Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tips for a Regular Guy

I was reading a syndicated column by Susan Estrich today.

If you're over 30, you might remember Estrich. She was the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.

An unapologetic feminist, she supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries two years ago, then supported Barack Obama in the general election. Then she wrote endearingly of Obama on the occasion of his 100th day in office, calling him "Mr. Cool."

She's still singing in the Adulation Chorus, but she's apparently picking up on what she senses might be problems for the folks in Obama's party in November.

(Of course, Estrich's candidate fell way short of winning so she never had to deal with the antipathy voters typically show to the party in the White House in midterm elections. As it was, 1990 was not a rabidly anti–White House year, unlike this year, but Estrich's party came out ahead in November, anyway — and the fact that her candidate lost two years earlier may have had something to do with it. Nevertheless ...)

She starts off defending Obama's decision to proceed with vacation plans in Martha's Vineyard, even though she knows what a public relations snake pit that is apt to be.

And she's right, of course. The president has a demanding job, one that was already going to be more demanding than usual when he took office last year, and rational people don't begrudge him the right to some R&R. But sometimes he seems a little too eager to be distracted — like when so much attention was paid to his NCAA tournament picks nearly two months after he took office.

(Incidentally, some people criticized me last year for criticizing Obama for not focusing his attention on job creation. I even remember one fellow saying to me that Obama's interest in sports was proof that he was a "regular guy," which reminded me of arguments that were made when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore in 2000. "Which one would you rather have a beer with?" Bush's supporters asked, a question that I found irrelevant. I don't vote for a drinking buddy. I vote for a president.

(When people have told me that one thing or another is proof that Obama is an ordinary guy, I am reminded of an episode of The West Wing, in which Toby the speechwriter and Charlie the president's personal aide are talking about a fight the president and first lady have been having. "It's a typical marriage," Toby says. "I've been there." And Charlie replies, "Well, I haven't, but he's the president of the United States so my guess is, no, it probably isn't a typical marriage."

(See, that's the thing about presidents. They aren't regular guys. They may wear regular–guy clothes and have regular–guy interests. And they're almost always married — or have been — so they have that experience in common with others, too.

(But, they don't have regular–guy issues to deal with.)

To those who might question Obama's choice of vacation spots, Estrich explains that Martha's Vineyard was chosen "[b]ecause he likes it. Because he knows people there, has friends there, enjoys himself there."

We all have places like that, don't we? Some people are lucky enough to live in the place they like best in the world — and all their closest friends live there, too. But most of us aren't that fortunate.

Even so, Martha's Vineyard is a rather exclusive vacation spot. Bill Clinton used to vacation there when he was president. And a certain amount of grumbling about that could be heard from his adversaries then, as well.

But unemployment wasn't even close to being the national catastrophe it is today. For jobless Americans, worried about paying the rent or the electric bill in this blisteringly hot summer, it seems a little unfeeling for a president to be hobnobbing with the rich and famous while they're struggling to make ends meet, a task that was made that much more difficult for many by two months of dithering in Washington over extending unemployment benefits.

(Congress finally rectified that, but the passage of the extension in late July didn't mean that benefits magically appeared in the pockets of the jobless right away. In fact, it may take up to another month before payments resume.)

Well, Martha's Vineyard isn't really the issue, and I think Estrich knows that.

But she also seems to realize that, as I have said before, perception is reality for most people. And she frets that "a second vacation to a place other than the hard–hit Gulf is an invitation for people to think what too many of them already think: The president just doesn't get it."

And, she concludes, that ain't good.

"The danger for Democrats," she writes, "is that if people keep thinking the president doesn't get it (and that's what I am hearing, particularly when those golf course shots hit the front page), the easiest way for them to send him a message, since he's not on the [ballot], is to vote against the Democrat who is."

She doesn't have any sage advice to offer Obama that might help him avoid what is more and more frequently being called inevitable — perhaps, because, at this point in the campaign, there really isn't anything that anyone can recommend.

Maybe the best advice she can offer to some Democrats is something that she says many already are doing — distancing themselves from the president. They don't mind receiving financial assistance, but many Democrats in what Estrich calls "marginal districts" are trying to, as Estrich says, "keep it local."

Predictably, Republicans will want to drag Obama into the political discourse at every opportunity. I suppose that comes as something of a shock to Democrats who had become accustomed to George W. Bush being the punching bag in the last couple of elections — and I'm sure that, when cornered, many Democrats will resort to blaming Bush.

But that seems to be wearing thin. After all, this is the third election cycle that's been used. The first time, Democrats reclaimed control of Congress. The second time, they expanded their majorities and captured the White House.

Americans feel they have given "ownership" of the nation's problems to the Democrats. What more do they need? If the Democrats are still talking about how everything was Bush's fault, that sounds to many voters like a non–admission admission that they don't know what to do.

In 2006 and 2008, whipping George Bush made sense, given the national mood. But, in 2010, it's lost much of its appeal.

This ought to be something with which Estrich has at least a passing acquaintance. Bush's father's campaign in 1988 is remembered for its racist commercial featuring Willie Horton — but the advertising campaign that contributed to Dukakis' defeat also included one ad that attacked Dukakis' economic record as governor of Massachusetts by casting doubt on his environmental record.

Dukakis claimed to have presided over the "Massachusetts miracle," a period of economic growth and expansion in the 1980s, and Republicans didn't want him to take credit for that so they ran a commercial that showed unflattering images of pollution in Boston Harbor and warned that Dukakis "wants to do for America what he did for Massachusetts." The commercial concluded with the line "America can't afford that risk."

The campaign worked in the generally calm environment of 1988, but four years later, when Bush sought another term, as the economy was struggling, he tried to use that same tactic against Bill Clinton.

If you watch the 1988 and 1992 commercials, you will see that the images are very different — but the text being narrated is practically the same. The only real changes were references to Clinton (instead of Dukakis) and Arkansas (instead of Massachusetts).

The commercial even ended the same way. Clinton, the narrator said, "wants to do for America what he did for Arkansas. America can't afford that risk."

It didn't work a second time.

I get the sense that Estrich doesn't think whipping Bush for a third straight election is going to be successful, either. But she's at a loss for what to do — and so she grasps for whatever she can.

"[T]he Republicans also have their problems," she says, adding that "[i]n tough times, do you go with someone who is unknown, inexperienced and maybe a little bit too far off the beaten track?"

Hmmm. She didn't seem to have a problem with that two years ago.

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