Is it just me, or have the political parties switched roles this election? The normally hapless Democrats have become an imperious, on-message political machine. The habitually martial GOP, which stays on message the way drill sergeants stay on GIs, lacks an overarching message to the point where its conservative base is as energized as a turtle.
Ever since the formative Reagan era—in which the GOP emerged from its post-Watergate swamp of embarrassment and strategist Lee Atwater propagated the myth that the Republican Party is a "big tent," capable of uniting different factions—the GOP has run aggressive, targeted, laserlike, message-machine presidential campaigns. What else could have transformed an inarticulate legacy like George W. Bush into a two-term president? What else could have transfigured a grade B actor into the architect of the fall of communism (which many historians believe would have collapsed of its own weight no matter who was commander in chief)?
On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton was able to slip into the White House only by winning a plurality—not a majority—of the vote in a three-way race. During his first run, he faced a feckless president saddled with a weak economy. After Clinton, Al Gore was a lousy campaigner who could have been a world-changing president, had his campaign taken strong stands and communicated his strengths to the voting public. He won a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award for his commanding message on the environment. But his luckless strategists were unable to generate voter enthusiasm around the environment or suburban sprawl during Gore's presidential bid. The election was Gore's to lose, and he lost it. Let's not even waste time on John Kerry. A war hero demeaned by a bunch of personal enemies because he could not outmessage the swift boat crowd. Pathetic!
Fast forward to today. Democratic Party leaders would have you believe they are barreling toward victory in November with a youthful, enigmatic, messiahlike candidate capable of resolving every ill and satisfying competing constituencies. The GOP candidate, on the other hand, switches message from the war to the economy to offshore oil drilling and back again. Sen. John McCain goes through staff, advisers, and surrogates more quickly than McDonald's changes burger flippers. What is wrong with this picture? Why are Democrats so united and on-message this year and Republicans so fractiously incompetent?
Stay tuned, friends, because this, too, could change. The cracks are growing in the Democratic unity dam. and McCain may be on the verge of getting his act together. Sen. Barack Obama needs to step off his "holier than thou" platform and get his designer shoes dirty. He needs to let voters catch a glimpse of the regular guy who may actually lurk under his veneer of superiority. From using a logo resembling a presidential seal at one speech earlier this year (an obvious error and never seen again) to addressing a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin and meeting with heads of state before he has reason to, Obama's puerile self-absorption may backfire on him and turn off the very voters he needs to turn on: the white working class. His campaign's use of Cecil B. De Mille speaking backdrops rivals Karl Rove's brilliant manipulation of wedge issues. But as Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer notes, this, too, has its downsides:
Mr. Obama's campaign has featured Reagan-like stagecraft that has made his opponents look like midgets, producing an effect that prompted Chris Matthews, in a moment that will haunt him to his grave, to talk of a certain "thrill going up [his] leg." But it never seems to move his polls numbers.
Indeed, according to Gallup and Rasmussen Reports daily tracking polls, Obama's European trip poll bounce dwindled almost immediately to pretrip levels.
We here at usnews.com have also noted that sweeping speeches do not always have the desired effect.
Obama needs to humanize himself. His campaign has done too good a job of apotheosizing him. A good start would be for Obama to apologize to Clinton supporters for not coming to her defense during the primaries and helping her battle a torrent of sexist media criticism. McCain, the soldier, conversely, needs to get disciplined and promote a rock-solid economic message. He needs to convince swing voters that he will do a better job of righting the economy than a rookie senator with little by way of a legislative record.
This race is still the Democrats' to lose. But by going overboard on unity and turning unity to hubris, they can still easily lose it.