Karl Rove has an interesting column in Newsweek giving advice to Barack Obama. Perhaps knowing that Sen. Obama isn’t going to listen, Rove’s ideas are actually quite good.
Sen. Obama’s appeal is starting to wear, and the problem with that is that his whole campaign is predicated on his personal appeal. The Obama movement isn’t an “issues” movement, but a “personality” movement. With Rev. Wright continuing to make things difficult for Obama, Obama’s double-digit loss in Pennsylvania, and his subsequent inability to stay above the fray, Obama is facing a major inflection point in his campaign. The fact that polling is showing Clinton outperforming him in a battle with McCain doesn’t help much.
None of this is likely to sink him—the Democrats have by and large made their choice—but no matter what happens in the primaries Obama will face an uphill battle in the general election. He’s already established himself as a man of the Left, and despite his valiant efforts on Fox News Sunday this weekend, he’s going to have a hard time shaking that image.
Obama’s strategy to stay above the fray and run on a campaign of not being George W. Bush isn’t going to cut it. For one, he can’t stay above the fray because he will be attacked, and what the Clinton people are hitting him on is just a fraction of what he’ll face in the general election. This weekend he even said that the Wright issue is a legitimate issue for debate—which is odd since the McCain camp doesn’t seem to want to push the issue. Obama can’t fight Clinton and stay above the fray forever—not unless he wants to seem weak.
As for trying to turn John McCain into a clone of George W. Bush, good luck with that. The two issues where this is being done are issues that aren’t going to hurt McCain very much. On the war, the war doesn’t seem to be hurting McCain with anti-war Republicans. The constant “100 years of war” distortions from the left don’t help, especially since they’re take so far out of context. It’s going to be hard to call McCain a “warmonger” and the like when he has personally witnessed the horrors of war in a way that only a few have, and two of his sons are members of the U.S. military who have done tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. McCain can’t be pegged as “chickenhawk” or slurred as Bush was for lack of service—and if the Democrats try they’ll end up looking foolish.
The same holds true for taxes. Yes, McCain wants to extend the Bush tax cuts even though he wasn’t for them previously. That’s not inconsistent. There’s a huge difference between enacting a new tax cut and raising current taxes. The last thing that anyone should do in an economic downturn is take more money out of the people’s pockets. Obama would be foolish to argue for more taxes in a time when people are getting squeezed at the pump and the grocery store—and saying that he’d only tax the “rich” won’t cut it anymore. It’s amazing how people suddenly become “rich” for the government’s purposes when April 15 rolls around.
Obama needs to distinguish himself, and he isn’t doing it. His campaign based on the force of his personality will probably get him to the Democratic nomination, but it won’t carry him in the general. Rove notes that Obama is weak on the issues, has little record of accomplishment in the Senate, and needs a real record of working in a bipartisan fashion. Those are things you generally can’t build on the campaign trail.
Obama had a promising start as a new kind of candidate—and there was something to that formula. But as the campaign season wears on, he’s going to need something more. Sen. Obama would be wise to follow Rove’s advice (after all, if there’s one thing Karl Rove knows, it’s retail politics). It is highly unlikely that he will, given how deeply hated Rove is among the Democratic base, but if Obama wants to win the White House, he’s going to have to do better than winning over a plurality of Democrats.