Posted by: mutantpoodle | October 17, 2008

Misunderestimation

Back in June (there’s not date stamp on these posts, so I can’t be sure) Time’s Mark Halperin made a list of the things Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama underestimated, and a list of things John McCain underestimated.

With the debates over, the campaign strategies pretty apparent for the closing weeks, and the race leaning decidedly – although not irrevocably – to Barack Obama, let’s look back.

Now, Halperin’s first three Obama items were Clinton-related, but his last four related to the general election:

4. The level of scrutiny that he is about to get—the national press corps may instinctively love his story, but general election coverage automatically will be at least twice as concentrated.

5. How much the McCain high command disdains him.

6. How much the Republican Party has been preparing for this moment—and for the general. And just how potent that effort can be–indifferent as it will be to charm, change, and charisma.

7. How much sober attention will be focused on the ramifications of the November election and the burdens of the next President: the fuss and fanfare about the epic Clinton-Obama battle will seem on some levels utterly frivolous in comparison.

What’s interesting, in retrospect, is that I think Halperin got this mostly wrong.

I think Obama understood the level of scrutiny that was to come – frankly, it wasn’t that much less at the peak of the primaries. He learned his lesson with “bittergate” and with his ham-handed “you’re likable enough” comment in one of the winter debates with Hillary. I think whether or not he understood the disdain the McCain people (and McCain) had for him, he certainly anticipated their belittling attacks. As I pointed out here, he clearly had the GOP playbook down as of late June. And as for the last point, I think he not only got it, but was counting on it. It was his only path to victory – it’s why he belittled, in his convention speech, the Republican habit of making “a big election about small things.”

Certainly, in retrospect, it seems Obama was pretty clear-eyed about the terrain ahead of him, and navigated it about as well as he could.

Now let’s look at parts of Halperin’s list for John McCain.

2. The “Major League vs Little League” difference between Obama’s infrastructure and his own.

5. How little most Americans care about foreign policy (beyond the Iraq War) when the economy is in the tank.

8. The extent to which McCain’s lack of an economic message could make Obama (who also is challenged in adequately addressing the economy) seem like Bob Rubin, Bill Clinton, and Lou Dobbs all rolled into one.

10. That in modern America, perception is often reality and style often beats substance.

13. How powerful debates might be when the allegedly inexperienced Obama of allegedly questionable judgment goes toe-to-toe with McCain, even on national security, and is therefore deemed of sufficient strength and stature to be president by many.

15. How forcefully Obama will now move to the center as a mainstream, optimistic candidate celebrating both change and America’s greatness.

One by one:

2. We don’t know how big an advantage that infrastructure will be, but it will be an advantage. A significant one.

5. Not even the Iraq war, Mark. Especially when your position is that we’re winning, people will snap back to the economy. And yet, how often did John McCain talk about the surge?

8. This was McCain’s deal with the devil: he out-Bushed Bush on tax cuts to get out of the GOP Primary, and had nowhere to go afterwards.

10. I think McCain totally gets this, because his schtick is about the perception of him as a Maverick, as a good guy above the fray. However, he underestimated how much the regular Republican playbook damaged that perception. (See here, at the bottom, for how much.)

13. I think McCain thought that his foreign policy gravitas would carry the day (and scare people about Obama). However, he severely underestimated Obama’s intelligence, probably because he’s naturally dismissive of those who disagree with him, and, oh yeah, see point #5.

15. I’m not sure the McCain folks missed this – they’ve certainly fought it with their “liberal” shrieking – but I think what they did miss is that the long exposure of the campaign would present certain “truths” about the two of them, and that (a) the comparison wouldn’t be flattering to McCain, and (b) painting Obama as a wild-eyed radical is incongruous with his constantly even-tempered demeanor.

So, in short, the “veteran” candidate misread the landscape, and the rookie didn’t.

Yesterday’s LA Times had a profile of Craig Robinson – Barack Obama’s brother-in-law. Robinson just left my alma mater, Brown, where his rapid turnaround of a moribund basketball program got him the worst job in the Pac-10 – basketball coach at Oregon State. Robinson, however, is confident:

The presidential race taught Robinson something about coaching. Or maybe reinforced something he already believed.

“I love Barack’s, for lack of a better term, his game management,” Robinson said. “As soon as something happens that I think Barack should attack somebody, he says, ‘No, we’re sticking to the game plan.’

“That’s what good teams do. The other team makes a 15-point run on them and they stick with the game plan.”

In sports, it’s nearly always fatal to, first, underestimate your opponent; second, fail to plan how you will play your opponent; third, play your opponent’s game instead of your own; and fourth, abandon your plan too soon.

Barack Obama made none of those mistakes. He knew what he was facing, he had a plan to handle it, and he didn’t get pushed away from that plan.

John McCain had a plan for a different election and a different opponent, even though all the information Obama had to make his plan McCain had available as well. And he should have figured out that a guy who took down the Clintons might be somewhat formidable.

But he didn’t.

Here are two more voices.

Alex Massie:

…”constructing” a “narrative” of Obama as a “lightweight celebrity” was a strategy that depended upon Obama showing himself to be nothing more than a lightweight celebrity candidate. But what if he showed more than that? What would the McCain campaign do then? In other words, McCain’s strategy depended upon Obama failing, not McCain succeeding. As such it was vulnerable. Indeed, it was predicated upon an analysis that was not the GOP’s to control. [Emphasis mine]

And Daniel Larison:

There is a basic rule in any competition, and elections are no different. If you assume that all you really need do is show up and wait for the other side to fail, you will lose and probably quite embarrassingly at that. McCain never made the case for himself, because he assumed that he would be the default winner once the public decided Obama was unprepared. Whether or not Obama is unprepared by some standards is not the point. Relative to McCain, he has shown himself to be fairly masterful while his opponent blunders and lurches. Despite having every advantage in the political conditions this year, Obama has not taken those advantages for granted nearly as much as he could have done. The post-nomination pandering and position-switching, all of which now seems to have been quite unnecessary, were part of a steady, cautious effort to appear cautious and steady, which gave calls for undefined change a reassuring rather than an unsettling quality and negated McCain’s efforts to portray him as reckless and unready.

What is striking about McCain’s failure is how irrational it was to approach an election this way amid conditions that everyone acknowledged to be very good for Democrats. It might make sense to coast along on biography and belittling your opponent’s readiness and depth in a year when you have the wind at your back, a coherent message and a party label that is not radioactive, but McCain had none of these advantages. Gordon Brown, a similarly doomed political figure, also likes the refrain “it’s no time for a novice” as a dig against Cameron, but after years of failure by the experienced politicians you would naturally think this is precisely the time for some new blood. McCain supporters are always dwelling on Obama’s inexperience. This would be fair enough, but we see now that it isn’t very smart, because each time this charge is made people are reminded that he hasn’t been in Washington very long, to which the ordinary sane response is to say, “Excellent.” [Emphasis mine]

One of the reasons I am confident – if wary by experience – that Obama will win is that John McCain still isn’t making the case for himself – he’s making the case against Obama. That case was closed weeks ago.

The military is famous for adjusting itself to fight the last war. That’s the war John McCain and Sarah Palin are fighting. Barack Obama saw this year’s electoral battlefield clearly a year ago, had a plan, and stuck to it.

And will do so until November 4th.

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