Sen. Barack Obama is getting major mileage from his vow to deliver “a different kind of politics” from the bitter partisanship that paralyzes Washington. But there’s a problem with his message: It may not be what Democratic primary voters want to hear.
Now that the talented freshman senator from Illinois has announced his intention to seek the presidency, skeptics in politics and the media are raising questions about Obama’s relative lack of experience, his relatively liberal record and his positioning on Iraq. Easier to overlook is the challenge Obama faces staying true to his core message in a brass-knuckled Democratic primary campaign.
“It’s tougher than you would think,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who worked in the 2000 Democratic presidential campaign for Bill Bradley, whose above-politics message echoes in the rhetoric of Obama.
Obama, 45, seeks to reap benefit from the American public’s disgust with politics. As polls show steep declines in the approval ratings of Democrats and Republicans alike, the senator with less than three years’ political experience outside the Illinois legislature has promised to “advance the cause of change and progress that we so desperately need.”
“Today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way,” Obama said Tuesday while announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. “Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions.”
While that message may resonate in November 2008, Democratic primary voters are partisans (by definition), and many are bitter. Most don’t want their leaders to work with Republicans, certainly not the ones running the White House or the war in Iraq. They get gunned up by “gummed up” politics – if it is GOP policies or politicians caught in the gridlock. And, not unlike GOP primary voters, there are Democratic partisans who would rather see their party play politics with big issues like Social Security than seeing those issues solved.
The Democratic base and the primaries
The Democratic base accounts for less than 25 percent of the American voting public, but it’s all that matters to Obama next winter in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. He will be torn: Does he give his audiences the red meat they want, which could undermine his general election appeal? Or does he remain above the fray and risk looking irrelevant, or worse, soft to Democratic voters?
Bradley found himself in that box seven years ago when he was climbing in Democratic polls against Al Gore. The vice president criticized Bradley for supporting then-President Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts in 1981 and for quitting the Senate in 1996 when Democrats were fighting against the new Republican majority in Congress. “I never walked away,” Gore said during a joint appearance with Bradley in Iowa. “I decided to stay and fight.”
Rather than responding to Gore’s attacks, Bradley warned his party against negative politics that he said would alienate voters. “But to me, that takes discipline,” Bradley said. “It takes discipline to be positive because it’s easy to slip the other way.”
Looking back, Bradley strategist Eric Hauser said that night was an important turning point against Bradley. His political machismo was put in doubt. “We should have slammed dunk the ‘stay and fight.’ We should have said, ‘You stayed and you fought and you lost. Staying and fighting isn’t the same as achieving,’’’ Hauser said.
Carter Eskew, a HOTSOUP.com co-founder who worked for Gore in 1999, remembers the moment more fondly.
“Bradley was getting traction with an insurgent, anti-Washington message and Gore was able to flip it and position himself as an insurgent in Washington fighting against the Washington Republican agenda,” Eskew said. “It taught me that there is a tradition in Democratic primaries of people backing fighters.”
The challenge for Obama is to be that fighter without resorting to low blows. It’s not hard to imagine Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton playing Gore’s role to Obama’s Bradley in the 2008 Democratic race.
“Part of being tough enough is people want to see you defend your own ideas,” said Dunn, the former Bradley aide. “The point is you don’t have to respond by saying, ‘My opponent is a flawed human being who doesn’t care about children and small animals.’ But you must respond. It’s no easy trick.”
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