Perhaps it’s my imagination, but as we enter the last 48 hours of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s rhetoric on the stump is sounding increasingly defensive. That is a bad sign for his prospects. Here’s why.
I wrote speeches – in three cases many, many speeches — for Republican candidates or key surrogates (for example, President Reagan in 1988) in every presidential race from 1984 through 2000. In that time, I learned a thing or two about campaign gamesmanship.
Key is that from the conventions through mid-October, you are not fighting over votes to be cast so much as over whose agenda will dominate the last two and a half weeks before the voting. If, as I do, you believe that most poll movement from mid-September to mid-October this year was statistical noise – with each candidate’s numbers moving up and down within the margin of error – this year’s race looks like most others. The bulk of the electorate effectively decided which nominee they would support months ago.
These voters surely do favor Senator Obama but judging from the best of the polls, not by much. The highly regarded IBD/TIPP tracking survey released Sunday showed a spread between the candidates of only 2.1 percent. It also showed 8.7 percent undecided. The last three months have been about controlling the terms of debate during the period that this 8.7 percent would make up its mind.
Here is the rule: whichever candidate sets the terms of discussion in the closing days of an election will emerge as the winner. This year – thanks to several inexplicable late-game gaffes – Barack Obama has found himself responding to John McCain throughout this final weekend.
Gaffe #1: “Spread the wealth”: Made on a rope line in response to a question from the now-iconic Joe the Plumber, Obama’s comment went entirely unnoticed until a video clip of that exchange – apparently made with a cell phone — popped up on YouTube. Until then, Senator McCain had been struggling to define the difference on economic policy between him and Mr. Obama. He brilliantly seized on the remark and Joe the Plumber as his emblem of the American people and their aspirations during the final debate. Suddenly Obama was the one who didn’t get it about the middle class. The Illinois senator fumbled with Senator McCain’s debate attacks and then made a second unforced error at a rally a day or two later.
Gaffe #2: “Selfishness”: I know that it is current campaign orthodoxy that every charge must be rebutted, but the candidate doesn’t always have to be the one who rebuts. This is a lesson apparently lost on Mr. Obama and his operatives. Despite MSM instant surveys that named the Democratic candidate the winner of that final debate, Team Obama and in particular the candidate himself must have understood that they had taken it seriously on the chin that Wednesday night. So they decided to respond, having Obama tell a rally that McCain was making “selfishness” the center of his campaign.
Most Americans do not believe that paying higher taxes is a sign of “patriotism”, as Joe Biden had put it, or that resisting higher taxes is a sign of “selfishness.” Neither did it help that Obama used another rally to mock Joe the Plumber (“How many plumbers do you know who make $250,000 a year?”). Sunday’s IBD/TIPP poll showed for the first time McCain winning those whose education stopped at high school, as, one presumes, Joe’s did.
And then, fumbling even more, Obama, Biden and their surrogates started moving the threshold of taxation down from $250,000 income a year to $200,000, to $150,000, to $75,000. Perhaps they wanted to establish that they had a mandate to tax more broadly than Obama had originally suggested, but whatever the reason, it soon looked as though they wanted – as McCain was charging — a green light to take everybody’s wealth and spread it around. In other words, they were caught in the web of Senator McCain’s themes on the defining economic issues of the contest. Their every answer was confirming his redistributionist and socialist charges. Even worse for them, they were answering McCain’s themes, not making him answer theirs. They were playing on his court, not on their own.
Gaffe #3: “He’ll be tested”: This was Joe Biden’s gaffe, of course. If he loses, Senator Obama can thank cell phones and private tape recorders, which caught not just this amazing riff and Obama’s “spread the wealth” one but also Obama’s “cling to their religion and their guns” remark to wealthy donors in San Francisco about the same Western Pennsylvanians Congressmen John Murtha even more unbelievably and entirely publicly characterized as “racists” and “rednecks.” Everyone talks about the Democratic ticket’s innovative messaging. And this much is true – repeated insults directed at a group of voters who may well decide whether you win or lose everything does set a new standard in American political rhetoric.
But Biden’s talk about a “manufactured” international crisis to test a President Obama reminded voters at exactly the most pivotal time that Mr. Obama has not gone through a test in his life more strenuous than the LSATs. So, suddenly, once more, the Obama campaign found itself responding, this time playing on turf where thematically it can never win.
If the smart money is predicting an Obama victory, put me in the dumb money. Something is happening in this campaign. The candidate everyone says is winning acts as if he’s on the ropes. The one everybody says to be down is scoring the blows. Whatever the MSM would like to believe, this fight isn’t over yet.
Clark S. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group in Washington. He was a special assistant and speechwriter to President Reagan.