The Democrats off balance and off message

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has been dazed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the unqualified and yet wildly popular running mate chosen by Sen. John McCain. With time short, Democrats need to get back on message — economic and fiscal issues — and take aim squarely at the top of the GOP ticket, says Crosscut's national-politics writer. The public will figure out Palin for itself.
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Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has been dazed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the unqualified and yet wildly popular running mate chosen by Sen. John McCain. With time short, Democrats need to get back on message — economic and fiscal issues — and take aim squarely at the top of the GOP ticket, says Crosscut's national-politics writer. The public will figure out Palin for itself.

I belong to a committee of correspondents which includes a number of Democrats who have served in previous Democratic administrations and national campaigns. The following is my contribution, made Saturday, Sept. 13, to the dialogue, in response to comments by others that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's TV interview with ABC anchor Charles Gibson sank her candidacy once and for all.

The language is blunt because we are friends, and that is how we express ourselves. Here it is:

I disagree that Palin's interview with Gibson did grave damage to her credibility and to the Sen. John McCain-Palin ticket. On the contrary, it probably helped the ticket.

First, Gibson's demeanor toward Palin was patronizing: glasses halfway down his nose. Quite literally talking down to her, from an elevated position, as if he were the knowledgeable, substantive authority having to explain things to the empty housewife in front of him. Fact is, when Gibson tried to nail Palin with a "gotcha" on the Bush Doctrine, he was the one who got it wrong. He obviously knew no more than that which was on the crib sheet in his lap — which is about all that most TV talking heads know when they undertake such interviews.

Media hostility toward Palin is helping the McCain-Palin ticket immeasurably. There is a huge populist shift taking place in the country right now. On one side are Palinistas — Reagan Democrats, Hillary Democrats, whatever we want to call them — and on the other are what they regard as smug political/media elites who see them as inferior proles. Palin, at least for now, is the hero of the populists.

I got an e-mail the other day from a Seattle friend passing along a memo by Deepak Chopra, of all people, characterizing Palin as representing reactionary forces of darkness and Sen. Barack Obama as representing enlightened forces of light. New Age nonsense. The people sticking up for Palin are the same people who have abandoned the Democratic Party in varying numbers since 1968. They are not racists or reactionary dopes. They are, characteristically, people who work hard for a living, are saving to send their kids to college and for their retirement, may have kids or relatives in military service, go to church, do volunteer work, and fly the American flag on their porches on patriotic holidays. Typically, they are hard-pressed economically. They see themselves as idealists playing by the rules and trying to live the American Dream. They see their critics as self-involved and selfish snobs, often insulated from hard daily life, with intellectual pretensions not backed up by IQ. Media pundits, according to the populist view, rate a minus-5 on a scale of 1-to-10 when it comes to integrity. Whom the pundits attack, the populists admire — if the attackee fights back.

There is something else going on here. Obama, at the outset of his campaign, excited all of us with his "Yes we can" Message. It was a message that lifted all of us — and millions of independent and young voters, as well. It held out the promise that we could reach across partisan and ideological divisions to address together tough national problems. No more petty politics and gridlock. In fact, the opposite. Yes we can.

Gradually, Obama — I think without recognizing it — has morphed into a Kerry or Edwards clone. His inspiring Denver acceptance speech needlessly contained the usual boilerplate litany of interest-group promises that characterizes most Democratic national candidacies. Obama has defended recently his earlier pledge that all but a few Americans would get tax cuts in his presidency. But if you read his Denver laundry list, you recognize that his promised agenda cannot be attempted without huge tax increases across the board. The GOP has not yet gotten onto this. They are, after all, still The Dumb Party. But it is hard to believe they won't get it and react to it soon.

In recent days, Obama, after his meeting with former President Bill Clinton, seems to have signaled his campaign to adopt the self-pitying, victimized, the-other-guys-are-lying approach that Clinton himself so often used when under political and legal fire during his presidency. This, too, is a mistake — if, in fact, such a conscious decision was made. One reason the Obama candidacy was so welcome was it represented an exorcism of Clintonism from our party — a return to expression of a higher, more hopeful agenda and withdrawal from the low-politics, next-news-cycle tactical partisanship practiced by Clinton. Obama must be large and above petty partisanship. A Bill Clinton imitation is the last thing called for.

It would be a shame if we lost this election. Obama does, I believe, represent a sea change our party badly needs. He has already been through many more campaign events, interviews, and so on than McCain. McCain won his nomination much earlier and without the struggle Obama had to enture. Obama clearly is tired and needs to find second wind. There comes a time in any national campaign — usually toward the end of September or early October — when both candidates really hit their strides and their themes. I think that is likely to happen in this campaign when the vice-presidential and presidential debates take place.

We have some big things going for us Democrats. We have been more greatly trusted, historically, during times of economic and financial stress. The outgoing Bush administration is unpopular. Obama is 25 years younger than McCain, but McCain is an impetuous, intemperate man who would worry me in the presidency. Moreover, his on-the-record agenda is just plain out of line with the values and views of a majority of Americans. Remember the 1964 Johnson-Humphrey campaign against Barry Goldwater — in which we won a huge victory, enabling passage of the Great Society the following year? We won big because we pointed out that Goldwater was far to the right of the center line, as McCain is now. Obama, by contrast, can legimately appeal to independent and moderate voters, as he did at the outset of his campaign, if he sheds the laundry-list baggage he inserted needlessly in his Denver speech.

Palin: Yes, she is unqualified for the vice presidency. But voters have the wit to figure that out and do not need it forced down their throats by media types they regard as unqualified to make such judgments for them. Time is not on the McCain-Palin side as the campaign proceeds. I think of a 1968 Humphrey-Muskie campaign commercial which helped us almost bring it off that year after we left the Chicago convention 15 points behind Nixon-Agnew. If adapted for 2008, the commercial would show a voter entering the voting booth, thinking to herself, "I am not quite sure." Behind the voting curtain, she traces her finger, one at a time, over the names — Obama, Biden, McCain, Pallin. We hear her voice saying, "inspiring ... experienced ... I am not sure" and so on, as thoughts pass through her mind. Her finger last traces over the Palin name. Then she pulls the lever for Obama-Biden, saying out loud, "Now I am sure."

Big work ahead. We need to begin by waging a campaign against McCain and letting voters figure out, before November, that Palin is not up to it. They will, if attacks against her don't force them to her defense. Obama needs to run against McCain and do it on domestic and economic/financial issues. If we capture that ground, we win — maybe win big.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of