July 7, 2008 · Lessig
[breaking my "focus" injunction]:
All signs point to an Obama victory this fall. If the signs are wrong, it will be because of events last month. These events constitute a so-far-unnamed phenomenon in Presidential campaigning — what we could call “self-Swiftboating.” To understand “self-Swiftboating,” you’ve got to first understand “Swiftboating.”
Some use the term “Swiftboating” to refer to harsh, even vicious attacks on an opponent. I use the term in a more restrictive sense: “Swiftboating” is (1) attacking the strongest bits of a candidate’s character, with (2) false or misleading allegations. That was what Kerry suffered — attacking his courage as a soldier, the characteristic that distinguished him most from Bush, with misleading (at least) allegations by some who knew him when he served.
Self-Swiftboating is to Swiftboat yourself: For a campaign to do something that has the effect of undermining its own candidate’s strongest characteristic, with actions that are (at best) misleading. The Obama campaign has now self-Swiftboated candidate Obama.
(1) An attack on a core characteristic: There are at least two views about what makes Obama so compelling. One that he happens to have the mix of positions on policy questions that best matches the public’s. The other that he is perceived by the public as “different,” and hence (given the public hates politicians so) someone the public can like, or more significantly, get enthusiastic about.
I’m strongly in the second camp. It seems to me nothing more than consultant-think to imagine people choosing a President with a checklist of issues, finding the one to vote for the way they pick a place to vacation. It seems to me nothing less than obvious that people are passionate about Obama because he strikes them as a different kind of candidate — one that stands for his beliefs, that speaks clearly and directly, that can be trusted to stick by his beliefs, that says what he believes regardless. Such a creature, in most people’s minds, is “not a politician.” Such a creature (i.e., “not a politician”) is what people want in a President.
Democrats never seem to get this. The last two campaigns were lost (in my view) because the campaign was working overtime to bob and weave to match the program of the candidate to the pollsters’ latest work. That the shifts would signal that the candidate was nothing different just didn’t seem to compute. Better, for example, to have people believe the candidate (Kerry) was against gay marriage than to worry that most would see the position as a political ploy.
Republicans, on the other hand, seem obsessed with this. It was the defining feature of the success of Reagan that he made it appear as if he did what he believed, not what the polls said. It was the part Bush v2 mimicked best. It is the clear dream of the McCain campaign to do the same. “You may not like what I say, but at least you know where I stand” is the signal virtue in a GOP campaign. It is the signal blindness of a Democratic campaign.
I am not saying that Republicans are consistent and Democrats not. I am saying something very different: that Republicans believe appearing consistent/principled/different is the key to victory, where as Democrats (apparently) do not.
The Obama self-Swiftboating comes from a month of decisions that, while perhaps better tuning the policy positions of the campaign to what is good, or true, or right, or even expedient, completely undermine Obama’s signal virtue — that he’s different. We’ve handed the other side a string of examples that they will now use to argue (as Senator Graham did most effectively on Meet the Press) that Obama is nothing different, he’s just another politician, and that even if you believe that McCain too is just another politician, between these two ordinary politicians, pick the one with the most experience.
The Obama campaign seems just blind to the fact that these flips eat away at the most important asset Obama has. It seems oblivious to the consequence of another election in which (many) Democrats aren’t deeply motivated to vote (consequence: the GOP wins).
Instead, and weirdly, the campaign seems focused on the very last thing a campaign should be doing during a campaign — governing. This is not a try-out. A campaign is not a dry run for running government. Yet policy wonks inside the campaign sputter policy that Obama listens to and follows, again, apparently oblivious to how following that advice, when inconsistent with the positions taken in the past, just reinforces the other side’s campaign claim that Obama is just another calculating, unprincipled politician.
The best evidence that they don’t get this is Telco Immunity. Obama said he would filibuster a FISA bill with Telco Immunity in it. He has now signaled he won’t. When you talk to people close to the campaign about this, they say stuff like: “Come on, who really cares about that issue? Does anyone think the left is going to vote for McCain rather than Obama? This was a hard question. We tried to get it right. And anyway, the FISA compromise in the bill was a good one.”
But the point is that the point is not the substance of the issue. I’d argue until the cows come home that in a world where soldiers go to prison for breaking the law, the government shouldn’t be giving immunity to (generous campaign contributing) companies who break the law. But a mistake about substance is not why this flip is a mistake. I agree that a tiny proportion of the world thinks defeating Telco Immunity is important. The vast majority don’t even understand the issue. But what this perspective misses is just how easy it will be to use this (clear) flip in policy positions to support the argument “Obama is no different.” Here, and in other places, the campaign hands the other side kryptonite.
The issue cannot just be the substance alone. It has got to also be how a change on that substance will be perceived: And here (as with the other flips), it will be perceived in a manner that can’t help but erode the most important core of the Obama machine. It is behavior that attacks Obama’s strongest feature — that he is different. It is, therefore, Swiftboating.
Or at least, it is Swiftboating if it is false. So is it? Is the impression that this bobbing and weaving gives a misimpression? Or are we seeing, as the pundits are now beginning to chant, the true face of Obama?
(2) That is false or misleading: It is false. I know it is false because I believe I know the man, and because I know some inside the campaign struggling with these issues. I see them struggling to get it right. They are struggling, in short, to govern. The ones I know at least are not bobbing and weaving for political gain. They’re tuning the campaign as governing best requires. The flip on Telco Immunity gave Obama nothing, except the opportunity to do what he believes is right, in light of the compromises in the new bill. He acted to do what he believed was right. So the impression it gives — of a triangulator, tuning the campaign to the song of the polls — is misimpression. But that means it fits the definition of self-Swiftboating: The campaign sabotages its strongest characteristic, through steps that are misleading at best.
The campaign needs to stop this. This is not the time for governing. It is the time for making clear precisely what kind of President Obama will be. But in making that clear, it is critical to keep a focus on how actions are perceived. Will they signal a triangulator? Or will they signal a strong, principled man who stands for what he believes.
No doubt, compromise is the duty of anyone within government. But in the ADD culture we live in, compromise is poison to anyone trying to do what every politician now tries to do — appear not to be “a politician.” And thus if the oath to represent Illinois is getting in the way of signaling who Obama is, then maybe it is time to step away from being a Senator from Illinois. This is the time to keep the message focused on who (I know) this man is: someone different.
Hey HQ: You’ve got a guy who really stands for something (the tall thin guy, the one from Illinois). A man whose word really does matter. You’ve got to be extraordinarily careful not to give the other side the power to neutralize that.