Strategery, Democrat Style

Politics, US Elections, US Politics

In the first presidential debate, Sen. John McCain accused Sen. Barack Obama of not understanding the difference between a strategy and a tactic. If I had to guess, I’d say that McCain’s eyes have been opened as to the extent of Obama’s understanding. As he thrashes about in the spider web laid by the fifty state strategy (hollering out “we’ve got ’em right where we want ’em”) McCain must, somewhere deep in side, be acknowledging to himself that Obama is better at this strategy thing than he is.

Make no mistake, McCain is a gifted politician and he has guts. He pulled his own primary campaign out of the mud of mismanagement with nothing but shoe leather. But he’s no match for someone who, a year and a half or more ago, came up with a really good plan and stuck with it. There’s just nothing quite like getting it right the first time.

Of course, it is still possible that Obama can lose this election, but if he does it won’t be because of how his campaign was run. Obama’s execution of the previously attempted fifty state strategy is not his accomplishment alone, of course. Aside from his campaign staff, he has Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton to thank for its success.

The strategy was first suggested by Howard Dean when he became Chairman of the Democratic party. It was not without controversy. His ideas about becoming active in every voting precinct and of appealing to rural voters and independents drew ridicule with his famous “gun rack” gaffe. Many advisers thought it was a waste to spend money in areas that have never been Democratic and that the money was needed in key battleground areas. Paul Begala thought it was about as valuable a strategy as nose-picking.

“He says it’s a long-term strategy,” said Paul Begala, the longtime Clinton aide and Democratic strategist. “What he has spent it on, apparently, is just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.”

Long-term strategy it was. Is. Dean is a smart cookie who, like other smart cookies, sometimes puts his foot in his mouth. But his execution was stellar and may have helped (along with the colossal f-ups of the administration and corruption of the K street crowd) the Democrats to win majorities in both houses of congress in 2006.

Obama embraced this idea in the Democratic primary, promising to compete and to put boots on the ground in every state, including previously neglected caucus states that often do not go blue in the general election. He was derided for this by the Clinton campaign … until he wasn’t. They belatedly discovered the brilliance of it with several primaries to go and not much money to go around. While Obama had already begun to build ground operations in the late primary states, Clinton was too strapped for cash to compete on much else than her name and the debates, and she would have needed massive amounts to close the delegate gap Obama had racked up by then. Where did those delegates come from? You guessed it, those little caucus states, like Colorado and Iowa.

It was the protracted primary and Dean’s groundwork that gave him such a head start in this campaign. Contrary to the fears of party insiders that the protracted primary campaign would weaken the eventual nominee, and that every attack by Clinton was ammunition for John McCain, the opposite appears to have been true. Every primary that Obama competed in meant more field offices, more grass roots organization, more small donors, more local lists of volunteers, more expertise on the election dynamics of that state — all of it saved for later and being taken advantage of and built upon now. Every attack by Clinton preempted McCain’s use of it, rendering it old news by the time he attempted to make it an issue. Ayers, Wright, and Rezko and the politics of guilt by association played themselves out in the primaries and were met by a collective American shrug when the McCain campaign, with so few cards left to play, played what they thought was the trump card.

Now, with a week to go and Obama dominating McCain in field offices everywhere, McCain runs about from state to state trying to keep up. To him, it must be like a soccer match where the other team is so much better than you that you wonder if they have a 12th man on the field. The other team knows how to pass and use every player, but your team relies on one fast forward and a stretched defense, which runs from player to player in a never-ending game of keep away with no help from the wheezing midfield. The other team dominates the center of the field and moves up and back together, leaving you only with the outside edges and long ball passes that have difficulty finding their target. With this metaphor I offer McCain some advice from another player who knows they are too old to be on the field: try not to get hurt.

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