Monday, September 15, 2008

What Obama Voters Should (and Shouldn't) Do

You would have had to be living under a rock (or at the very least, disinterested enough not to patronize this column) to miss the fact that John McCain had a terrible weekend, news-wise. In the last of what started to feel like a dog-pile of incoming, it was announced that, during his best fundraising month ever by a wide margin, he was out-fundraised by Barack Obama, six dollars for every five. (And entirely by the way, the next time someone says to you, "Yeah, but Obama has to keep fundraising all the time because he turned down the public money," you may point out to that person on my behalf that Mr. Obama has already out-raised Mr. McCain by a margin larger than the total amount of public money that McCain can expect to receive.)

Earlier in the weekend, none other than Karl Rove had appeared on the Sunday news-talk circuit, and, when the time came for him to respond to a question about the ugliness of this year's campaign, had issued a very measured, proportionate response that began with a lengthy criticism of Barack Obama's air-war. Almost as an afterthought, Mr. Rove allowed that, yes, "McCain has gone in some of his ads -- similarly gone one step too far, and sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the '100 percent truth' test." And if anyone left in America thinks that journalists not employed by Fox are lazy first and biased second, they should log into the main page of CNN.com this morning and click the "Politics" tab at the top. The quote, lifted completely out of context by a suddenly harder-pressing Obama campaign, has been making the rounds of political news sites from blue to red and back to blue.

You probably know most of the rest of McCain's Weekend-at-Barry-Goldwater's: his shooting-star running mate openly lied about having ever been to Iraq, her husband is going to be subpoenaed, her handlers have been willfully over-estimating her crowds, and her stump speech still includes the "thanks but no thanks" line about the Bridge to Nowhere, even after Charlie Gibson uncharacteristically cornered her into admitting that her portrayal of the situation is categorically false.

Meanwhile McCain's senior economic advisor was promising in a forthcoming book that his candidate would have to raise taxes if elected, the former Chair of the Federal Reserve was quoted as saying that McCain's plan to cut them would shipwreck the economy, the longtime de facto surrogate Bob Woodward was quoting a passage from his own book in which McCain privately doubted the efficacy of The Surge, and, lest we forget, a passle of fortysomething female hosts on one of the most persuadable-voter-friendly TV shows in history, spent the weekend picking Mr. McCain's sinew from between their teeth. You probably know all of this.

You probably also know that, between the hurricane and the customarily slow weekend news coverage, very little of this news got any real attention--and none of it got the kind of attention it deserves. Indeed, you probably don't just know this, you're probably upset about it.

For the bulk of the weekend, and particularly Sunday evening--hard on the heels of a useless tracking poll in Minnesota with a terrible likely-voter model, that seemed to show the race tied there--my inbox bubbled over with Democratic worry. Senator Obama isn't doing enough, Senator McCain has changed the subject, this is 2004 all over again, blah-blah-blah. Well, maybe "blah-blah-blah" is too strong, seeing as how we've all seen what appears to be this movie, at least twice before in recent memory. It would be a mistake on two levels to dismiss Democratic worry about the fate of this election--first, because worry is healthy if it induces people to show up, and, second, because the people being dismissed would be the good guys.

Still, as I was wading through the predictable spike in "Oh my God, you have to pass this on to EVERYBODY!" e-mail detritus, I was struck once again (as I had been in 2004) by how pointless so much of the progressive effort in such matters often ends up being. Republicans, it seems to me, calmly and methodically assemble an easily packaged message with which to trump the dialogue at the lunchcounter, they organize around pre-existing social institutions, they maximize their cohesiveness in ways that manifest in persuading their neighbors. And what do progressives do? They flood each others' inboxes with stories that are either apocryphal, common-knowledge, or both.

Of course it's reassuring to know that there are others out there as concerned as we are (it could be argued that this very column is little more than a glorified inbox-stuffer, come to that), and I certainly intend no hard feelings to those who've recently received an e-mail about the race and felt it their solemn duty to forward it to me. I ask only that the Obama supporters from whom I've heard, and the larger sea of Obama supporters that we might together reach with this message, take a long hard look at the question of what these efforts will actually achieve. Because it ain't much.

Granted, I had a lot of help in coming to this conclusion: In a story appearing on fivethirtyeight.com yesterday about a Sarah Palin rally in Carson City, the co-founder of that website stood across the street from the pavillion in which Palin was delivering her "thanks but no thanks" line for the hundredth time, when he observed a handful of Obama supporters arriving at the scene to "protest." They waved signs and shouted things and made general nuisances of themselves, but they were so far away from the action and so small in number that I'd be frankly surprised if Governor Palin (much less anyone in the press corps) even noticed them there.

So who did notice them there? Rank-and-file Republicans, who were invited by the event's managers to sign up to phone-bank and canvas for their candidates, because of the protest they were all witnessing across the street. In other words, the Obama supporters who showed up with their signs at this speech did a masterful job of rallying support--it just happened to be for the wrong candidate. The columnist for the story finally tracked down a representative from the local Obama field office who, unable to chastise her own most loyal followers, only rolled her eyes in silence. It was this story, together with the task of swimming through my own deluge of angst-inspired e-mail, that got me thinking I might provide a list of suggestions--do's and don't's, if you will--for channeling all of this energy into activities that aren't quite so sumptuously self-destructive. And so, without further ado...

The Top Five Things a Progressive Should NOT Do:

1) Preach to the Choir. Imagine how many votes in Florida could have been switched from Nader to Gore, or from staying-home to Gore, or even from Bush to Gore, if we Floridians had spent our time and effort phone-banking instead of passing e-mails back and forth like they were notes in a junior high school study hall? Imagine what the rest of the country could have done to help secure the state if the rest of the country hadn't been too busy clipping articles that the recipient already agrees with and has already seen? No, on second thought, don't imagine any of that: it's too painful to ponder how little of such effort it would have taken.

2) Celebrate Chaos. I try to save vitriolic rhetoric for Republicans in these columns, but I think it's only fair to warn my progressive readership that the next time someone grins smugly at my entreaties to tighten up this party and its message, and then quotes Will Rogers to me on the subject, I'm not going to be responsible for my actions. Disagree if you must, but I have felt for a long time now that there's no structural excuse for Democrats to be any less cohesive and organized than Republicans. We stand for economic justice, environmental stewardship, and civil rights and liberties. It fits in one sentence, people. All this, "We can't have phone lists because we'll alienate the people who think it's an invasion of their privacy" stuff is self-fulfilling, self-destructive, and, frankly, bullshit. The next time you go to a Unitarian Church, ask yourself if these are the people you'd really want running anything big and heavy and pointed at a narrow channel. My guess is that you wouldn't. Slap them down. They can celebrate their chaos at church, where it doesn't cause the rest of us to put up with four more years of tyrrany.

3) Lose control. The Republicans have more cache with persuadable voters because their message isn't just better-focused, it's better-disciplined. They're smug bullies who know how to maximize their advantage by trumping long discourses from a flustered progressive with short bursts of smug bullying. I'm not saying we should respond in kind, just that we should be better at not falling into their traps. Short come-backs in this election should favor us, not them.

4) Waste time. How many calls could have been made by those eighty Obama protesters in Carson City yesterday? We'll never know, now, will we.

5) In-fight. The PUMA business appears over now, as many of us were saying it would be, soon enough, but it's still a lot easier than it should be for me to go to a progressive gathering place here in Gainesville (a locally owned coffee bar, perhaps), and overhear the words "Obama" and "FISA" from the same person in the same sentence. And folks, this is suicide, pure and simple. What we're trying to accomplish in this election hasn't been accomplished since 1964: put a Democrat, in a two-way race, with no asterisk, over the 270 electoral votes necessary to receive the congratulatory phone call instead of placing one. It hasn't happened since NINETEEN SIXTY-FOUR. Next time someone says FISA to you, this might be worth pointing out.

On the other hand, here are The Top Five Things a Progressive Should Do:

1) Correspond with media outlets. I'm not talking about Op/Ed letters because nobody who's left to be persuaded in this election would ever be caught dead reading an Op/Ed letter. No, instead use the "contact us" link that most newspapers and television stations have on their websites to ask why the truth isn't being pressed more assertively on the vast and filigreed world of McCain mistruths, missteps, and mismanagement. This would be an unusually good moment to do this, right now, today, because one could make the argument of "understanding" how some of the McCain train-wreck this weekend got lost in the story of an honest-to-God train wreck. Be savvy about the media outlet you choose to do this with, since the recipient has no idea where you live. And be polite: mouthing-off doesn't get us anywhere. (A list of links pages to television and newspaper outlets in battleground states appears at the bottom of this column.)

2) Focus on contrast, not on the election's (desperately important) policy implications, when pressing the media. The Republicans get this, instinctively, while we on the other side have a curious difficulty accepting it: by September 1st, a Presidential Election is a beauty contest. Sarah Palin isn't going to lose this election for John McCain by being in favor of teaching creationism in school, those voters are already ours. If she loses the election for John McCain, it'll be because she's a liar. Tell the tale in a civil tone, in short sentences, and if you're doing it face to face be sure to smile. The whole thing's funny if we don't let it destroy us--which is exactly why McCain picked her in the first place: to cause us to overreact and alienate the low-information voters in the middle.

3) Give Barack Obama money. Seriously, here's a thought: What if every one of us who gets these sleet-storms of e-mail about the race had a policy of not opening any message that wasn't accompanied with a pledge from the sender to donate one dollar to the Obama campaign? What if every message we sent had such a header? The man would have so much money by now he'd be running ads in Texas.

4) Correspond with the campaign about its advertising. I have believed for a long time now that the Democrats are missing-out on their most effective vector of television advertising by not showing footage of McCain and Palin, speaking in their own words and saying things that are either self-contradictory, demonstrably false, or so unpopular with the general public that they alone should have sunk the Republican campaign the moment they were uttered. But here's the thing: if I write that message to the Obama campaign (again, using the "contact us" field on Obama's own website), I'm just one guy adrift in a sea of crackpots and their crackpot ideas. If everyone in these enormous progressive e-mail chains wrote the same message, at more or less the same time, NOW, to Obama's camp--then we might have something. (Of course you'd have to agree with me that this is what Obama should do, but if you hesitate to do so I offer the following question: who has been a more effective McCain critic over the past two weeks, Barack Obama or Jon Stewart?)

5) Reach out to persuadables. Only the most die-hard progressives among us actually abide by our widely held embargo on patronizing big-box retailers. Why not wear a T-shirt, or a button, or a hat, that says, "I'm thrilled to talk about Barack Obama!" whenever we go to such places? Just one small caveat: the contrast stuff works better through free media, while face-to-face discussions with persuadables is going to have to stay pro-Obama/Biden and away from being anti-McCain/Palin.

Here is the list of links pages for newspapers and television stations in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Nevada, and New Mexico. It's a daunting list, but cheer up: if you pick ONE to write to, that'll be more than you would have accomplished by spending the rest of the day forwarding me e-mails.

Ohio Newspapers
Colorado Newspapers
Virginia Newspapers
New Mexico Newspapers
Pennsylvania Newspapers
Michigan Newspapers
Nevada Newspapers
Ohio Television
virginia television
colorado television
Nevada Television
New Mexico Television
Michigan Television
Pennsylvania Television

...Now get to work.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Anyone tried to post on the fox news site? My comments are not getting published and I don't actually see comments from anyone on their blogs.

The Key Grip said...

I try (generally unsuccessfully) to leave comment posts at the bottom of news stories, since it's just two groups of partisans talking at each other, generally.

I think it would be far more useful if we could, in number, contact newsrooms with direct correspondence, asking to press certain stories.