Also published on HuffingtonPost
Drew Westen’s recent critique of Barack Obama’s presidency and Jonathan Chait’s devastating rebuttal raise a question for me: what matters more in politics, messaging or mechanics? In Westen’s much-discussed New York Times piece, rhetoric and positioning are key: Obama’s failings are fundamentally driven by bad messaging, weak leadership and a failure of conviction. Bullshit, suggests Chait: Obama has in fact “used exactly the kind of rhetoric Westen accuses him of refusing to deploy,” but structural and practical obstacles like “special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion” can defeat the loftiest of presidential speeches.
Regardless of where you come down on Chait’s critique of Westen’s thesis (I’m mostly siding with Chait), it suggests another angle of analysis: most punditry, particularly of the blog and cable news variety, focuses on the messaging side of politics. What narrative is a politician pushing? What’s the content of his or her speeches and advertising? Who is judged to be winning the rhetorical war of the moment? On the occasions when the mechanics of winning an election do get discussed, it’s typically in the context of fundraising, which in turn matters mostly because it pays for television advertising.
This bias is natural when you consider who’s doing the critiquing: journalists and bloggers — writers — plus political “strategists,” who typically come from the advertising or polling side of campaigns (if they have any actual direct political experience at all). I.e., these are people obsessed with words and concepts, drawn instinctively to broad strokes rather than the nitty gritty details of politics.
But campaigns aren’t just won in the air, they’re also fought on the ground, by field organizers and local volunteers, whose job is to canvass their communities, persuade their neighbors and get their supporters to the polls. Part of Obama 2008′s genius was its ability to focus on building that apparatus regardless of who the talking heads thought was “winning” each day’s messaging war. People may have come to Obama’s campaign for many reasons and through many channels, but once they were involved, they were in the hands of a powerful fundraising and mobilization machine which missed few opportunities to put someone to work.
Of course, Obama’s rhetoric mattered immensely. “Hope” and “change” were tremendously attractive ideas, in part because they were simultaneously amorphous and positive: their almost calculated lack of specificity let each supporter layer his or her own expectations onto them freely. And besides providing supporters a powerful brand under whose umbrella they could gather, the overarching Obama image was a wonderful tool for recruiting friends, neighbors and family. Yes We Can! Come 2009, when lofty campaign rhetoric encountered the meat-grinder of the legislative process, the realities of governing would naturally come as a shock.
Liberals can find many sins in Obama’s conduct of the presidency: his strange reversal on matters ranging from government transparency to the deportation of illegal immigrants, his willingness to pivot so quickly to the political center, his apparent elevation of compromise as an end in itself. He might argue that his presidency is held hostage by events that no politician can control, the economy chief among them, and that he has to govern in the environment that exists, not one that he wishes WOULD exist. No amount of rhetoric is going to end Tea Party-style Republican control of the House before 2012.
But that’s where the mechanics of politicking come in. Right before the recent budget deal came down, Obama implored his supporters to flood Congress with emails, phone calls and Tweets, and they responded strongly enough to crash websites and freeze switchboards. By then, though, it was probably too late to matter: when his supporters REALLY might have made a difference was earlier, in 2009 — when health care reform was endlessly and painfully stalled in Congress and Tea Partiers dominated the news — and again in 2010, as Republicans were poised to capture control of the House.
But Obama’s online army, so potent at the polls in 2008, was AWOL for the next two years, a dog that didn’t bark in the night. Many of the volunteers were burned out, for sure, but the campaign apparatus was also allowed to decay — Organizing For America may have become a “permanent field campaign” in theory, but it was a shadow of Obama For America until recently in terms of staff, funding and emphasis. With Obama’s supporter list relatively rarely used to influence legislation or to push messaging, Tea Party enthusiasm had little public counter. The Republican-heavy turnout in 2010 set up the resulting story: as Obama has found out all too painfully this year, elections have consequences.
With all of that in mind, let’s return to our original question, about rhetoric and concepts versus structure and organization. I’d argue that for successful campaigns, you need both. Lofty words and and the political nuts and bolts must mirror one another in effectiveness, particularly in an internet age — the message and the advertising establish the brand, while the field work and online organizing provide the channels to connect people to politician or supporter to movement. Neither is as effective as it could be without the other: Obama’s perceived failures may demoralize many on the Left and make it harder to recruit and energize activists, but Democrats’ inability to turn out their supporters in 2009 and 2010 helped create the very conditions that now force him to give in to the Tea Party types again and again. It’s a circle either virtuous or vicious, and often dependent on factors beyond your control.
Unfortunately, because of the deep biases of the people who TALK about politics in public, the nuts and bolts of winning an election or advocating for legislation are always going to be slighted in favor of the words we use to describe ourselves and our positions: the messaging dominates the discussion, at least on blogs and cable news. But regardless of what the pundits say, WE get to make up our own minds. So in politics, which actually matters more — the messaging or the mechanics? The answer, of course, is “yes.”