Saturday, September 27, 2008

1 1/2 weeks ago,

Obama was trailing in the polls. This week, he's nearing mortal lock territory to win, and now he's running the greatest campaign in history, is a once in a lifetime candidate, and all the rest of the 'bot chants. The reality is, of course, that Obama has run an at best mediocre campaign that was rescued by the financial collapse. I think he would have won anyway, much like Reagan did against Carter in '80 -- with a big break of independents for him near election day -- just in a race closer than that one. But this notion that he's run some kind of brilliant campaign -- the phrase I see again and again is "He's playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers" -- is absurd.

Chess is a closed system -- the rules, the pieces on the board and their properties, are known to both players and can't change. In response to any one move, there are a finite number of rational replies: you can calculate in chess with a large degree of certainty. Politics, now, is an open system: the rules can and do change overnight (could anyone have foreseen that McCain, after 10 years of press adulation, would suddenly become their demon?), and you can't calculate anything with certainty (Sarah Palin's selection as VP, for example). Playing a "game" like that, you have to do everything you can to grab the initiative, and maintain every bit of control you can get your grubby paws on, because the rules will change, your opponent will do things that surprise you, and it's much easier for things to get away from you the more tenuous grip on things you start out with (McCain, looking at the ruinous effects the financial meltdown had on his campaign, can attest to that).

Obama, starting from the day the primary was decided, was letting the initiative slip away. He was up by several points in the polls, but he behaved passively, allowing McCain to begin dictating the pace of things. He failed to see the importance of the women's vote, failed to see how key the economy was (this, after Clinton's "It's the economy, stupid" in '92), failed to have a plan to deal with the inevitable Republican attacks, failed to have some good anti-McCain ads in the can: he just wasn't on top of things, the way a professional campaign would have been. And McCain took advantage, narrowed Obama's lead, then took a lead of his own. Had a break gone the other way -- had there been a big terrorist attack, for example, or had the economy started a rebound a month or two ago -- Obama would be where McCain is now, and he started out with enough advantages that that shouldn't be. A "brilliant" campaign would not have been so dependent on circumstances. "Brilliant" campaigns dictate, as much as possible, circumstances, and build up cushion to help you out when those circumstances bounce against you, as they usually do, at least once or twice. Obama had no cushion.

It's possible that Obama's campaign this year will set some sort of standard, that people will see Obama's passivity as "quiet strength and confidence," and demand that Dems in the future behave the same way -- this after years spent angrily demanding Dem candidates who will be pugnacious and in-your-face (Obama has, amusingly enough, been the absolute antithesis of the "Fighting Dem" so beloved by the liberal internets). That probably won't work in the long run. Obama has had every break imaginable, and he's probably going to win a fairly close race -- a race that shouldn't be this close given the circumstances. I don't see how anyone could look at that and conclude his campaign style is the model for future campaigns, any more than someone playing a game of chess who starts out a piece ahead and barely eeks out a win should be considered a good player.