Who’s a Better Campaign Strategist Than Mark Penn or David Axelrod? Everyone, It Turns Out.
When I wrote in this space last Thursday, kinda-sorta-but-not-really predicting an Obama win in the Iowa caucuses, I said that Hillary Clinton had dug herself a hole by creating "doubts about her passion and commitment," which she needed to address in order for her to make a comeback. Is it safe to say her campaign got the message, and that this had something to do with Clinton’s surprise victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday?
If you have any doubts, just take a look at her victory speech that night, where she led off by saying, "I come tonight with a very, very full heart" and told voters "I felt like we all spoke from our hearts," then went on:
I believe deeply in America, in our can-do spirit, in our ability to meet any challenge and solve any problem…. We are in it for the long run. And that is because we are in it for the American people.…
So tomorrow, we’re going to get up, roll up our sleeves and keep going…. We’re going to tap into all of the spirit, the talent and just the plain grit of this great nation again.
We are determined to tackle our toughest problems and stand up to those who most need a champion because we are determined to make America work again for all of our people.
Now, if that talk of grit and rolling up sleeves sounds familiar to you, it may be because you read it here two months ago, as I described the profile I felt the Democratic-leaning portion of the country had already developed for the next president:
Dubya has got the country stuck in the ditch in any number of painful ways. So the candidate people are likely to vote for is the one who gives the best sense of being ready to roll up their sleeves and start digging us out.
The word for that isn’t toughness or ruthlessness, it’s grit.
Now, I’m not about to sue Clinton or her pollster/strategist Mark Penn for plagiarism, any more than I did Obama or his self-proclaimed "keeper of the message" David Axelrod when they took similar advice (though a check would be appreciated, just in case!). The point is that what the American people — at least on the reality-based side of the spectrum — want from their next president is obvious, but apparently the leading candidates and their overpaid would-be Svengalis need an electoral near-death experience before they figure it out.
As Jane wrote last Saturday, Penn had clearly imposed on Clinton "an overt strategy of avoiding the controversial," to the point where to rescue herself she needed to "to do something dramatic. Take the bull by the horns, show that she’s not just an overly scripted politician who will never do anything that’s isn’t ‘safe.’" Thanks to her emotional moment on Monday (and boneheaded TV news efforts to turn it into her "Dean scream"), she managed to pull it off. But why hadn’t her designated genius Penn clued her in before she stumbled on the truth herself?
Similarly, I wrote back in September how David Axelrod had staked Obama to a campaign approach based on personality rather than policies, until persistent indifference in the polls led them to add more substance to his airy rhetoric. But having won in Iowa, Team Obama immediately reverted to a cautious strategy, leading one New Hampshire woman to explain her vote for Clinton by saying, "In the end, she was the one bringing up the real issues about the middle class like college loans. His speeches felt like pep rallies."
It’s probably not a coincidence that after an Iowa victory speech that was filled with inspiring platitudes and very light on policies, Barack’s post-primary address in New Hampshire spent a lot more time on the nuts and bolts of what his "new majority" would accomplish.
It’s so frustrating to see the American people keep making it clear to the Penns and the Axelrods what they want — a candidate who will commit specifically to what needs to be done, with a blood-signed oath to persevere against all obstacles and a convincing rationale for how they’ll succeed — and yet, even given a reprieve, the campaigns apparently can’t wait to start wandering off course again. Even worse, when one of them eventually wins, there’ll be an arrogant, overfed strategist taking credit and asking why anyone ever doubted his brilliance.
I’d suggest that Obama and Clinton fire these guys and hire the American people to advise them instead. But I guess that would make for a hellish time trying to divide up the advertising commissions.