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Plotting The Way Forward

Jonathan ChaitLakshmi ChaudhryWilliam GalstonEd Kilgore

Jonathan Chait is senior editor of The New Republic.

1. Embrace class-based affirmative action. This one is a winner all around. First, it's good substantive policy--it's clear that the transmission of poverty or wealth across generations, through school quality and parental values, is a serious problem and one that effects whites as well as blacks.

Second, Obama seems to agree with the concept. (Obama has said, "I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there's nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities. I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.")

Third, the politics are phenomenal for him. He needs to try to regain his "post-racial image" that took such a beating in the primary. When you read interviews with whites who fear Obama, they often express a fear that Obama is only going to look out for his fellow African-Americans. What better way to show this isn't true?

2. Emphasize his bipartisan compromises. Republicans have been saying for weeks now that Obama has no record of bipartisanship or serious legislation. It's utterly false. The blogger hilzoy documented Obama's record on issues like nuclear non-proliferation, ethics reform, and other small but worthy causes. Oddly enough, Obama's campaign itself has done little to disseminate this record. It should start.

3. Striking terrorists in Pakistan. This one is a bit of a hobbyhorse. Last year, Obama announced in a speech that if he got actionable intelligence about al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, he would strike. (This came shortly after The New York Times reported that President Bush had acquired such intelligence in 2005, planned a snatch-and-grab operation, but got cold feet and called it off.) John McCain has ridiculed Obama for this position. But it turns out that the Bush administration has started carrying out such operations. Why is McCain softer on al Qaeda than either Obama or Bush? Obama should make him answer that.

4. Hit McCain's policy reversals. This week, McCain didn't show up to vote for a climate change bill that he helped shape, and which he holds up as one of the great points of contrast with the Bush administration. (He said he probably wouldn't have voted for it even if he had shown up.) McCain has also refused to endorse his own immigration bill. He has also changed his mind on the Bush tax-cuts, torture and the Geneva conventions, and the rape-and-incest exception to the GOP's abortion amendment. These are matters of high principle, and not nearly enough attention has been paid to the lengths McCain went to in order to make himself acceptable to the GOP right. Obama frequently hits McCain on his support for tax cuts he once called unconscionable, and that's great, but he needs to expand the list. Moderates should realize that the McCain they once admired--I was one of them--is not the same man. 

Lakshmi Chaudhry is a contributing writer for The Nation, whose work has also appeared in Wired, In These Times, the Village Voice, and Salon.

Since Barack Obama has been so audacious in his hopes for his political destiny, let me be just as bold in mine. What I really, really want to see in the months to come is something that would constitute a miracle in present-day Democratic politics: a post-triangulation presidential campaign. Can we please be spared the sight of a yet another Democratic nominee struggling to play Budweiser Man, even as he channels his inner Dr. Strangelove and smacks around convenient parts of his base to demonstrate his political manhood.

In other words, just say no to Sistah Souljah moments, duck-hunting trips, or promises to obliterate various parts of the world. That Obama will also be under tremendous pressure to pander to the Oprah constituency (the potential photo-ops are infinite and nausea-inducing) and carefully modulate his race (just the right shade of black for you, dear Latino/white/African American voter) offers the potential of a candidacy more cringe-inducing than even the stellar John Kerry effort in 2004.

It's as inevitable as spring, the drumbeat in the media pushing the Democratic nominee to "prove " his centrist cred, Clinton-style: move right while you hold your base. And it's no different in 2008 with all the strum and drang over the "hard-working" white men that simply won't vote for Obama because he's too soft, too unpatriotic, too liberal, too different, too intellectual, too much of a Democrat, and a black one at that. It passes for political savvy, when in fact triangulation is a measure of our political weakness, since it is only the Democrat who has to prove every election season that he is American enough to be the president of the United States. Now that it's his turn, I'd like Obama to decline to take this spurious test of his viability

The one person who thinks I may get exactly what I want is--oddly enough--National Review's Rich Lowry. "Obama represents a rejection of triangulating Clintonism," he writes, "He had no Sister Souljah moment. ... Nor did Obama make any creative policy departures, like Clinton's advocacy of welfare reform in 1992. Obama is the fullest flowering of liberal orthodoxy since George McGovern." Ouch! But here's the good news: Obama may still win, giving us Democrats, "the delicious prospect of having [our] purity and victory, too."

Nice try, Rich, but Obama is in fact a post-Boomer candidate, less invested in liberal creed than in "what works." It's why the standard Democratic operating procedure of moving right in the general simply doesn't make sense for Obama--at least, not if he wants to remain true to his political instincts. All campaigns require a certain degree of dishonesty, but I hope Obama will remain for the most part true to himself--even if it requires disappointing both true-blue liberals and the "triangulate now!" crowd.

And I'd like him to start with his choice of running mate. The pressure exerted by the constant media chatter will be huge. Pick a woman to make it up to us gals who got robbed. Alternatively, pick a woman and you'll dis the Hillary supporters who got robbed. Pick a bona fide white male to show you're down with the working class boys. Pick a military man to show you too can get your patriotism on.

What I hope is that Barack Obama will do none of the above, but instead fulfill the initial promise of his candidacy and make a choice that is every bit as audacious as his decision to run for president. Leave the pretzel politics to John McCain, who now faces the mirror-image of the Democratic problem: to hold the center while he moves right. Let Mr. Maverick figure out how to woo Hispanics while he appeases the immigrant-hating Lou Dobbs fan--and lose every shred of political integrity doing so. Then maybe, just maybe, Obama will win in November, a victory that will be every bit as "delicious" as Lowry predicts.


William Galston is a former policy advisor to Bill Clinton and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Seldom has the basic structure of an election tilted so strongly in the direction of the Democratic Party. In these circumstances especially, losing the presidential contest would be devastating for the party and would guarantee the continuation of divided government, at great cost to the country. In order to maximize his chances of winning, here are some of the steps Barack Obama needs to take.

1. Introduce himself to the American people. Despite the protracted nominating contest, most Americans know almost nothing about him, other than his hopefulness and his unfortunate relationship with Jeremiah Wright. His early general election advertisements and speeches should lay out his biography, emphasizing that his family background was anything but privileged.

2. Establish clear priorities. In his 2000 stump speech, George W. Bush relentlessly repeated the five main things he intended to accomplish as president. It wasn't elegant, but it conveyed a sense of direction and gave listeners something concrete to take away with them. The downside of inspiration is that when the immediate sensation fades, most listeners won't remember what they've heard.

3. Focus more specifically on the economy. I would bet that if you asked 100 Americans today what Obama would do to improve their economic circumstances and prospects, at most a handful would be able to provide a single specific. Filling in the blanks is a necessary condition for maintaining control of the economic issue, which will be a key to victory, especially among the less-educated, lower-income voters who were unmoved by the generic promise of "change" during the primaries.

4. Cross the threshold of credibility as commander-in-chief. Obama should emphasize that despite his determination to terminate our combat presence in Iraq, he understands that our ground forces are badly battered and dangerously overstretched. Because they will have to be rebuilt and expanded, there will be no "peace dividend." In addition, to maximize the continuity of national security despite the change of administrations, he should announce his willingness to retain both the current CIA director and the director of national intelligence for the first two years of his presidency.

5. Reach out to Catholics. The most faithful Democratic group a half-century ago, Catholics are now the key swing religious group in the electorate. During the nominating contest, Obama tended to do worse among white Catholics than among white Protestants. If this trend continues, it could mean trouble in the fall, especially in the Midwest, where Catholics are disproportionately represented in most swing states. To turn this around, Obama should:

Visit the Pope before the convention;

give Senator Bob Casey, Jr., a primetime speaking role at the convention, rectifying the exclusion of his father from the 1992 convention, a slight many Catholics still remember and resent;

deliver a high-profile speech at Notre Dame on themes such as social justice and community, as Bill Clinton did in 1992; and

create networks of local Catholic organizers in states such as Ohio, a strategy the Bush campaign employed to decisive effect in 2004.

6. Emphasize moderation and open-mindedness on social issues. Relatively few Americans remember the path-breaking speech on religion in public life that Obama delivered two years ago. He should bring it out of mothballs, deliver it in a high-profile setting, and then incorporate its essential points in his stump speech. In addition, he should restore the so-called conscience clause on abortion that appeared in the 1996 and 2000 Democratic platforms but was removed in 2004. It read: "The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party."

7. Make the electorate understand that on the issues that they care about the most, John McCain is no moderate. His prescription for the economy: even larger tax cuts. For health insurance: a privatization scheme that wouldn't even assure access to the many millions of Americans with preexisting conditions. And for Iraq: war without end. If Obama can persuade moderate and independent voters that McCain is more conservative than Bush on the issues that matter most, he will almost certainly win the election.


Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, an online forum.

I agree with virtually all of what my Democratic Strategist colleague and mentor Bill Galston has to say in his essay on Obama's general election campaign. But I'd come at the challenges and opportunities Obama faces from a slightly different perspective.

First of all, in the battle for persuadable swing voters, both candidates have a potentially attractive meta-message. Obama's is that he offers bold and fundamental change, not only from the failed domestic and international policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, but also from the habits of a corrupt and gridlocked Washington. McCain's is that he offers safe if limited change from the political and policy vices of both parties, based on his personal credibility and "maverick" credentials, with a heavy emphasis on the post-9/11 security environment. Both candidates understand this is a "change election," and both also understand the handicaps faced by McCain as a Republican whose signature issue has been an unstinting commitment to "victory" in Iraq.

Entering the general election campaign, Obama needs to recast and rebroadcast his meta-message, which has clearly been eroded by the Jeremiah Wright controversy and the incessant media discussion of his primary campaign struggles, to connect with certain demographic categories of voters (most notably non-college-educated white voters). And at the same time, Obama (with help from his vanquished primary foe, Hillary Clinton) needs to regularly challenge McCain's claim to represent either "safety" or "change" on the full array of issues where voters clearly support Democratic policies.

Team Obama should also recognize that the GOP is promoting two very different and potentially conflicting negative stereotypes of their candidate: He's familiar, in that his supra-partisan and inclusive rhetoric disguises the fact that he's just another Liberal! Liberal! Liberal! Yet he's unfamiliar, representing all sorts of strange, radical, unprecedented forces in America life, from his interracial background to his "radical friends," to his identification with post-Baby Boomer culture.

While Obama should fight both stereotypes, he should recognize that the second one is probably more politically damaging. This could be the first presidential election since 1964 when a majority of Americans would prefer a Liberal! Liberal! Liberal! to any sort of Republican. He shouldn't be defensive about his progressive principles and platform, and above all, he should not risk letting voters go into Election Day with serious doubts about who he is and what he would do as president. That would be an open door to sentiments ranging from racism to a simple fear of the unknown that could undermine all his built-in advantages in this election. And in terms of making voters comfortable with his identity and core values, he can and should make a special effort to get beyond the Wright controversy and display his own authentic faith and his unusually nuanced understanding of its role in public life. Don't fear the preacher.

Second of all, if only because John McCain will try to narrow the issues landscape to national security, Obama needs to avoid the temptation of changing the subject (an inveterate Democratic habit) and constantly articulate a strong, comprehensive vision of America's security challenges, in which his highly popular views on the Iraq War are part, not parcel. He can definitely do that, with or without help from national security validators, on or off the ticket. But thanks to the dynamics of the primary competition, supplemented by GOP attacks, all the majority of voters know about Obama on national security are his commitment to a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, and his pledge to negotiate with unfriendly states without preconditions. A determination to keep America safe, and specifically to use military force if necessary, should be the first, not the last, words he uses on national security issues.

Finally, Team Obama should fully utilize Obama's rhetorical skills, and the freedom he will enjoy to deploy them. He will be the first Democratic candidate in living memory with a significant financial advantage over the opposition. He will have every opportunity to get his message out and should ignore the boredom and cynicism of the campaign-weary chattering classes about his inspirational rhetoric. Obama's acceptance speech in Denver (on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" address), will almost certainly be the most observed political speech in, well, history. It will be an unparalleled chance to solidify his identity, his message, and the choices faced by the electorate. It's the sort of opportunity that could move millions of voters. He should seize it.

By Jonathan Chait, Lakshmi Chaudhry, William Galston, and Ed Kilgore