The Power of Negative Branding: Clinton and Obama

The statement today by Barack Obama that he is mulling a run for the Presidency has brought intense focus on how the Senator has practiced his politics the last two years.

My particular criticism of Barack Obama is not at all directed at his stupendous political talent, intelligence or even commitment to a progressive agenda. It is directed at his disdain for politics. Yes politics. Because, whether for selfish image conscious reasons or for idealistic reasons, Obama has decided that Democrats need to find common ground with the Religious Right, look to compromise bipartisan solutions with Republicans and not engage in the political battle.

These pretty thoughts make David Broder and Joe Klein smile, but they are bad politics and since bad Democratic politics lead to Republican governance, bad policy. I'll explain on the flip side.

One of the most enduring false myths of the Clinton years is that it was solely Dick Morris' triangulation strategy that revived Clinton's fortunes after the 1994 election disaster. I think the data makes clear that more than Clinton's triangulation (which did have a role of course, the role of removing negative branding opportunities for the GOP), it was the appearance of a political adversary easy to demonize - namely Newt Gingrich.

I believe the data makes clear that Clinton's popularity really jumped when he stood and fought Gingrich in December 1995 on the budget:

As we go to press President Clinton is locked in a battle with Congressional Republicans over next year’s budget. The President has vetoed much of the budget sent to him by Congress and has twice allowed the Federal government to "shut down" in the absence of an actual budget or a stop-gap spending measure that would allow full governmental activity. The sudden appearance of the President’s backbone has won him some high praise from congressional Democrats and liberal pundits as well as a dramatic shift in his approval ratings from the American electorate. Clinton’s positive ratings eclipsed the 50 percent mark for the first time in two years in the wake of his first veto. Concurrently, Newt Gingrich’s standing in the polls has fallen below the 30 percent mark as the public becomes increasingly dismayed with a man whose veneer of sincerity is so thin as to be nearly transparent.

As Lincoln and FDR before him had successfully done, Clinton successfully placed the extremist imprimatur on his political opponents. And this branding had lasting power:

The failing of Dole's campaign is that it has not clearly addressed who, exactly this Bill Clinton fellow is. It's not just Dole's problem, either - a recent New York Times/CBS poll found that while 43% of voters consider Bill Clinton a liberal, 36% see him as a moderate, and 12% (the Communist delegation, perhaps?) think he's a conservative. Moreover, 50% of self-identified moderates voters say President Clinton is one of them. Meanwhile, 53% of the voters claim Dole's a conservative, and the crucial moderate voters agree - a large majority feel that Dole stands to their right.

I have written on the paranoid style in American politics and that I think the central battle of politics is:

And that is FDR's lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle.

It is unfortunate that our politics does not allow for rational intelligent debate of the issues where the parties demonstrate mutual respect. It is nice that Broder, Klein and Obama want us all to play nice. It's wonderful that the American people say they hate partisan politics and negative attacks.

It's too bad that the paranoid style has been richly rewarded by ELECTIONS in the United States. And in real life, ELECTIONS, not pundits tsking tsking, has a real effect on people's lives.

In his two years in the Senate, Barack Obama has developed a tremendous reputation with the pundits. He is charismatic, charming, brilliant and exudes the bipartisan reasoned approach they adore. His effect on actual results has been nil. He has been involved in almost no fights, though he performed well in the habeas corpus debate.

I am duly impressed with Barack Obama's political talent and intelligence. I am wholly unimpressed with the brand of politics he has practiced the last two years. With the Dems on the cusp of victory, due in large part to NOT following Barack Obama's lead, to instead fighting hard and pinning a negative brand on Bush and the Republicans, I am extremely worried that some might think that Obama's presecription for Dem politics is worthwhile. In my view, it is not. And it is for that reason, that I have taken a good deal of time criticizig Obama's rhetoric and approach. He is an important figure who could hav a great deal of influence in Democratic circles, particularly on stylistic questions.

Thus, while Obama's talent and potential are undeniable, it is also true that Obama poses a threat to a newfound Fighting Dem spirit. In my mind, it must be pushed back.

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  • Re: The Power of Negative Branding: Clinton and Ob (none / 0) (#1)
    by archpundit on Sun Oct 22, 2006 at 11:18:20 PM EST
    ==Obama has decided that Democrats need to find common ground with the Religious Right, look to compromise bipartisan solutions with Republicans and not engage in the political battle.

    Did you read his speech on faith?

    For those who understand religious dialogue, one would recognize that speech as a complete refutation of the religious right's agenda.  

    More condescending blather from the cult of Obama.

    I read it and I  was raised a Catholic to the point of confirmation. In addition, I have read much about religion since then.

    When will the Obama acolytes actually follow Obama's prescription of civlity and good faith discussion? Never it seems.


    Re: The Power of Negative Branding: Clinton and Ob (none / 0) (#4)
    by archpundit on Mon Oct 23, 2006 at 11:52:49 AM EST
    I'm sorry, but how am I being uncivil?  You have started name calling in two different threads without actually supporting claims you make. Could you have a substantive discussion instead?

    Re: The Power of Negative Branding (none / 0) (#2)
    by cpinva on Mon Oct 23, 2006 at 10:44:24 AM EST
    i can get even more petty. my main criticism of mr. obama is that, well, he hasn't really done anything of substance yet. i think all this talk of him running in 2008 is wayyyyyyyyyyyy to premature.

    perhaps, by the 2012 cycle, mr. obama will be a more seasoned and accomplished legislator, with a legitimate body of work that can be pointed to. so far, in my not-so-humble opinion, that's not the case.

    Re: The Power of Negative Branding (none / 0) (#5)
    by archpundit on Mon Oct 23, 2006 at 11:59:34 AM EST
    That's not petty at all, and it's one reason I think he ought to wait.  

    Re: The Power of Negative Branding: Clinton and Ob (none / 0) (#6)
    by Justina on Mon Oct 23, 2006 at 03:39:06 PM EST
    Your critique of Bama's naive and/or misguided "non-partisan" direction is absolutely accurate.

    We are in an extremely dangerous point in America's political reality when a relatively small group of utterly anti-democratic and viciously partisan actors have taking control of all our political institutions. They were able to seize this control because Democratic leaders failed to stand up to them and fight their undemocratic actions in the early stages of their push to absolute power.

    Begining with the Democrats' inept response to the Florida vote manipulation, they continued to try to pacify the beasts by supporting the passage of the Patriot Act, by capitulating to the even then clearly baseless Iraq war plans, and, perhaps most damaging, supporting the appointments of Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court.  Kerry's failure to contest the Ohio vote fraud, coupled with the DNC and DLCer's refusal to even recognize that fraud, allowed the Republicans to wear a cloak of respectability and garner even more power.

    Even today, too many Democrats are so afraid of being called "soft on terror" that they continue to acquiese in Republican abominations, culminating in the dememberment of our basic constitutional rights in the Military Commissions Act.

    It has been strange, sad and downright frightening to watch the brilliant and charismatic Bama follow the lead of Joe Lieberman rather than John Connors.

    Once the neo-conservative, if not fascist, Republican cabal has been wholely removed from power and democracy restored, then we can perhaps
    safely speak of "uniting" behind non-partisan banners.  Until Bush and all the other adherents of the Project for a New American Century are completely deposed, Democrats need to fight like hell to take our country back.

    No, now is not the time for a Bama presidential run. He needs a lot more seasoning. We need now to put our most principled street fighters on the ballot -- the Howard Deans, John Connors, Russ Feingolds -- if we are to successfully stop the Republican traitors and their syncophants, the John McCain's and Joe Lieberman's.