down” unless they aren’t listening to what his actual policy proposals are.
I do think it is strategic for progressives of all stripes to help Obama get into office to build strong movements, but my main personal investment in the Obamamania is just that for the first time in my political life I see a presidential candidate who isnt a Republican who understands strategy and speaks to people’s values in a way that compels them to action. Someone who understands that if we just keep hammering people with facts, the way the Left always does, we are gonna keep falling on deaf ears.
If Obama doesn’t start getting back to the politically savvy and smart game of shifting ideas, then I actually will be dissapointed him.