Monday, August 25, 2008


At the very least, what they're giving you is an incomplete list.

Adam Nagourney in today's New York Times has a fairly standard version of the list: Obama must "draw contrasts with Senator John McCain, particularly on the economy and his opposition to abortion rights," he and surrogates must "offer a fuller biography and a more detailed plan of what he would do as president" (this is usually called "reintroducing" and "sharpening the message"), and he must mollify angry Clintonites.

But here's the problem: Obama just drew an economic contrast between himself and John McCain -- he owns one house, while John McCain apparently has to take his shoes off to count the number he owns -- and the "liberal media" rejected that as a point of comparison, because even though John McCain owns a lot of houses and has a lot of money, he doesn't really mean to, or something like that, so it doesn't count. The press is going to try to blunt every Obama attack on John McCain, especially the ones on money and abortion rights, because he serves great barbecue.

And if Obama's "reintroducing" and "sharpening" include a populist appeal to ordinary citizens worried about the economic future, the press will probably dismiss this as pandering and or a dangerous backsliding to pre-DLC "class warfare." That's how the press reacted to Al Gore's 2000 convention speech, even though it was a big hit and gave Gore a big post-convention bounce. (The press's airy dismissal of the speech helped guarantee that the bounce was short-lived.)

And the press really, really wants the Obama-Clinton feud story to go on forever (as does John McCain, and as do, probably, the Clintons), so he can never sufficiently put that behind him.

What he really needs to do is land an attack on John McCain that goes viral.

For years, the press has lived in fear of being called "liberal" by Republicans. Now there's one other force the press fears as much as a finger-pointing GOP: the force of 21st-century communications (the same force that journalists fear might take all their jobs away from them).

Journalists temporarily abandoned their servile posture toward the GOP after Bush slipped irreviersibly below 35% in the polls and throughout the period when Republicans seemed contemptuous of many of their own presidential candidates. When John McCain and his attack dogs were cooking up the "celebrity" campaign, the press didn't feel obligated to praise it (the Republicans who tell journalists what to think still weren't fully with the McCain program).

But then it connected. And now the press likes McCain a lot (again), as do the GOP machers .

The press is relieved to be back on familiar ground -- rallying around a Republican Daddy presidential candidate (and, even better, it's McCain) while sneering at the little wuss running on the Democrat side. Barack Obama isn't going to get on the press's good side -- ever. Not anymore.

But he'll at least get wary respect if he stays on offense and really connects with a jab at McCain that gets lots of views and leads to lots of late-night jokes and moves the poll needle.

That's because when we hear that there are doubts about whether Obama is "ready to lead," what it really refers to is our idea of what shows you're "ready to lead": you're capable of landing a punch on an opponent. Nobody cares what Obama's economic policy is, or what he knows or doesn't know about Georgia. Nobody cares what McCain knows about those subjects either. All anyone cares about is which one of these guys can kick the other guy's ass harder. And Obama will struggle until he seems to be the guy who passes that test.

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