August 22nd, 2008
Want to see how rapid response works in a modern political setting? Take a look at this front-page article in today’s Post, because the Obama campaign’s reply to John McCain’s inability to remember how many houses he owns is a masterful example. Step 1: like the Boy Scouts, Be Prepared:
Obama campaign aides and Democratic National Committee researchers had been sitting on film clips, tax records, photos and other information on McCain’s real estate holdings for weeks. The now-defunct Progressive Media USA, a liberal activist group, had done polling on the potential line of attack and concluded that it alone would have little impact against McCain, whose “brand” as a maverick Republican has proved difficult to crack.
But Obama aides were collecting documentation of separate incidents they wanted to string together as a narrative: McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm’s comment to the Washington Times that the United States was “a nation of whiners” stuck in a “mental recession” and overstating the current economic woes; a McCain assertion that the economy is fundamentally strong; and the Arizonan’s comment Saturday at the Saddleback Civil Forum in California defining the threshold for being rich as an income of $5 million a year.
When McCain made his comment to Politico, Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer flashed the green light.
Step 2: When you perceive the right opening, go all out:
Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee pounced with remarkable speed. By mid-morning, reporters had received a video log [Ed: TV B-roll set by satellite feed?] featuring Cindy McCain’s childhood estate in Phoenix, an Architectural Digest spread on another property the McCains had owned previously, and tax records and photos detailing seven houses and condominiums — in Coronado and La Jolla, Calif.; Phoenix and Sedona, Ariz.; and Arlington. By 11 a.m., the Obama campaign had produced a television advertisement titled “Seven” and was answering the question McCain could not.
“It’s seven, seven houses, and here’s one house Americans can’t afford John McCain to move into,” the ad concludes over an image of the White House. (If a California beachfront condo that Cindy McCain purchased for their children this year is included, the number of homes owned by the McCains rises to eight.)
Of course, the McCainiacs fired back with an ad dredging up the unsavory Rezko/Obama connection, to which the DNC replied with a threat to bring up the Keating Five…man, I do love politics.
This incident shows a fundamental truth about rapid response: the more you prepare, the harder you can hit back. When I worked with crack legislative and press teams at the National Environmental Trust, a Hill-and-media-focused organization, we could move extremely quickly to jump on to news hooks such as Bush administration proposals or sudden developments in Congress BECAUSE we were prepared.
Even when we didn’t have specific information pre-prepackaged (press releases, policy analyses, details about how particular Congressional districts would be affected, video B-roll, etc.), we had staff on hand who were primed to do the research and put critical material together quickly, often in hours. Besides putting us on the Hill fast and with the right facts, rapid response let us jump into the news coverage of breaking events and even at times help to set the terms of the public debate. But if you’re not ready BEFORE the critical moment, you probably won’t be quick on your feet when it comes.