Drew Westen

What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November

To say that the American people are angry is an understatement. The political brain of Americans today reflects a volatile mixture of fear and fury, and when you mix those together, you get an explosion. The only question at this point is how to mitigate the damage when the bomb detonates in November.

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Obama Finally Gets His Victory for Bipartisanship

You can blame a bad candidate, bad organization, bad timing of a vacation -- choose your rationalization. But the reality is that voters in Massachusetts were reacting to the same foul mist coming off Boston Harbor that New Jersey Voters smelled coming off the Hudson and Virginia voters off the Chesapeake.

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Nobel Committee Admits Getting Into Derivatives Trading in Giving Peace Prize to Obama

A spokesman from the Nobel committee yesterday spoke on condition of anonymity about the controversial decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama, who as yet has solved no international crisis or created peaceful resolution to any conflict but has delivered some awesome speeches that have breathed new life into the Norwegian stock exchange, the Red Herring 500, according to the committee member.

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What Obama Needs to Do to Nail the Debate

It was Tuesday afternoon last week, and I was heading back from San Diego to the East Coast when I caught a piece of a speech on the economy by Barack Obama. I almost missed my flight because I couldn't walk away from it. My immediate response: This was a game-changer, and we ought to see a five-point shift in the polls if he keeps this up for the rest of the week.

I was wrong. The shift was bigger. He leapt from 2 points behind John McCain to 6 points ahead at one point by the end of the week. His newfound voice in fact yielded dividends. The question is whether he and his campaign will draw the right conclusions about why he earned those dividends or whether they do what they have done so many times before: drop their gloves and start getting beaten up again after having their opponent down on the canvas.

Indicting McCain

Mark Sept 16, 2008 as the date Obama may have turned the election around. What he did in that speech in Colorado was something he had only done once before, in his convention address: not just to inspire voters about himself and his vision for the future, but to make the case against John McCain. The truth, he stated with the razor sharpness of a good prosecutor making his closing statement, is that what McCain was saying in response to the extraordinary financial crisis that was unfolding "fits with the same economic philosophy that he's had for 26 years...It's the philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise. It's a philosophy that lets Washington lobbyists shred consumer protections and distort our economy so it works for the special interests instead of working people...We've had this philosophy for eight years. We know the results. You feel it in your own lives. Jobs have disappeared, and peoples' life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet. The cost of everything from gas to groceries to health care has gone up, while the dream of a college education for our kids and a secure and dignified retirement for our seniors is slipping away. These are the struggles that Americans are facing. This is the pain that has now trickled up."

What had he just done? He had said implicitly, as he later made explicit, that the economic pain Americans are experiencing isn't accidental. It isn't an act of God. It is an act of ideology and incompetence, and it reflects the failed ideology of the Republican Party and the conservative movement whose standard bearer in this election is John McCain. And he had spoken in evocative ways about what is happening in real people's lives, not just about how McCain wants to privatize Social Security or seems indifferent to big businesses that are increasingly considering their obligations to their retiring workers optional, but about how the dream of a "dignified retirement" is slipping away. His terms were evocative, up close, and personal.

He went on to compare and contrast what he and McCain had done that might have prevented the collapse of the housing market (and with it the largest asset most middle class Americans have, the equity in their homes) and the tumbling of seemingly rock-solid financial giants like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. He took his listeners back two years, to February 2006, when he introduced legislation to prevent fraudulent or abusive mortgage practices. "A year later," he went on, "before the crisis hit, I warned Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke about the risks of mounting foreclosures and urged them to bring together all the stakeholders to find solutions to the subprime mortgage meltdown. Senator McCain did nothing." After walking his listeners through a timeline of events that transformed a topic that could so easily have seemed dull and lifeless into a riveting whodunit, he made clear that the mystery had been solved: "This is what happens when you confuse the free market with a free license to let special interests take whatever they can get, however they can get it. This is what happens when you see seven years of incomes falling for the average worker while Wall Street is booming...Americans have always pursued our dreams within a free market that has been the engine of our progress. It's a market that has created a prosperity that is the envy of the world, and rewarded the innovators and risk-takers who have made America a beacon of science, and technology, and discovery. But the American economy has worked in large part because we have guided the market's invisible hand with a higher principle-that America prospers when all Americans can prosper. That is why we have put in place rules of the road to make competition fair, and open, and honest."

This is the language of the heart, not the cerebrum. It raises not just the pocketbook issues that have Americans so worried but the values of honesty, fairness, and community that are central to what parents teach their children. It speaks of "rules of the road" rather than just "regulations." Sure, his words reflect a grasp of the issues that shines through, giving voters the sense that this is a man and a mind who understands what's wrong and how it needs to be righted. But what was present in this speech was precisely what has been absent from his campaign from the start: a sense of outrage at what Bush and those such as McCain who have been complicit in his malfeasance and mismanagement have done, and a willingness to put aside the campfire songs to tell a campfire story about his opponent as someone who is not the right person to lead.

It is no accident that his poll numbers jumped after his convention address, when commentator after commentator said something along the lines of, "Hey, he can throw a punch." And it is no accident that his numbers jumped again after a speech -- and several days of continued attack on McCain's ability to lead the nation out of the economic wilderness -- with words like these: "Make no mistake: my opponent is running for four more years of policies that will throw the economy further out of balance. His outrage at Wall Street would be more convincing if he wasn't offering them more tax cuts. His call for fiscal responsibility would be believable if he wasn't for more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more of a trillion dollar war in Iraq paid for with deficit spending and borrowing from foreign creditors like China. His newfound support for regulation bears no resemblance to his scornful attitude towards oversight and enforcement. John McCain cannot be trusted to reestablish proper oversight of our financial markets for one simple reason: he has shown time and again that he does not believe in it."

But what was different about this speech wasn't just the words. It was the way he delivered them. Obama has always been a brilliantly inspiring orator, at least when he chooses to turn on the electricity. But he has always seemed to shy away from a fight, and you don't beat an incumbent party on the ropes by making the election a referendum on the challenger. This time Obama spoke with a dignified but aggressive air of authority that screamed the words, "Commander-in-Chief." He made people feel comfortable with the thought of putting their families' economic security in his hands. He stood tall, with his tall visage framed between two flags, in a way that seemed both presidential and unwavering. And he did not waver the rest of the week, as he peppered his speeches -- and McCain -- with the kind of tough humor we have not seen from him, as when he taunted, "If you think the fundamentals are sound, I have a bridge in Alaska to sell you," and "The old boy network? In the McCain campaign, that's called a staff meeting."

I hope he and his advisors do not take away the wrong message from this speech, that it was his six-point policy prescription at the end that turned things around. Sure, that prescription was good to hear, just as the meat he put on the bones of change in his convention address was important in spelling out what change it is we are supposed to believe in. But I left for the East Coast before he ever got to those policy prescriptions, and I already knew this speech was a game-changer.

What Obama Needs to Do in the Debates

Unfortunately, with a four-point lead that means little, especially for a black candidate who needs to be up by 10 points in battleground states to be safe, the game isn't over yet. The next potential game-changer is his first debate with John McCain, and what he needs to do in the debates is precisely what he has not done thus far in that format, and what no Democrat other than Bill Clinton has done effectively in decades: to connect with voters in a way that makes them feel like they know and share his values, feel confident that he will keep them and their families safe, and will do right by people like them.

How does he do that? By following some basic principles, many of which Democrats would do well to follow in every debate at every level of government:

1. Think of your answers as sandwiches, with emotionally evocative and values-driven language at the beginning and end and with the "meat" in the middle. Emotionally evocative opening and closing statements serve three functions: they draw voters' attention (one of the major function of emotions from an evolutionary standpoint), they signal voters what you are passionate about, and they provide the sound bites that will be replayed over and over on television. The emotional "bread and butter" at the beginning and end can elicit or address voters' anger, hope, concerns, sense of patriotism, faith, or whatever informs your position and moves voters, or it can be a story from your own life or the lives you've encountered on the campaign trail. That is the bread and butter of what voters will remember.

Follow it with the "meat": first, how we got here (indicting the GOP for what it has done and making the causal link to the pain people are experiencing and our moral standing in the world), and second, a very brief bulleted description of what you plan to do (no more than three points, which is the most voters will remember). For example, on health care, start with something like, "I believe in a family doctor for every family. Right now, 50 million working Americans and their families can't take their kids to the doctor, and the rest of us are watching our co-pays shoot through the roof and our security disappear as insurance companies are raking in record profits."

Then compare McCain's "you're on your own, pal" plan that would knock 150 million people off their employer-provided insurance (which would scare the hell out of most voters if they only knew about it -- and for good reason) with your own, emphasizing the most central points of your plan: if you're happy with your doctor or health plan, you will be able to stay with what you have; if you're not, you'll have choices, including not only an array of private plans that will have to compete for your dollar but the same plan members of Congress get. End with something that again inspires emotion, "If that plan is good enough for people like me in the Senate, it's good enough for the people who pay my salary -- the American taxpayer."

2. Clearly enunciate your principles in virtually every response. Why do you take the position you do, and how does that principle reflect mainstream American values? Get to the specifics after you've established the principle, because it cues voters that you're a person of conviction. The usual Democratic statements such as "I'm for the Second Amendment but for limited regulation of x,y,z" is not a principle, any more than was Al Gore's debate response in 2004, that he supported regulation of new handguns but not old ones. (What's the principle? That old guns are rusty? Voters saw through it and thought he wanted to support gun control but didn't want to say it.) Here's a principle, and one that distinguishes him clearly from McCain and the GOP: "My basic principle on guns is this: I believe in the rights of law-abiding Americans. That's why I support the rights of law-abiding Americans to own firearms to hunt and protect their families, and why I support the rights of parents to send their kids to school in the morning and know they'll come home safely." That sets the framework for a principled position, for example, against assault weapons (e.g., "If you're hunting with an M-16, you're not bringing that meat home for dinner").

3. Look at the audience and know where the camera is at all times. In his Saddleback performance, Obama split his eye contact between his interviewer, Rick Warren, and his shoelaces. He rarely turned to the camera and his broader television audience. Eye contact and body posture are crucial nonverbal cues in primates including humans, and voters unconsciously process those cues about dominance, sincerity, and so forth. Downcast eyes readily suggest shame, low status, or evasiveness. McCain had been coached by a good media coach to respond to his interview with direct eye contact, often using his name, and then to pivot away toward the audience within one to two seconds. Democrats routinely fail to make use of people who can help them enunciate their positions with strength, conviction, and humor.

4. Avoid dispassionate, meandering, intellectualized answers. Nuance and emotional appeal are not mutually exclusive. Sure, it's harder to enunciate a principle that recognizes ambiguity than one that emanates from a Manichean worldview of the good guys vs. the bad guys. But people are often relieved when someone speaks to their ambivalence. It isn't hard to say that business is the engine of our prosperity but that leadership is about keeping that engine on the right track. Nor is it hard to say what most people feel in their gut, that government shouldn't be in the business of forcing one person to live by another person's faith, which is why Sarah Palin has no right to plan our families for us, but that you ought to have a very good reason (e.g., the mother's life or health is seriously in danger) to abort a late-term fetus.

5. Inspire and indict. As I argued in The Political Brain, and in multiple posts here, you can't win a campaign with one story (about why you should be elected), and no one has ever won the presidency by saying only nice things about himself and his opponent. You have to control the dominant story of who you are (and answer attacks on that story directly and immediately) and the story of who your opponent is and why he's not the right person for the job or the times.

6. Don't run from any issue. State your principles clearly and with conviction, and if you worry that the public isn't with you, turn that into a virtue (by making it a mark of genuineness and courage). The failure to state a clear position on hot-button issues has been a standard Democratic error for decades. Republicans never make this mistake. They've been running on a position on abortion that's at 30% in the polls for years--that life begins at conception, and there's no room for compromise--and this year they've even taken the more extreme position that every rapist has the right to choose the mother of his child. If Democrats don't run on abortion and contraception this year, when Republicans have governed or threaten to govern with positions so far to the right that you can't find them on a map of America (e.g., forcing teenagers to have their rapists' babies, perpetuating the cycle of poverty by making contraceptives unavailable to poor women, teaching only abstinence when it's nearly impossible to name a Republican who ever practiced it--they deserve another 3 Alitos and a Scalia for good measure.

7. Don't run from any attack. Answer it with an attack on the attacker. The two biggest mistakes Democrats repeatedly make are to fail to answer an attack and to get on their heels and try to answer every charge. Answer the weakest link in your opponent's attack and go after him for making it. For example, Obama could easily have addressed the "elitist" charged by simply saying, "Let me get this straight. The guy who has to ask his staff how many homes he has, whose wife says you just can't get around Arizona without a private jet, and who's worth over a hundred million dollars is calling the black guy who just recently paid off his student loans elitist? That dog ain't gonna hunt."

8. Don't worry about looking like the angry black man. People don't see you that way. Your bigger worry is that you don't look masculine, muscular, and aggressive enough. Don't let grandpa push you around. (And Joe, that goes for soon-to-be Grandma Palin.)

9. Remember your first mission: to convey, particularly to white voters who are on the fence, that you share their values and understand and care about people like them. Speak their language, talk about what you want and fear for your kids (which is likely the same as what they want and fear for theirs), and don't hide your values in the fine print of your policy prescriptions. Speak from the gut about what matters to you. A campaign isn't a debate on the issues. One strong values statement (e.g., "It's time we had an economy that works again for people who work for a living") or one strong metaphor (okay, something other than lipstick on a pig) is worth a thousand ten-point plans.

10. Remember your second mission: to make people worry about what would happen if they vote for McCain and Palin. Do you really want to lose your employer-based health insurance and be left on your own to fend for yourself? Do you really want a return to coat-hanger abortions and increase the rate of unwanted pregnancies among poor women and teenagers? Do you really want your teenage son drafted (since there's no other way to maintain our security while keeping tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and deterring people with "the right stuff" from signing up and staying in the military)? Stress your theme of unity, and contrast it with the hate-fest in Minneapolis and the divide-and-conquer tactics the Republicans have been using since Lee Atwater and Karl Rove came on the scene.

11. Use humor, especially when throwing a punch. Humor is disarming, and well-timed lines will be replayed on cable over and over and will be the only thing people who didn't watch the debate will know about your performance.

12. Don't "dumb down" your language, but use words that connect with people and don't make them feel ignorant. They don't need to hear about "marginal tax rates." They need to hear what's going to happen to their paychecks if you're in charge of the tax code. Avoid all acronyms and Washington inside baseball. If you're about to say "S-CHIP," try instead, "I believe people who work for a living ought to be able to take their kids to the doctor when they're sick. Plain and simple. My opponent thinks that if your kid has asthma or you have a bad back and can't get health insurance because of a 'pre-existing condition,' tough break."

13. Keep in mind at all times what stories the other side has effectively told about you (you're an empty celebrity, uppity, elitist, weak, and outside the mainstream) and counter them at every turn. Keep in mind at all times what stories you want voters to be telling the next day about your opponent (that he's out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans; that if you like how things are going now, vote for him; and that he claims to be a straight-talking maverick, but it's hard to know which McCain would show up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue because he's been on virtually every side of every issue), and reinforce them at every turn.

14. Remember who your two audiences are: the people who support you already who you want to show up at the polls, and the people who are on the fence who you want to get off on your side. Don't worry about offending people who already detest you and everything you stand for.

15. Be genuine. Don't take any position you don't really believe in. People can tell. And you don't need to be anything but genuine. The American people agree with you on about 80% of the issues, and as Stan Greenberg and I recently found in polling 10,000 likely voters and putting together a Handbook for Progressive Messaging, Democrats can win on every one of the major issues, from economics, to abortion, to national security, to the role of government, with well crafted, emotionally evocative messages.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but it's a start. Personally, I'd throw away the briefing books and study this list. The debates won't be won or lost on who jams the most facts into 90 minutes. McCain can't tell a Sunni from a Shiite. If you don't know your position and the reasons for it on every issue after two years of campaigning, you're not going to learn it this week, so don't bother trying. There are more important things to get right--like making eye contact with your audience.

People want to know who their potential President is, and they want to like, trust, and be able to identify with him.

That's what Obama needs to accomplish in the debates.

10 Ways Obama Should Not Imitate the John Kerry Campaign

In the presidential race of 2004 we had the Two Americas. In this year's race we have the Two Obamas: the one who has drawn repeated comparisons to JFK, RFK, and MLK, and the one who has drawn comparisons to Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry. Whether Obama will win the general election depends on whether he and his campaign make sure that the right Obama shows up for the remainder of the campaign.

Obama was losing this time last year to Hillary Clinton until he changed course at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa in November and started inspiring voters again in a way that only a once-in-a-generation leader can do. He lost much of the second half of the primary season as his negatives rose consistently in response to her sustained blows as he refused even to put his hands up to block them. From the time he became the presumptive nominee until the last two weeks, Democrats have been growing increasingly alarmed that they were poised to lose another unloseable election, as his campaign was once again turning Obama the charismatic leader into Obama the rambling, dispassionate, conflict-avoidant, traditional Democratic presidential candidate.

The Kerry Playbook: How to Suck the Life Out of a Candidate in Ten Easy Steps

It is time, once and for all, for Democrats to burn the Kerry playbook. For those who have done their best to forget, here are some of its key features. It is the same playbook used to guide one losing Democratic campaign after another for decades:

1. Be nice. Be positive. It's okay to take an occasional swipe, but don't remind the public regularly why they should be concerned about keeping the incumbent or his party in the White House no matter how incompetent, deceitful, or criminal their actions (e.g., don't talk about Abu Ghraib because the other side might accuse you of "nor supporting our troops").

2. If you get attacked, don't attack back. If you absolutely have to respond, start with a weak rejoinder, preferably one without any hint of masculinity, like "If that were the case, I would find it very disappointing." Show as little emotion as you can when responding to attacks. Never express outrage at attacks on your character or patriotism or strike back at your opponent for making them or colluding with those who do.

3. Assume people know who your candidate is because you do and they've heard about him for months. Wait until the convention to start defining your candidate in richer detail, after he's already been branded by the other side and it's difficult to change people's minds. Don't inoculate in advance against the ideas you know will appear in early August attack books that are likely to morph into television ads around the time of the Democratic Convention or in October, particularly if their content is predictable and potentially toxic.

4. If there are elements of your candidate's life story that worry you, don't talk about them. Cross your fingers and close your eyes really tight, and hope Karl Rove won't notice them.

5. If the other side starts to define your candidate in ways that might be damaging, hold your fire, and if you have to say anything, start with, "the American people are smarter than that." If you have to take corrective measures, do so only after your polling data have shown definitively that the damage has been done.

6. If the other side predictably defines you as elite (as they have done against every Democrat for 40 years), don't respond, especially if your opponent is from a much more privileged background than you are. Find a way to mention any elite universities you've attended or slip them into images in your biographical ads.

7. Don't make any sustained effort to brand your opponent, even as he is branding you. That would be negative, and focus group participants don't like negativity. Let your opponent define both of you.

8. To prepare for debates and similar television performances, focus on facts, figures, and briefing books. Spend little or no time on nonverbal cues, like making eye contact with the audience, and be sure not to have anyone prep the candidate who has expertise in nonverbal communication.

9. When asked in debates and similar forums about wedge issues such as abortion or guns, appear as if you've heard the question for the first time, or be ready with dispassionate responses, and make little effort to connect with voters in the center who could hear your values and resonate with them if you spoke about them with conviction. Do not describe the slippery slopes on the other side the way Republicans always do against Democrats (e.g., that your opponent believes that if your sixteen-year-old daughter were raped, the government, not you and your daughter, should decide whether she should carry the baby to term).

10. If anti-incumbent sentiment is high and your opponent's party is unpopular, make the election a referendum about your candidate (the challenger) rather than the incumbent and his party.

Is this a parody of the Kerry campaign? I wish it were. It's a synopsis.

The Kerry campaign was determined to run a positive campaign against one of the most corrupt, incompetent, destructive administrations in the history of the country, which has only become more corrupt, incompetent, and destructive in the ensuing four years. It never told a story of who George W. Bush was and why people shouldn't re-elect him that would be emotionally compelling and memorable or capitalize on and amplify voters' pre-existing sentiments. (Bush was below 50 percent approval in the days running up to the election, a very dangerous position for an incumbent.) Kerry's operatives were furious when anyone said anything negative about Bush at the Democratic Convention, convinced that the American people didn't want any more negativity (a mistake that will not be repeated this year in Denver).

When the Bush campaign began branding Kerry as a flip-flopper the day he became the presumptive nominee, the Kerry campaign let it fester, not wanting to "dignify" the attack. When they branded him as elite, un-American ("French"), and outside the mainstream, he never mentioned Bush's privileged pedigree (George Walker Bush: Andover, Yale, Harvard M.B.A., son of George Herbert Walker Bush). They never discussed his failure to fight when called to duty in Vietnam (because it might offend members of the National Guard), and his media consultants emphasized Kerry's elite alma mater (Yale) in their first and primary biographical piece of the general election.

When the swift boat attacks began to surface along with a book detailing their charges in early August, the Kerry team let it fester, not wanting to "dignify" the attack. Once it responded to the ads weeks later, they had done irreparable damage, and the election was over. The swift boat attacks played on an element of John Kerry's life that worried the campaign from the start but that they readily could have cast (I believe accurately) as one more instance of his courage: his testimony before the Senate upon returning to Vietnam, describing, among other things, atrocities committed by Americans. He could have given a speech before, say, a VFW audience early in the campaign describing why he had felt compelled to testify when he returned from the war, displaying courage and conviction by speaking to a potentially unfriendly audience. He could have talked about the courage it took to stand up before the United States Senate as a young man to tell them how they were destroying the lives of the soldiers they were sending into a war in which they couldn't tell children from combatants. His campaign could have framed his testimony before the Senate as illustrating the same courage under fire that he had shown as a soldier in Vietnam (a great master narrative for his campaign that would have underscored his own history and contrasted him with the Wizard of Terror in the Oval Office, who had never shown an ounce of demonstrable courage in his lifetime). But instead, guided by advisers and pollsters driven by the same fearfulness that makes Americans wary of Democrats on national security, Kerry was silent about that part of his biography. Instead of inoculating against the charge that he had betrayed his fellow soldiers, the Kerry campaign crossed its fingers and hoped for the best. The best did not come.

What Obama Needs to Accomplish in His Speech in Denver

When I started writing this piece two weeks ago, like many Democrats, I felt like I was watching a bad sequel to the election of 2004. Just as the Kerry campaign let the flip-flopper charge fester, the Obama campaign let the Internet smears designed to paint him as foreign, Muslim, dangerous, and "other" persist for over a year before even mentioning them publicly. Once McCain had secured the presumptive nomination, not only did the Obama campaign fail to begin branding him, but it implored progressive donors not to fund any independent expenditure organizations (527s) that could have done it for them, essentially unilaterally disarming the left just as Rove protgs were beginning to nest in the McCain campaign. As the newly infested McCain campaign began attacking Obama relentlessly, he and his entire campaign team waited to respond until they saw severe damage in the polls.

In recent days we have seen a dramatic course correction, and with every objective indicator on his side (a terrible economy, the most unpopular incumbent in the history of polling, an unpopular war, and a poor campaigner as an opponent), hopefully Obama will regain the momentum in Denver and begin to pull out of reach of John McCain. The only disasters that could come out of the convention would be if the Hillary roll call stunt spirals out of control and leads to a narrative about the convention that re-ignites old passions or if the Convention goes as planned, Obama wins, and Democrats conclude that the strategies that almost cost him the election were the ones that delivered it to him.

None of this is to deny the aspects of the Obama campaign that have indeed been spectacular. Its "ground game," it ability to organize people, and its use of new media have been brilliantly orchestrated and should serve as models for future campaigns.

But the campaign's failure to brand either its own candidate or its opponent, its reluctance until recently to fight back when hit hard (if even simply to say, "There you go again -- that's the same politics of division that has gotten us where we are"), and its tone-deafness to narratives and nonverbal communication, reflected in its inability to self-correct after more than 20 tries when its candidate couldn't apply his natural skills as an orator to debates and similar formats (exemplified yet again in his recent performance relative to McCain's at Rick Warren's forum), illustrate how destructive Democratic strategic dogma can be even with the best of candidates.

So what does Obama need to accomplish at the convention? The same five things he needs to accomplish every week from now until the election.

First, he needs to tell Americans his story in a way that allows them to identify with him, and to make clear that he understands their stories, their pain, and their aspirations for their families. He needs to drive home the story he has told intermittently since he began running for president: That he grew up with his white mother and grandparents, whose Kansas values, along with his subsequent life experiences, shaped who he is and the values he teaches his own daughters; that in no country but America could a man with his history and his story be where he is today, and that he counts his blessings every day for being an American; that he understands the trials and tribulations of the millions of women who are raising children on their own because he saw what that was like for his mother; that he understands the toll it takes on men who want to nothing more than to feel the pride of providing for their families to see their jobs shipped overseas or their income no longer keeping pace with the rising cost of gas and groceries; that he understands the importance of fatherhood because he never had a father and had to try to invent one, and that he will do everything in his power to reverse the breakdown of the family in our inner cities; that he understands both the pain of prejudice and the extent to which we have overcome it as a society because he has seen and experienced both; and that he understands what happens when people begin to despair and lose hope because he has seen that despair with his own eyes.

Second, he needs to explain to the American people how we have gotten to this place in history, where American prestige and power are at low ebb, where our economy and infrastructure are in tatters, and where our dependence on foreign oil is not only economically devastating but a serious danger to our national security. He needs to offer an indictment of the Republican Party and the Bush presidency, and to make clear that the economic insecurity of middle class families, the spiraling cost of gas and health care, and the indifference to future generations that has produced our current energy crisis is not an accident but is a direct result of a radical ideology that has proven dangerous, reckless, and now discredited. He needs to compare American economic power and our world leadership during the 1990s under a strong Democratic administration with what has followed in eight short years of Republican rule. He needs to make clear to the American people that he understands their anxiety and anger as they struggle to pay for health care for their families and to put groceries on the table, as they watch their hard-earned money transferred to big oil companies that are getting tax breaks at the expense of the people they are gouging at the pump, and as they watch their biggest asset -- the equity in their homes (if they can still afford to pay the mortgage) -- plummet because of a get-rich-quick scheme designed for the few and now paid for by the many. He needs to tell a compelling story about why we are where we are and what he is going to do to help a realistically worried nation get back on its feet again and restore American productivity at home and prestige and security abroad.

Third, he needs to explain why John McCain is not the right man for the times. He has to build a compelling case -- a sustained and compelling emotional argument -- for why John McCain should not be President. The Obama campaign has a wide choice of narratives they could offer about McCain, some of which they have floated at times but none of which they have repeated over and over in the way that leads a story to "stick." None would require them to utter a word of untruth; in fact, they could tell most of these stories using nothing but McCain's own words, as Joe Biden did in his first address as Obama's running mate: that McCain is Bush's third term, that he is a man who has stood on every side of every issue except for the one about which he has stood strong (that he wants to be president), that he is a Washington insider who is part of the problem and not the solution, that he's the Man from Hopelessness, that his ideas and epithets (e.g., "tax and spend liberal") are old and tired, that he is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans, that he is filled with 20th century solutions to 21st century problems (like invading sovereign states when the states that harbor terrorists tend to be failed states, or offering up free market rhetoric in an era of globalization in which it's just not quite that simple).

Of all the stories Obama could tell, three are probably the most compelling. The first is that a vote for McCain is a vote for continuing the failed policies of George W. Bush, policies that have weakened us economically and threatened our national security in a world whose greatest dangers lie in international terrorism (which require coordination with other nations, not condescension toward our allies, refusal to speak to our enemies, and saber rattling when we have no sabers left to rattle). The second is that McCain is not the straight-talking maverick who many admired in 2000 but a man whose ambition has gotten the best of him, who learned the wrong lessons from watching himself swift-boated by George W. Bush and Karl Rove -- a man who is so desperate to be President that he will say whatever he has to say to convince conservatives he is one of them, say whatever he has to say to convince moderates that he isn't really the person he is telling the far right, and convince himself that if he has to take the low road to the presidency, that's just politics. The third is that McCain is out of touch with the American people; that he has no idea of the suffering his party and their policies have inflicted on working Americans; that a man who can't remember how many houses he has, whose wife says the only way to get around Arizona is by private jet, and whose closest economic advisor thinks people who lose their jobs or can't keep up with the bills through no fault of their own are just whiners clearly doesn't understand what middle class families are experiencing.

The fourth thing Obama needs to do in Denver is to address head-on the stories told by the other side that have eroded positive feelings toward him among a large swath of the electorate and that have kept so many people undecided in a race that should be all but over. In particular, he needs to address the stories that he is just an empty celebrity, that he is an elitist, and that he is not really American, patriotic, or "one of us." He needs to do what he should have done the day McCain launched his celebrity ad, to fire back with something as simple as, "John McCain makes fun of the fact that people are coming out all over this country to hear what I have to say and to talk with me about their lives, their concerns, and their dreams. But he doesn't seem to get that there's a reason no one's listening to him: because they've been hearing the same party line for 8 years, and they've seen where it's taken us. If John McCain wants to draw some crowds of his own, perhaps he should stop filtering out everyone who isn't already his supporter and try listening to people who may not agree with all his solutions." He needs to turn the charge of elitism back on the man who has to ask his staff how many homes he has. And he needs to attack McCain and his allies directly for questioning his patriotism and to redefine turning American against American as un-American. He needs to ask McCain just what he is implying about Obama when he runs ads that call himself "the American President Americans have been waiting for." What kind of President is saying Obama would be if not an American President? And what is he implying (which Joe Lieberman actually made explicit) in his campaign theme that he, unlike Obama, will put "country first." He needs to turn the attack back on the attacker. And he needs to confront the issue of race head-on, not run from it, and signal to working class and rural whites that the most offensive and elitist thing he has heard in this election is that people like them won't vote for him because he's black and that they're too ignorant and bigoted to judge him on the content of his character. He needs to acknowledge that what they need from him most is to know that he shares their values and that he understands people like them -- the same thing black voters often wonder when a white politician comes to town -- and he needs to let them know that he will come to their neck of the woods to talk with them and let them get to know him.

And finally, he needs to recognize that an accidental but toxic byproduct of his effort to make this campaign a positive one about his own vision for America and McCain's effort to make it a negative one about Obama's differentness and dangerousness is that he has allowed this election to be a referendum on him, just as Kerry did. This election should be a referendum on the Bush-McCain years and whether we can afford any more of them.


Author's Note: For those readers who are in Denver for the Democratic Convention, Victoria Hopper and Jamie McGurk have organized an extraordinary mini-convention at the Starz Theater across from the Convention, called the Starz Green Room, to run during the days of the Convention. The Starz program is a wonderful combination of speakers, panels, and films that address not only issues of policy but issues of message like those detailed in this piece. I will be presenting there, as will many others from whom we all have much to learn on the left, from pollsters like Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake, and Geoff Garin, to some of the most brilliant strategic minds on the left like Paul Begala and James Carville, to luminaries such as John Podesta, Arianna Huffington, David Sirota, and actor/activists Josh Brolin and Ben Affleck.

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by its writers are their own.

Obama Offers a Progressive Vision of Patriotism

I watched Barack Obama's speech Tuesday morning intently. The "pre-game show" of cable commentators predicted a somewhat grim outcome. What could Obama say that could possibly overcome his association with the words of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Would he throw his pastor on the train tracks? And even if he did, would he still suffer from guilt by association?

But then, for 45 minutes, I saw a man who for days had appeared somewhat at sea, buffeted by waves that relentlessly pushed him off course, seem to find his compass and chart a course directly into the eye of the storm. I saw a man with the inner confidence, and the steadiness of a captain who knew he was sailing on uncharted waters but needed to go there anyway, take the nation with him and land them safely on the shore.

The pundits were clearly stunned. They knew they had witnessed something extraordinary, a moment when time seemed to stand still and a politician in the midst of a withering electoral storm did the unspeakable: he spoke the truth. The unspoken, unspeakable truth. He told the nation that he understood what was happening in white barber shops and black barber shops, around white water coolers and black water coolers, and that we are neither free from our prejudices nor merely prejudiced in our respective grievances, and that in both our prejudices and our grievances, we have more in common than we know.

With the exception of commentators who pride themselves on their bigotry, the speech drew immediate, nearly universal acclaim, and I suspect that its lasting impact will mirror its initial impact. But as the great French sociologist Emil Durkheim described it, we live our lives in the realm of the profane, punctuated by moments of sanctity, only to return again to everyday life. And by nightfall, as I listened to reports of the speech on television, many of the talking heads had returned to the realm of the literal, the crass, and the profane: Did he distance himself enough from Reverend Wright? Did he condemn his former pastor enough to reassure white voters?

But the speech wasn't about Reverend Wright, even though the controversy surrounding pieces of his sermons was the impetus for it. Obama delivered a message that spoke to the conflicts and contradictions around race that have existed since the earliest days of this nation, and he delivered it in a personal way that spoke to his own history and his own complex response to his pastor's messages over many years. The speech brought to mind a passage written by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson a half century ago in his psychobiography of Martin Luther, which could just as easily have been written last night. Erikson was describing that ineffable quality we call charisma, and the way an individual life history sometimes converges with the historical moment: "Now and again," Erikson wrote, "an individual is called upon (called upon by whom, only theologians claim to know, and by what only bad psychologists)," to lift his personal conflicts to the level of cultural conflicts, "and to try to solve for all what he could not solve for himself alone."

Obama clearly hadn't wanted to make this election about race. But the events of the last week led him to do what the nation has long needed to do: to have the kind of open conversation about race that Republicans have avoided because they've preferred to exploit it and Democrats have avoided because they've tended to fear it. We can't solve problems we can't talk about, and our better angels on race tend to be our conscious values. As numerous commentators described it, Obama led us to our better angels.

But from a political standpoint, at least as important as the primary message of his speech was a series of meta-messages he conveyed as much through his actions as his words. Obama's speech was in many respects a rejoinder to a number of questions raised about him over the last few weeks that contributed to defeats in Ohio and Texas.

Is he a moving orator who speaks pretty lines but lacks substance? No one can seriously ask that question today, after Obama offered the most eloquent, intellectually penetrating, and most moving description of the complexities of race in America of any politician in recent history. But he did more than talk about race. He began to build a progressive narrative that Democrats, and the progressive movement more broadly, have had difficulty developing. He offered a progressive vision of patriotism, integrating a more traditional view -- referring to his grandfather's service under General Patton, and the military service of Reverend Wright -- with the notion that love of country is not blind love, that forming a more perfect union -- the essence of progressivism -- is part of what it means to love one's country.

Does he have the courage, capacity, and cojones to lead? Yesterday, he led us as a nation, and he showed a firm, steady, and unflinching hand. Not only did he utter words most Democratic politicians don't speak in polite company but should have spoken years ago, but he refused to take the low road -- to denounce and cast aside someone who clearly matters dearly to him simply because he had become a political liability -- displaying both courage and conviction.

Is he really a Muslim, not just foreign but an "Islamo-fascist" in sheep's clothing? No one listening to his speech could come away with anything but the message that he is not only a Christian but a person who takes his faith seriously. He spoke of how Reverend Wright had "helped introduce me to my Christian faith" and baptized his children, and how he had preached about the importance of "doing God's work here on earth." Yet he condemned his former pastor for seeing "the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

And time will tell if he answered one last question: Can he win the respect, and ultimately the votes, of white males, and particularly working class males, in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania? I suspect his speech may have reopened a dialog with, if not the minds of, the kinds of voters he had won over in states like Wisconsin but began to lose for a number of reasons: Hillary Clinton's obvious command of economic issues in a time of increasing economic desperation, the fact that voters associate the Clinton name with eight years of economic growth between two disastrous Bushes, and Obama's resistance to swinging back when his opponent was throwing punches, which voters (particularly male voters) tend to take as a sign of weakness. But the meaning of Obama's loyalty to his pastor in the face of enormous pressure to cast him aside is not likely to be lost on white males who value strength, courage, honor, and loyalty. Nor is an aspect of his life story many Americans may not have known, about the role played by his two white working-class grandparents in his upbringing; or his criticism of the failures of fatherhood in the inner cities; or his willingness to speak openly about the seething resentments of the millions of white men who punch a time card every day, feel increasingly unable to provide for their families as the price of gas skyrockets and heath care moves beyond their reach, and who don't view themselves as all that privileged.


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