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An Open Letter From William Galston

<NOTE: This item is a post from TDS Co-Editor William Galston>

TO: SEN. BARACK OBAMA
FROM: WILLIAM GALSTON
SUBJ: ADJUST OR LOSE
DATE: SEPTEMBER 16, 2008


I'll get right to the point: You are in danger of squandering an election most of us thought was unlosable. The reason is simple: on the electorate’s most important concern – the economy -- you have no clear message, and John McCain has filled the void with his own.

This is more than my opinion. The Democracy Corps survey released yesterday proves the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Backed by a wealth of persuasive detail, here is the nub of their conclusion:

In the absence of a coherent change message from Obama, many voters are accepting McCain’s definition, particularly since they want to change Washington and clean up government. As a result, Obama has lost his double-digit advantage over McCain on the right kind of change.

When I say you have no message, here’s what I mean:

First, you are not offering a coherent account of what has gone wrong with the economy – why it is no longer working for average families. People are anxious and bewildered; they want to know why jobs are disappearing, why incomes are stagnating, and why prices are soaring. If you don’t offer an explanation, McCain’s will carry the day by default: the problem is the corrupt, self-interested politicians in Washington; the solution is getting them – and government in general – out of the way.

Second: you are not offering a focused, parsimonious list of remedies for the economic ills you cite. As a result, few if any voters can actually cite a single signature economic proposal you have made. It’s not that you don’t have ideas. If anything, you have too many. At some point, more becomes less, and you are well beyond that point. You need to decide which three or four economic proposals are most important and repeat them relentlessly for the next seven weeks.

Your campaign already contains everything you need to do this. You could offer a focused economic message with four elements: rebuilding the United States, with an infrastructure bank, generating millions of good jobs that can’t be outsourced; creating millions more jobs by leading the world in environmental innovation; significantly reducing the tax burden on average families; and offering health insurance to everyone at a price they can afford. If you say that about your economic plan – and nothing else – from now until November, there’s a good chance your message will get through.

Third: you are not drawing crisp, punchy contrasts between your plans and McCain’s. An example: the centerpiece of his health care plan is the taxation of employer-provided health care benefits. Pound away at that, and let him explain why throwing workers into the individual health insurance market unprotected is such a wonderful idea. And by the way, while your plan would increase coverage, his would do the opposite. Is that the change Americans want?

Fourth: your stump speech is too long and discursive. It shouldn’t last more than fifteen minutes, it should focus on your agenda, not today’s news story, it should feature short, declarative sentences, and it should leave no doubt about what you care about the most. Right now, regrettably, few Americans believe that you feel real passion about their economic plight and are willing to wage a tough fight on their behalf. It’s your job to convince them otherwise, and you don’t have much time to do it.

A message is a thought not only sent, but also received and understood. If your hearers aren’t getting it, it’s not a message. The essence of political speech is functional, not aesthetic. It is a tree judged by its fruit, and the fruit is persuasion. Right now you’re not persuading the people you need to persuade, and nothing else matters.

Fifth: there’s no coordination between an economic message and the rest of your campaign. If you want the focus to be on the economy, that’s what your paid advertising and your surrogates should be doing as well.
Attacking McCain for employing lobbyists is a waste of precious time and resources; it plays on his turf and accepts his definition of the problem. Moreover, It diverts attention from the core issue – a Republican approach to the economy, shared by Bush and McCain, that shafts ordinary Americans and does nothing to help them deal with the challenges of global competition. So far, while the McCain campaign has gone for the jugular, you’ve gone for the capillaries.

Some Americans won’t support you because they think you’re too young and inexperienced to be president, or that you’re too liberal, or not patriotic enough, or because you might raise taxes, or because you’re African-American. That’s inevitable. The good news is that by themselves, these Americans are not a majority. The bad news is that they might become part of a majority if they are joined by the many Americans who are open to supporting you but are turning away because they don’t hear you speaking to their concerns in a manner that they can understand.

This is not about you alone; it’s a matter of political responsibility. Millions of Americans have invested their hopes and dreams in you, and you owe it to them to campaign effectively, which isn't happening right now. Yes, the McCain campaign is replete with exaggerations, evasions, and outright fabrications. It’s your responsibility to defeat them, not complain about them. If this means listening to advice you don’t want to hear, and getting out of the "comfort zone," so be it.

Three months ago, when you were riding high, the McCain campaign was flat on its back. But give McCain credit: when he was told that to win he had to change, he did. He focused, and he accepted a kind of discipline that he had previously resisted. Now it’s your turn.

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I pretty much agree with your analysis and that Obama and the Democrats need to drive their message home far more forcefully. There is one thing that I find a little strange though. One would think that after a day like yesterday (9/15) there would be movement away from McCain/Palin. Not necessarily to Obama but away from McCain/Palin, as the party they represent has occupied the Whitehouse for the past 8 years and it is difficult to break the connection between the Republican party and bad economic policy. Alan Greenspan has said this regarding the borrow and spend mentality of the Bush administration.

So far though I haven’t seen any diminishing of McCain/Palin support. Perhaps it will take a few more days for the polls to show this. But I certainly would expect movement away from McCain because his party has been in power for all most all of the past 8 years and one would think that voters would make the connection between Republican fiscal policy and the economic disasters that seem to be headlines every day.

"A message is a thought not only sent, but also received and understood. If your hearers aren’t getting it, it’s not a message. The essence of political speech is functional, not aesthetic. It is a tree judged by its fruit, and the fruit is persuasion. Right now you’re not persuading the people you need to persuade, and nothing else matters."

Explain then please, why the party and candidates with NO message are in the lead, kicking our backsides in every poll, causing us to fall day by day into more certain loss?

IT'S NOT ABOUT MESSAGE!

It's about who is better at presenting a better image that excites the moron base, which is the crux of the American electorate. This means getting nasty, takingon the MILF and the Coward where they hurt, and just in general, ripping them apart.

Not nice? Too bad, they have never been nice to us, and they are winning because of it.

The endless numbers of people on this and other sites who insist that for us it needs to be about message, even though for them the message does not matter, is sickening, and proves why we lose. And lose, and lose and lose and lose and lose...and will lose the White House, and the Congress in less than 50 days.

It seems the only message the "moron base" gets is no message or a message that appeals only to extreme elements of the radical right. The "moron base" repeatedly votes against their class interests. Can you cite an example of when the "moron base" voted in its class interests? 1932 perhaps? Any time since then?

Perhaps it is the class consciousness of the "moron base" that is the problem rather than the message or the lack thereof.

And that has always seemed to be a subject that is off limits for any major political party in the United States.

Beating up on Sista Sarah will guarantee a McCain victory

I have no interest in the outcome of this horrid POTUS race as the choice between Marxist Candidate A and Neocon Candidate B is unacceptable. That said, I will be voting for a 3rd party candidate. Both McCain and Obama support the war and, indeed, Obama and the Dems voted for the draconian civil liberties slashing Patriot Act, Military Commissions Act and a slew of other mechanicisms to churn America into a Nazified police state, all with the help of our fascist telecom industry that now has immunity for being America's Spy in Chief.

When it comes to growing the totalitarian state, both the Dems and Republicans are guilty has hell. When it comes to funding the neocon wars, both the Dems and the Republicans are guilty as hell. When it comes to keeping energy costs high, both the Dems and Republicans are guilty as hell. When it comes to outsourcing U.S. manufacturing and destroying the once prospering middle class, both the Dems and Republicans are guilty as hell. When it comes to offering tax breaks to corporations who offshore, both the Dems and Republicans are guilty as hell. When it comes to looting the Social Security Trust Fund and leaving a pile of IOU's, both the Dems and Republicans are guilty as hell. When it comes to churning the once solid dollar into a banana boat republic currency because of out of control spending, both the Dems and Republicans are guilty has hell.

With most of the GOP base despising McCain, the Dems are now allowing, once again, victory for the GOP by beating up on the social issues that will surely bring the disgruntled base to the polls in droves. The only one on the Democratic side that understands this is Paglia who has been warning the Dems for years that the social issues are a lose/lose for the Dems. Too bad the Dems just can't comprehend that driving a stake straight through the brains of a full term unborn child to gleefully spill its brains in the name of "choice" is repugnant to not just many Republicans but many on the Democratic side as well.

It just so happens that the ice hockey mom with 5 kids who hails from a middle class background is someone that Americans can relate to because she isn't elitist and she's so gosh darn ordinary that she absolutely appeals to voters of many political stripes. Beating up on Sista Sarah will only reinforce the grand illusion that she is, in fact, far more representative of ordinary Americans than the big government elites who have destroyed both political parties.

Americans want real solutions for real problems. Thus far, neither party has stepped up to the plate to even bat, let alone hit a homerun.

Wouldn't say anything bad about Sarah? Wow, she and McCain seem like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein to me.

"It just so happens that the ice hockey mom with 5 kids who hails from a middle class background is someone that Americans can relate to because she isn't elitist and she's so gosh darn ordinary that she absolutely appeals to voters of many political stripes. Beating up on Sista Sarah will only reinforce the grand illusion that she is, in fact, far more representative of ordinary Americans than the big government elites who have destroyed both political parties."

The key is she only APPEARS that way, which is all that matters. But she is actually an ultra right jesus freak bigot. But looks are everything, that is what I am trying to convey.

And frankly Barry, I am not even certain what point you are making...

Obama needs to inform the public about John McCain's plans to tax employer provided health care benefits. This fact should be used in the ads about the tax plans. Its the only thing I can think of that would make a difference.

I don't know what economic message Obama could give other than the ones he's giving. It seems to me that, other than Obama's campaign missing a few chances to attack John McCain before he took control of the debate, Obama's people are doing about as much as they can.

I looked down the numbers in the poll and almost all of them divided close to middle. The same people are on McCain's side all the time and Obama has almost as many but a small amount of Obama's support isn't as devoted. Very few minds can be changed.

Obama's best hope is to erase some of the doubts about himself with a good debate performance. Its most likely though that this will be a evenly divided nail biter all the way to the end and turnout will decide the election.

"People are anxious and bewildered; they want to know why jobs are disappearing, why incomes are stagnating, and why prices are soaring."

I think the problem is that every four years the Democrat party tries to make us all think that the Grapes of Wrath is busting out all over again.

And then the "great man who understands the little man", the latest in a long line tells us that he understands.

To me it's pandering, and it warms my heart that Democrats believe something and have principles. Pardon me while I snort derisively at their deluded thinking which, thank God, will allow a decent man to be the next president and not a put up job.

Yes, some people are suffering. The economy goes through cycles. Is it really so cold hearted to admit this? It's going to snow this winter. Sorry to break it to you.

But this campaign of misery with ourselves as the answer...

Jeez...get a new act, okay? It's really tired.

In line with what Galston is proposing (and I completely agree) I propose that the Obama/Biden Campaign adopt the theme: “Don’t Get Fooled Again”


1. Both McCain and Palin are vulnerable on the realities of their stories versus the mythology that is being created. Disenchantment with the Bush Administration has already primed the public to the idea that what is promised can be different from reality.

2. We need a strategy to quickly strip away the mythologies being created for McCain and Palin and bring them back to reality so they can be engaged and defeated on those realities.

3. The GOP has made it difficult to criticize Palin directly in any way that can be seen as personal. Republicans have already built a force-field around her with accusations that she is being mistreated by both the press and the Democrats. The counter strategy to Palin cannot be perceived to be personal or sexist. And, with this standard, you can’t “counter-punch” a woman. At the same time, Obama can’t react angrily. Many Americans cannot handle the image of an angry Black man.

4. The solution must be an approach that is powerful, yet not personal or angry. It has to undermine the mythologies so that the protective bubble gets stripped away as much by the voters’ attitudes as by the campaign itself. It has to give people pause. Literally. It has to break-up the momentum that the Republicans have gained so that voters think again about the direction they are being led. The key is to motivate voters to do their own critical thinking and to actively change the way they perceive the McCain/Palin ticket.

5. Solution: “Don’t Get Fooled Again”. (Remember the old song by The Who: Won’t Get Fooled Again”?) This theme enables the Campaign and the party to saturate the airwaves and the entire campaign space with the message that Bush and the Republicans fooled you once and now McCain, Palin, and the Republicans are trying to fool you twice.

6. There are literally endless facts and analogies that can be made between what Bush promised and did, between what McCain has promised over the years and did, between what McCain has said earlier and what he is saying now (to fool you), and directly between what both Bush and McCain have agreed about and how those things turned out. There are also many analogies that can be made between Dick Cheney and Sara Palin. Palin is very much a younger and female Cheney. They have very much the same caustic, dismissive and arrogant styles, but with a certain humanity reflected especially in their personal and family stories. (Cheney’s heart condition and his support for his gay daughter; Palin’s cute family and support for her pregnant 17 year old) that takes a certain edge off of their bluster and edge that enables them to go out and be vicious and partisan and then be excused for it.

For both McCain and Palin, all the issues and inconsistencies can be fully and overtly vetted under the banner: “Don’t Get Fooled Again” ( . . .Meet the new boss -- Same as the old boss . . . ;) )

7. Finally, this thematic would hugely energize and motivate the Democratic base, which at the moment is a bit stunned and disheartened by the effect that the Palin nomination has had on voters and the Press. “Don’t Get Fooled Again” is a theme that activists everywhere can easily and enthusiastically carry forward and use to great advantage when talking to voters. It is a theme that will be memorable to voters. It is a theme that can and should be strongly paired with the campaign’s current themes of “Hope,” “Real Change,” “Yes We Can” and related messaging, for instance:

Don’t Be Fooled Again. Vote for change we can believe in (or REAL change).

There are many creative people who can elaborate and refine the possibilities for this thematic. Most important is that deploying this thematic could cut through the mythology-building that is happening so quickly and effectively on the Republican side. It would give people pause -- and the opening that the Democratic Party needs to ensure that Obama/Biden recaptures the momentum and puts voters back into the frame of mind needed to make the real choices they need to make if we are together to chart a better future for our country, our people and our world.

"And frankly Barry, I am not even certain what point you are making."

Oh..well if you are referring to the Frankenstein remark, my point is that they, McCain/Palin, are scary people. They don't appear that way to you?

As far as your advice to Obama is concerned, I dismiss that totally. He knows much more than any of his critics and should do what he thinks he should do. As he remarked, he isn't playing to come in second.

I find a lot of the thinking here unsound and there are books that many of you should read.
Obama said to avoid blogs and that's obviously one of the primary reasons. Sayonara.

And if any of you had any knowledge and/or experience with political organization, perhaps you could deal with this:

It seems the only message the "moron base" gets is no message or a message that appeals only to extreme elements of the radical right. The "moron base" repeatedly votes against their class interests. Can you cite an example of when the "moron base" voted in its class interests? 1932 perhaps? Any time since then?

Perhaps it is the class consciousness of the "moron base" that is the problem rather than the message or the lack thereof.

And that has always seemed to be a subject that is off limits for any major political party in the United States.

Recommend reading:
History and Class Consciousness
Georg Lukács' History and Class Consciousness

A little friendly advice from a registered Republican who will be voting for McCain-Palin...

Galston is correct. Obama is letting this election slip away because he has no coherent message and he is allowing himself to be consumed by distractions (Lipstick, pigs, Palin's record as a mayor & governor) and allowing McCain to control the direction of the debate. These are losing issues for Obama because 1) to ordinary Americans Palin is likable, and 2) her record as mayor and governor, quite frankly, dwarf's Obama's paper-thin resume as a legislator. This is where his inexperience and the inexperience of his campaign staff is becoming more and more evident as it shows he does not have the necessary discipline required to be able to ignore the noise and focus on the real issues.

Attacking Palin as "inexperienced" only serves to highlight his own, and when average Americans see the two side by side, the obvious conclusion is that she is more qualified for the WH than he is. This isn't simply my opinion, it's reflected in poll after poll. Obama cannot win that argument, so he needs to drop it ASAP and instead concentrate his efforts in another direction. BTW... can anybody explain to me why the presidential candidate of one party is even engaging the VP of the other? Like I said, inexperience.

Anyhoo, he needs to stop focusing on Palin and start focusing on what, specifically, he will do for the country as POTUS, and then contrast that with McCain's stated intentions. He needs to answer two important questions: 1) why would a President Obama be better for America than a President McCain? 2) What, specifically, will Obama do differently? No platitudes, no generalities, just specific plans to address the issues that the Democrats believe are the most important to the American people, then leave it up to the voters to decide.

Attacking McCain as being four more years of George W. Bush isn't going to fly either because rational independent voters won't buy it, and I think we can all agree that they are the target audience and it is they who will decide the outcome of the election. They can see that McCain infuriates most conservatives precisely because he does NOT agree with Bush on several core issues (e.g., climate change, Guantanimo and prisoner interrogation methods, campaign-finance reform, etc.). There's a reason that prior to the Palin pick, a lot of Repubs were going to sit this election out. His "maverick" tendencies have frequently served to alienate his conservative base, but now that he's moved a little more to the right and selected a conservative running mate, the enthusiasm that was missing has been found, but I can assure you that McCain is not viewed by anybody outside of the far Left as simply another George W. You can delude yourselves into thinking differently, but do so at your own peril.

Look, it's no secret that I want McCain to win, and I'm confident he will, but I also think he should have to work for it by demonstrating exactly why he should be our next president in the same manner that I'm advocating that Obama do the same. It would be nice if Obama would actually give him a run for his money, instead of handing this election to McCain on a silver platter as it appears he is about to do.

Just my $0.02. Take it for what it's worth (I know, I know, not much).

The problem is that you have to give him these suggestions. He's the smart one with many brillant brains to help. Why one seems to be able to help him? He has been campaigning for nineteen months. One would think by this time he has grasp it.

LEt's see. Why are we losing this election? Why are the people only we can help leaving us? What morons! The idiots don't know that we're better than McCain. Why don't those moronic base jerks get it and vote for us? OK If anyone has any good ideas please share it with me. Thanks.

Now as to Sarah: Sarah isn't average. Let's face it, to have garnered 80+% of the approval of her constituents is something nobody outside of Sadam's Iraq has ever done. Definitely not average. BUT!!! she has average problems that we all can relate to.

Obama was soaringly popular when he was putting out a positive message of hope (for the future) and change (in Washington) -- and while Obama was off-balance after the Palin announcement, McCain co-opted that message. People want to feel good about their leader, especially in sucky times; I think it's as simple as that. But I wouldn't count Obama out. It's a long time to November in ADD-plagued America.

By the way, maybe the (seemingly) rampant contempt by your typical Democrat for the "moron base" is what's sending undecideds running into the (seemingly) open arms of the Republicans. Just sayin'. Speaking for myself, a pox o' both your houses.

originally registered democrat, but am now firmly independent. I read Obama's first book and was willing to listen. However, since then the associations with questionable characters, large holes in his biography, and just plain dumb political moves, have caused me to lose faith in the candidates' ability to govern effectively.

The country is facing huge issues and it would seem both parties are out for each other's blood. The nastiness on the part of so many liberals is an utter turn off.

As to "don't get fooled again", McCain's record, and Palin's has been in opposition to their party on a number of major issues. I have to believe they have spoken and acted in good faith on the issues of record. On the other hand, the democratic ticket is Joe Biden, 30 years with an undistinguished record; and Barack Obama, who began running the day he was sowrn in, if not before, and who has a very sparse record. Actions speak louder than words to me.

William Galston:
I am sure the campaign staff is going to discuss these recommendations and hopefully implement each one. You make a lot of sense. Please do not discount the power of distraction and race baiting from the Republicans. But essentially, the ingredients you mention: coherence, focus, simplification of the message, consistency. It all makes sense, and you have nailed it!

Gosh this is a good article. You might want to shorten your suggestion to just one paragraph. Seems the campaign needs a clear and simple message that does not require a teleprompter, focus on something we can actually do.

"a focused economic message with four elements: rebuilding the United States, with an infrastructure bank, generating millions of good jobs that can’t be outsourced" (insourced may be via guest worker programs but...)

Howard Dean got away from this message and opened himself up to belittling. Green is unmeasured hype right now - the best green initiatives will impact infrastructure - so avoid the redundancy.

Great article, hope the advice is followed,

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