- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Sen. Hillary Clinton has road-tested several versions of attacks on Sen. Barack Obama that don’t work. Obviously, and first, don’t come out against change and hope — the perennial themes of successful election campaigns. Even my old boss, Ronald Reagan, campaigned for re-election in 1984 in response to the claim that America needed to change on the phrase “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 would consciously avoid any “innovation.” Nor will Americans ever vote for a presidential candidate on what he or she has already done for us. 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. John 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 a medal, or even an opulent retirement home, but not the presidency.

Beyond these obvious points, Republicans should learn from Mrs. Clinton’s campaign that Mr. Obama is remarkably adept at ridiculing the old style of campaigning. He will cheerfully and in a cool, understated tone slice and dice overly broad charges, such as Mrs. Clinton’s “inexperience” taunt, or her ill-considered ” words vs. action” charge. (And by the way, after seven years of President 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. Mr. Obama must have been tempted to use that old Humphrey Bogart line: [If you can’t keep up with me] “maybe I should learn to stutter.”)

Over broad charges against him are dangerous. Republicans will make a mistake if they take to calling Mr. Obama “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 verbally swoop down 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 Mr. Obama is accused of being in bed with the teacher’s 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 Mr. Obama backfire on the accuser. Beware of Mrs. Clinton’s ill-fated decision to play Sonny Liston to Mr. Obama’s Cassius Clay. (Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali after the first Liston fight.) In that fight, Liston threw slow, heavy roundhouse punches that 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 Mrs. Clinton refuses to compete after the March 4 bell (perhaps on the claim of a sore head), we don’t yet know. But we can be sure that Mr. 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 Mr. Obama can be defeated, it will not be with a meat cleaver but a surgeon’s scalpel. This is difficult in a national campaign where the public, almost of necessity, must be communicated with by slogans. But Mr. Obama is the master responding to blustery charges with wry, dry irony.

The Republicans must systematically make 100 tightly argued, irrefutable critiques of very specific examples of Mr. 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 Mr. Reagan’s old-fashioned sentiments and values.

Mr. 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.

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