Republicans owe Hillary our gratitude. She has road-tested several versions of attacks on Obama that don’t work. Obviously, and first, don’t come out against change and hope — the perennial themes of successful election campaigns. In 1984, even my old boss Ronald Reagan campaigned for re-election in response to the claim that America needed to change, on the words: "We ARE the change," as well as on the hopeful theme of "morning in America."
If a candidate is not for change, he is not for us. It has been almost two centuries since Prince von Metternich gained the first ministry of the Hapsburg’s Austrian empire by assuring the emperor that his administration consciously would avoid any "innovation."
Nor will Americans ever vote for presidential candidates based on what the candidates have done for us already. In American politics, gratitude is always the lively expectation of benefits yet to come. The question is always, What will you do for us tomorrow?
Americans will not give Sen. McCain the White House because we are grateful for his heroism 40 years ago at the Hanoi Hilton. We are grateful, and he was heroic. Americans might gladly vote for him to receive a medal, or even an opulent retirement home, but not the presidency.
Beyond these obvious points, Republicans should learn from Hillary’s campaign that Obama is remarkably adept at ridiculing the old style of campaigning. He cheerfully and in a cool, understated tone will slice and dice overly broad charges, such as Hillary’s "inexperience" taunt or her ill-considered "words vs. action" charge. (And by the way, after seven years of Bush’s verbal infelicity, there is a hunger for eloquence. Moreover, eloquence is good. Consider Lincoln, FDR, Churchill, Reagan — even Bill Clinton in a cheesy, insincere way.) Obama must have been tempted to use that old Humphrey Bogart line, when Bogart asked of someone who couldn’t keep up with him: "What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?"
Overly broad charges against him are dangerous. Republicans will make a mistake if they take to calling him "too liberal for America." He is too liberal, but they need to make the charge specific point by specific point. If they try to pigeonhole him as a liberal, he will refuse to perch in such a hole. He is a golden falcon, not a fat pigeon. He will swoop down verbally on his accuser and point out how he is not liberal at all on that point — but his accuser’s record is.
For instance, if he is accused of being in bed with the teachers union, he will point out (even while still in his pajamas after a motel night with the union, metaphorically speaking) that he once told a Milwaukee newspaper he was open to considering vouchers — even though he is against them — if it would be good for the kids. Make no mistake, this guy isn’t only good with inspirational rhetoric; when it comes to policy slipperiness, he makes Bill Clinton look slow-witted and honest.
The overall lesson to take away from the Democratic primary season so far is that big charges against Obama backfire on the accuser. Beware of Hillary’s ill-fated decision to play Sonny Liston to Obama’s Cassius Clay. (Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali after the first Liston fight.) In that fight, Sonny Liston threw slow, heavy roundhouse punches, which Clay easily slipped while delivering a flurry of combinations at the off-balance Liston. Sound familiar?
When Liston refused to respond to the seventh-round bell (claiming a sore shoulder), Clay stood up, shouting, "I am the greatest! I shook up the world!" Whether Hillary refuses to compete after the March 4 bell (perhaps on the claim of a sore head), we don’t know yet.
But we can be sure that Obama is too disciplined to scream to the world that he is "the greatest." Although it would not surprise any of us if he thinks to himself as he looks into the mirror while shaving: "Am I good or what!"
If Obama can be defeated, it will not be with a meat cleaver but with a surgeon’s scalpel.
This is difficult in a national campaign in which the public, almost of necessity, must be communicated with by slogans. But Obama is the master responding to blustery charges with wry, dry irony.
The Republicans must systematically make a hundred tightly argued, irrefutable critiques of very specific examples of Obama’s policy being wrong for at least 60 percent of America.
America may be going through one of our episodic style shifts. In 1932, FDR’s conversational style trumped Hoover’s old oratory. In 1960, JFK’s coolness and wit caught the emerging post-World War II sophistication of our culture. Twenty years later America, tired of sophisticated cynicism, was ready to return to Reagan’s old-fashioned sentiments and values.
Obama is tapping into a curious alchemy of youthful idealism tempered by Internet edginess. Republicans must communicate their values and policies through that prism, or they will not communicate at all.