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Advice Obama Should Not Take

My choice of conventions this week is the American Political Science Association, and so, like most Americans, I am watching the Democratic convention on television. These days, save for C-Span, you don't get to watch without suffering the commentary. I continue to be struck, not by the proceedings themselves, but by the way they are chewed over by media mavens.

I have not made a statistical count, but something like 90% of the commentary seems to be offered in the form of advice: Obama should do this or Obama should do that. The advice coming from liberals and Democrats is, if frequently contradictory, at least well-meaning. If you are really convinced that the Bush years are a disaster, you naturally are a bit anxious when the Democrats appear to be making mistakes; the thought of eight more years of a Republican presidency is too much for even the most moderate Democrats to accept calmly.

More striking to me is the advice Obama receives from conservatives and Republicans. For one thing, I wonder why they are giving him advice in the first place. Have you ever noticed that Bill Kristol is always telling Democrats what they should do while Paul Krugman almost never offers strategic counseling to Republicans? It is as if conservatives are not content to control one party but want a say in what the other does as well.

Some of this, as in the case of Kristol or the often odious Alex Castellanos, is little more than ill-intentioned meddling. But when a David Brooks lets Obama know who he should pick as vice-president or whether he should attack McCain personally, something else is going on. Higher-minded conservatives appear to recognize that we really do live in a Democratic country, even if with a Republican Electoral College. They understand that Democrats worry about how they will actually govern if elected and that, as citizens rather than as partisans, they therefore have a stake in what the Democrats do.

All of which suggests that Republicans are rarely offered advice because there is not much to advise them on. Republicans do not need to be told whether to take the high road or the low because they always take the low road. They do not ponder whether brutal campaign tactics will affect their ability to govern, since they care so little about government. If liberal media pundits are not particularly interested in offering conservative politician advice, conservatives understand their role as cheering their side on. No wonder Democrats are viewed as more likely to make mistakes. You can only make a mistake when you have a choice.

Most of the advice Obama had been given before Monday night's event was to let the American people know more about himself. He obviously chose to follow that suggestion; his wife was particularly effective in letting the prime time audience in on the appeal her husband has. I am glad Obama followed the advice he was given. This was not the night for attacks.

Now the core of the advice holds that starting tonight the Democrats should go after McCain and Bush. Should they? My guess is that they should - and will. But something in me wants Obama to ignore the advice he is being given - even mine. We always tell our politicians what to do, and when they do it, we are usually a bit disappointed. We need something called leadership. Short definition for today: leadership consists in knowing when to spurn the advice you are being given.

--Alan Wolfe