[Note: Two weeks ago I planned to write a post proclaiming that Obama’s coming election represented “The End of Vietnam/Culture War politics”, but I thought that was a tad presumptuous, so I held it back. Since then, and since Obama’s election– Congrats Barack, you make me feel brand new!– several others have basically made the same point (links below), so I reconfigured my thoughts on Obama’s campaign and put them into a different format. It may appear that I’m calling outTalkLeft’s Big Tent Democrat in a personal way here, but I’m not. I’m just using his analytical model as an example of something that stokes my skepsis. And, let me stress that Big Tent Democrat made insightful points throughout the campaign season. Sure, his writing style is about as fun-loving as a brain tumor, but he makes himself clear. I wouldn’t go after his work if I didn’t think there was something worth going after. So, my criticisms of his over-arching “Demographics is Destiny” theory are meant to be instructive, and generate intellectual friction. Please feel free to generate more “friction” in the comments. An even less edited version of this post first appeared atYRHT.]
believe that during the campaign McCain’s great friend Senator Lindsey
Graham said something along the line of promising to drown himself if
North Carolina went for Obama.
I think this isthe quote she’s referring to:
fits North Carolina like a glove,” [Lindsey] Graham said. “I’ll beat
[Olympic gold medalist] Michael Phelps in swimming before Barack Obama
wins North Carolina.”
Graham added: “Don’t let me down, because I can’t swim.”
Seriously, though, I have a few Dem roosters to roast, too. Namely: Big Tent Democrat fromTalk Left. Predictably, Big Tent wrote a post-election post that fit Obama’s victory into his “Demographics is Political Destiny/Politics of Contrast” analytical model. I’ve previouslyasserted
that the maxim “Demographics is Political Destiny” is about as useful
as saying “Geometry and Physics are Billiards Tournament Destiny”. I
mean, imagine the bemused look on David Axelrod’s face if Big Tent went
into his office and laid out his over-arching “Demographics is
Political Destiny” thesis. That would be amusing. If BTD has real-world
experience working in top-level campaigns, it never shows in his
The problem with the demographics idea is that it is superficial and only about 80% true– which really means it isdangerously false.
It works until it doesn’t. It’s predictive until it isn’t. It feeds
into “Black Swan” risk. If you give me timing, issue frames (to control
context), and a talented candidate, I’ll make mincemeat of demographic
“destiny”. Not every time, of course, but enough times to make a
mockery of the word “destiny”. Yet, throughout the primary season Big
Tent based his political analysis on demographic results from
primaries, and tried to chart those out to a General Election political
“destiny” for Obama and Hillary Clinton. This led to grand
pronouncements like the following:
of the stories Obama supporters like to tell us is that Obama will put
North Carolina in play and Hillary can not. I think neither can put
North Carolina in play.”
short, for Obama to win North Carolina, he needs a miracle basically.
Record breaking African American turnout COUPLED with a record breaking
performance for a Democrat with white North Carolinians – an 8 point
improvement over a ticket that included a native son of North Carolina.
It ain’t going to happen people.”
—Big Tent Democrat (in a June post titled “A Realistic Assessment”)
it did happen. Narrowly, granted, but national politics can be a game
of inches, as we know all too well. Damn near any campaign is
winnable–any campaign!— if
the right political dynamics come into play, and are gainfully
appropriated. Yet, Big Tent (along with many others) are pronouncing a
on the basis of demographic vote breakdowns in the recent Presidential
election. This sort of overconfidence in political “destiny” is a good
way to get your ass handed to you in a sling 4 to 8 years from now.
Just askFred “realignment” Barnes. Sure, itlooks
like a favorable political landscape for Dems going forward, but rest
assured– that can and will change. Ignore contingency at your own
Perhaps it’s unseemly, but I’m going to
troll through Big Tent Democrat’s archives because I’ve been so
irritated with his political analysis throughout the campaign season.
And when I say “irritated”, I actually mean that as a backhanded
compliment in the sense that Big Tent’s irritations created
intellectual frictions in my mind, which forced me to think through and
clarify my own thoughts on the primacy of “political dynamics”. A
campaign’s ability to predict, sculpt, and respond to political
dynamics is the real key to winning an election, I believe. (I said
this beforehere andhere).
Narrative and strategy won’t trump demographics every time, but they
will do so often enough to make a mockery of the word “destiny”.
Ok, so consider these claims made by BTD. You can click the links to make sure I’m not taking them out of context:
some point, one hopes, Barack Obama and his supporters will start
thinking about winning in November. It needs to start with seating the
Florida and Michigan delegations.” —BTD (“Start thinking about winning in November”…that’s such a condescending and insulting thing to say!
It really irks me, especially when you see how Obama/Plouffe/Axelrod
pinned Hillary and McCain down like bewildered bugs throughout the
primaries and GE. You’re witnessing one of the best campaigns you’ll
ever see, and you express the “hope” that they’re thinking about
winning it all. Again, I’d just love to be a fly on the wall in an
imaginary meeting where BTD presents this concern to David Axelrod.)
“Clinton CAN win Florida and West Virginia. Obama can not win either.…So
what is Obama’s best map? CA, OR, WA, MN, WI, MI, PA, MD, NJ, NY, CT,
MA, RI, VT, NH, ME, the Kerry states, PLUS CO, NM, NV, IA, MO and OH.
That is Kerry’s 252 PLUS new electoral votes for a total of 309
electoral votes.” —BTD, May. Only off by 55+ electoral votes. No biggie. EvenMr Gloomypants predicted (in Oct.) that Obama would get 364. And just think, earlier in the year, Mr. Gloomypants had said that“Obama won’t be the nominee” and he’s“not buying the Obama hype”.
Here’s a BTD gem from late last year (my emphasis):
I don’t buy these polls so far out and do not think Hillary is very
electable. But that is the least of it. more so than Obama, I find
Hillary’s political rhetoric and style an abandonment of the Politics
of Contrast (see my posts on the subject for more detail) that I think
won Dems the 2006 election and the type of politics that Dems must
adopt in the near future in all national elections. To wit, Hillary is
BENEFITTING from an improved Dem brand and weakened GOP brand but her
style was not part of that success.To adopt it, or Obama’s, is to reject success.“I
do not understand why Dems would do that. But Dems have proven to be
political fools in the past so it certainly is possible they will again
be so in the future.”
project of becoming the next President centered, crucially, on winning
the Iowa caucus. He had to win Iowa to win the Democratic primaries and
nomination. So, here’s my question: How does Obama employ the
“Demographics is destiny/Politics of contrast” model to win in Iowa?
How does he do that? That’s what I want to know. How does Obama
“out-contrast” John Edwards, who had been running in Iowa since 2004,
and was running as an unrepentant economic populist liberal in 2008?
Where does Obama go with that? With a moreliberal
policy menu? No way. Obama had to find a new way to win Iowa, in order
to win it all. And he did that. He brought new voters in, and with
soaring rhetoric he picked off Hillary and Edwards voters from the left
and the right.
Iowa didn’t guarantee anything for Obama, of course, but it unlocked
the gate to enable a potential primary stampede. Without Iowa, Obama
doesn’t go anywhere. If he gets beat there, everyone says “Obama ran
too early. It wasn’t his time… Maybe he’d be a good Veep… etc.”
Iowa meant everything to the Obama campaign (and it still bothers me
that while he was making his move in December in the Brodervilles of
Iowa, too many on the left started freaking out over some comments
Obama made about reforming Social Security. Then he uttered the word
“Reagan” and everyone freaked out again.)
That’s why I titled my Iowa primary previewpost “who will the caucusing caucasians select for us?”
Not who willthey select, but who will they selectfor us.
That’s how important that caucus was. I knew Obama had a dynamic
campaign infrastructure, strategic depth, and a determination to win it
all… but first he had to win Iowa. For all his virtues, on paper,
Edwards– who presumably waged the “Politics of Contrast” chapter and
verse– didn’t possess these things. So, if you wanted someone other
than Hillary in 2008, it was Obama by default. So, where precisely was
the “Demographic destiny” in the Iowa caucus for Barack Obama? That’s
the question I’d like answered. Was that a matter of demographics or
Credit where credit is due: BTD did use some polling analysis
to predict that Obama would win the Iowa caucus, and that he would go
on to win the Presidency if he faced Romney. I’d been predicting
Obama/Romney since somewhere in mid-2007 (and reader bigshot had been
predicting it since late 2006). However, when handicapping an
Obama/McCain match-up, BTD simply stated:“McCain would beat Obama”.I guess at some point Obama’s political “destiny” against McCain “changed” along the way.
“I believe that ‘serious electoral majority’ stuff, btw.” —oyster
the late primary season, BTD was very troubled by Obama’s reluctance to
join forces with Hillary Clinton and name her as VP. He didn’t
understand why Obama would choose the harder route to GE victory. In
BTD’s mind Obama was trying to win the GE by 2-5% without Clinton, when
he could easily choose her as Veep and comfortably win by 7-9%. “Why
does he want to win that way?” BTDasked.
Well, here’s one big reason*: if Obama named Hillary as Veep, the media
Village gets to stagger forward for another 4-8 years, zombie-like,
with all the lovely entrenched Clinton demon-tales that have been so
carefully perfected since 1992.
has catalogued in granular detail the media’s hatred of the Clintons, a
hatred which was then transferred to Gore in 2000. For nearly a decade,
Somerby has screamed about liberal media pushovers who let the press adopt
Republican demon tales about “the Clintonz” and about Gore. If Obama
had selected Hillary as Veep, those tales, and that narrative continues
for at least four more years. That’s a lead pipe cinch. Obama
recognized this vicious political media dynamic (and profited from it
in the primaries), but he was smart enough to know that he could put an
end to this narrative by winning and choosing someone other than
Hillary as Veep. Further, BY DOING SO, he had a chance to absolutelycripple
the strategic worldview of most Republican wingnuts. See, to many
Republicans, “the Clintonz” are basically the source of all evil. All
problems can be traced back to Bill Clinton’s communist penis. Fear of
the Clintons animates them like little else. Even worse (for the
wingnuts) “the Clintonz” are politically unbeatable. They are the only
Democrats who know how to win. For at least four years, these wingnuts
have been living in mortal fear of a President Hillary. They had their
stories ready. They had their pet fears ready. They were all set to
resume the Clinton Wars once Hillary succeeded Bush. They were all set!
Then, unbelievably, this Obama upstart somehow beats her in the
primaries. It’s still hard for them to process. But, if Hillary gets on
the Obama ticket, then these wingnuts (as well as the Village Media)
don’t have to change their political frame very much. Just a few
revisions to the scripts (“She really wanted to be Veep all along”),
and they’re good to go. Hillary and Bill Clinton are still the evil
nemeses behind all the world’s problems, and Obama is simply their
Ne…… stooge .
So the themes of the 2008 GE campaign would’ve beenvery
different if Hillary was on the ticket. There would have been endless
speculation about Hillary and Bill Clinton returning to the White House
as the real “powers that be”, guiding their young, inexperienced
More importantly, all the revived
Clinton-era demon tales would persist. These tales all trace back in
some form to what I call “Vietnam politics”. “Vietnam politics” is
short-hand for the 1968/dirty hippie/racial culture war politics that
has dominated Presidential campaigns for the last two generations. The McCain campaign went
back to the “Vietnam Politics” well, one last time, when they linked Obama to William
Ayers. It didn’t work.
I was going to write a post about this a couple weeks ago, butI held it back out of superstition. Since then, there have been severalarticleswritten
making similar points**. I’m not saying “Vietnam politics” would have
worked if Obama and Hillary were on the same ticket, but it would’ve
persisted in the media narratives during and beyond the election. You
can bet on that. Unfair as it is, Obama winning the GEsans Hillary
officially rejects these narratives, and that’s incalculably valuable
for liberals who want to craft a more progressive political “destiny”
for the country.
For example, can youimagine
how Obama’s appointment of Rahm Emanuel (and anyone else with Clinton
ties) would appear if Hillary was Vice President-elect? How would that
be covered in the media? Can you imagine all the speculation about
Hillary being the next Cheney, and her being the real power behind the
throne? Can you imagine all the controversies and power struggles and
soap operas the press would try to concoct if Hillary was Obama’s Veep?
Obama would have to somehow function as a President weighed down with
the millstone of all these persistent media narratives about “the
Clintonz”, (which always trace back so seamlessly to the
Vietnam/culture war politics which many conservatives adore).
AsBob Somerby proclaims:
“The end of a 16 year era is on us.” He’s right. And the end of this
era is incalculably valuable to Obama, and to Democrats. It’s damn near
infinitely valuable. After nearly a generation of Clinton Derangement
Syndrome, the Republicans suddenly have to go back to the drawing board
for new narratives. The center of their world– Clinton’s unbeatable,
communist penis– is suddenly gone. Simultaneously, the book closes on
all the sustained media village narratives about the Clintons. Now that
Hillary lost, she’ll get a kinder media makeover. Most heartening of
all, Liberals have an opportunity to resist any new pseudo-histories
and demon tales that are spun about Obama, before
they become firmly implanted in the national consciousness and affect
important national elections. Suddenly the air is clear. We have an
incredible opportunity. All these persistent tales about “the Clintonz”
and “Vietnam/Culture Politics” have been suddenly filed away (if not
discredited). The electorate is tired of that stuff… it’s old and
dead. From now on, when a wingnut or columnist casually refers to Vince
Foster, that shit will have no purchase. (Obviously, how this all
played out is not fair to Bill and Hillary. I understand and sympathize
with that. But in my mind Obama didn’t have a choice.)
get back to the original point, let’s pretend Obama did in fact choose
Hillary to be Veep, as BTD advised, and in doing so he picked up
Arkansas and Missouri in the GE and won by 8% instead of 6%. Big
Schmeal. The tradeoff to that was 4-8 more years of “Vietnam Politics”.
All those persistent entrenched Clinton demon tale narratives would
simply be expanded a bit to smother Obama. How long would it take for a
unified Chicago/Saul Alinsky/Clinton/Obama thesis to emerge from the fevered swamps? Who in their right mind would choose to take on that foolishness?
be sure, future “foolishness” will occur. That’s inevitable. But the
new tales that will be spun won’t be supported by an adamantine
narrative superstructure. Future demon tales about Obama won’t become
entrenched in the national consciousness– if liberals and progressives
are vigilant this time. The “end of the 16 year era” of Clinton hatred
powered by Vietnam politics is one of the biggest stories of this
election. Let’s endeavor to make the political history of the next
sixteen years vastly superior to this past era.
Atrios seems to refer to this opportunity to form new narratives in thisrecent post:
Since the Lewinsky scandal broke, and to a lesser degree since the
start of the Gingrich era, the Republicans have basically been able to
set the terms of the debate and pick the conversation of the day,
except when actual events overwhelm them. They don’t always win the
debate, but they always have been able to decide what cable news and
similar should talk about on any given day.
We’ll see if that changes at all now.
No. We won’t see “if” it changes, we’llsee to it that it changes.
* this is not the only reason, though, and I’ll discuss some of the others in future posts
** I don’t necessarily agree with the analysis in these articles, but they make a basic point