This is the second time I am addressing you directly. The first, which was face to face, lasted perhaps twenty seconds. Now, though, I feel entitled to more of your time. On Monday night, I became the proud owner of brand, spanking new Honda Civic Hybrid. After taking one for the (global) team with that purchase, I figure there are some extra privileges coming my way this week. I can think of no greater privilege than grabbing a bit of your attention.
Let me begin by thanking you for running such a superb campaign. I chuckle when I hear people tout John McCain’s experience over yours, because the last time I checked, the two of you have the same amount of experience in serving as the CEO of a major enterprise – your respective campaigns – and while he has made a mess out of his, yours has been a model of excellence.
I began to lose hope in your candidacy when Hillary started to pull away in the polls last summer, but I hadn’t realized how superior your campaign organization was to hers. How was I to guess you’d destroy her in such states as Idaho and Utah? How was I to guess that while she’d win decisively in California, New York and Massachusetts, you’d still hold your own on Super Tuesday? I expect that the amazing organization you’ve put together will pay major dividends this fall in states like Virginia and Ohio that have previously gone Republican. Just as McCain could “out poll the polls” because of the Bradley effect, you may well do the same by bringing new voters into the system.
Clearly, your advantages this November are not confined to your organization. You are an incredible speaker -- infinitely better than McCain. Your views coincide more with those of the American public. Your candidacy is truly historic because of your race. Being a Democrat, you aren’t saddled with the unpopularity of George Bush. And last but hardly least, you are the better looking of the two candidates … and have a much more likeable personality. Your opponent may best be characterized as the second coming of that crusty curmudgeon with the dry wit, Bob Dole. We all remember Dole as the last GOP candidate who got blown away at the ballot box by a much younger, livelier, more intellectually-vibrant opponent.
All these advantages cause me strongly to expect your victory this November. But you know, I may be less optimistic than many of the Democrats I know. And that’s because you’re starting to remind me of Livingstone Bramble.
Please tell me you know the name. It’s important that you do. After all, I continue to maintain that you can always predict the winner of a Presidential campaign on the basis of which of the candidates would do the best job providing color commentary on an NFC Championship Game … and I suspect that most half-decent football commentators over the age of 40 would remember the name of Livingstone Bramble.
For those of you who aren’t so knowledgeable about sports generally, or “the sweet science” in particular, Bramble could aptly be termed the “Prince of Boxing.” This isn’t because of his prince-like skills, but because the dude kept changing his name, much like a certain musician from Minnesota. Known alternatively as Livingstone Bramble, Abuja Bramble, and Ras-I-Bramble, this colorful character won a world title in 1984 after upsetting Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and kept the title for more than two years. Bramble was also known for his dread-locks, Rastafarianism, practice of witchcraft, and love of snakes – in fact, he enjoyed entering a ring with a snake around his neck. But what I remember most about the former champ is that he is probably the only titleholder in the history of boxing with whom I could have lasted fifteen rounds.
Yup. You heard me, Barack. I, Dan Spiro, who is nobody’s idea of an athlete could have lasted fifteen rounds with Ras-I-Bramble. Why? Because Bramble, at his peak, may have been a precise, poised pugilist, but he was a mere counterpuncher. I don’t recall ever seeing the guy initiate a punch on his own – he simply waited for guys like Boom Boom to throw a right, before Bramble dodged it and threw a combination of his own. It can be a dazzling approach – and for two years, it worked to perfection. But after 1986, Bramble’s counterpunching style netted a record of 16-24-2 … hardly what the doctor ordered.
If I fought Ras-I, my strategy would be quite simple. Never punch the guy! Never. I’d just stand there with my gloves up, and some bizarre force field would apparently prevent him from throwing the first punch. Maybe if I threw one with .1 seconds left to go in the last round I might actually win on points. Who knows? He’d knock me out for sure, but probably after the bell.
Counterpunchers mystify me, because if you don’t put a top puncher in the ring with them, they just dance … they don’t fight. It was a style that netted Ras-I the Lightweight Belt. But Barack, the last time I checked, you’re running as a heavyweight. And in that classification, we don’t tend to need counterpunchers. We need initiators. We need brawlers.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been watching your counterpunching style at work. It seems that you want the campaign to stay positive, but whenever John McCain throws a right cross or a left hook your way, you respond with a punch of your own. “Thou Shalt Not Be Swift-Boated” is the new Democratic mantra. That’s another phrase for “don’t forget to counter every big punch.”
Fair enough. But don’t you see what’s happening? John McCain and his team of slime-peddlers are initiating all the punching. They’re determining (1) precisely when you guys engage and (2) the general topic of the engagement. They always seem to be plotting the next flurry … and you seem content to dance, dance, dance … and counter when called upon to do so. Is that really the way heavyweights fight?
Now please don’t give me a “Muhammad Ali” analogy. Ali was no Ras-I. The Louisville Lip initiated one stinging jab after another. Would you honestly analogize the ads you are running this Olympics as stinging jabs? I see them as the kind of upbeat, friendly ads that are typically run by an incumbent with a big lead. I wish I were confident enough to think that these ads – combined with an occasional counterpunch – will really work.
While we’re on the subject of boxing, I find myself disturbed not merely by your counterpunching style, but by the nature of your counterpunches. They are more like counter-jabs. McCain compared you to Paris Hilton and Britny Spears – all pizzazz and no substance. And then, in an ad that was truly the height of sleaze (because it took certain of your comments out of context in order to fundamentally misrepresent what you were saying) he compared you to Moses. More specifically, he compared you to those pompous asses we all seem to know who think they’re Moses, when in reality they’re merely mindless narcissists … like so many celebrities.
And how did you respond to these ads? I can’t friggen remember. What I can remember is that Paris Hilton saved your bacon by putting on an excellent counterpunching ad in which she essentially compared McCain to Methuselah. She gave us a choice between young and sexy, and aged and cantankerous. By implication, you were included in the former category. Now that was an effective counterpunch!
So many of fellow Democrats are expecting a clear victory this November based on your track record in defeating Hillary. But when you think about it, once Hillary went negative, you didn’t really defeat her. Returning to the football context, you took a big lead in points (i.e., delegates) into the fourth quarter, and ran out the clock. I won’t second guess that strategy – it did earn you the nomination – but it’s hardly a demonstration that you’re able to defeat a relentlessly negative campaign. And, in fact, the “running out the clock” strategy may well have backfired, but the strategy always yields a close outcome – close enough, in your case, that you feel obliged to turn what should have been your convention into what is shaping up as a Clinton Nostalgia event.
As a guy who has backed you from the start, that prospect makes me wince. And yet, once again, I can’t criticize your decision to hand the mike to Hillary … and Chelsea … and Bill, all the while allowing the delegates to vote for Hillary in droves. Why? Because apparently, you still haven’t sealed the deal with her supporters.
All of this leads me to believe that you still have some work to do. In other words, this might not be the time to put the car in cruise control just yet. You might have a lead in points, and a huge talent advantage, but the score is close and the game is early. To win it, you still have to take some chances. You still have to throw some punches.
But when should you punch? And how? Those are the questions. I’ll answer the second first.
Your goal should be to turn this into an election about two people, not just a referendum on yourself. One of the reasons why you’re having so much trouble with the Hillary supporters is that they don’t seem to fear a McCain Presidency. They are anything but desperate about getting you elected. That’s because nobody on your side has bothered to mock and ridicule him, whereas he has made mockery of you the centerpiece of his campaign.
There are so many ways to mock McCain, you just have to choose between an embarrassment of riches. First, you have the man’s war mongering. McCain was a leading cheerleader for a “war of choice” that has turned into a disaster of epic proportions. He has spoken of this war like a crazed child playing a video game -- “I want to win, WIN, WIN!” The idea of him following Osama Bin Laden into the gates of Hell is comical, given that the war he has supported in Iraq has made it impossible to capture Bin Laden in the war we should have waged in Afghanistan.
You can practically turn this man into a real-life version of Jack T Ripper from Dr. Strangelove – the crazy soldier whose concern about his precious bodily fluids resulted in thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. At a minimum, you can make people nervous about having a hot-tempered, bellicose fool in charge of the Red Button.
If you don’t like that approach, here’s another: Ask women what they think about John McCain’s preferred choices for the Supreme Court? Or his likely choices for a cabinet? Comparisons between George Bush and John McCain may seem unfair until you realize that McCain is still a Republican, and if he hopes to get elected, he has to appeal to the hard right of the Republican Party. So who would he find to protect abortion rights on the Supreme Court? And who would he find to lead the Executive Branch departments? Likely, he’d be fishing in the same pool where Bush has been. The choice should be very clear: Do you want four years like the last eight? If so, McCain is your man. If not, vote Obama, or quit your complaining, but you’re merely another “enabler” if you won’t support him.
Want a third approach? Try calling the Republicans the party of high taxes. You heard me – label them the tax-and-spend party. Because truly they are.
You can mock the GOP as the height of hypocrisy in calling for “low taxes” when, in fact, they have consistently fought to increase the most pernicious tax of all: the national debt. Our debt is, quite obviously, a hidden tax on our children and grandchildren. Under the last few Republican Presidents, and especially under the current Prez, it has expanded wildly. But under the only Democrat we’ve had in the last 28 years, the country was actually running a budget surplus at one point. That should be a huge campaign issue. And you, Barack, can paint yourself as a true fiscal conservative who will have the stones to ensure some sanity in the budget. By contrast, you can paint McCain as advocating opening up one war-front after another and paying for it with our sons’ lives and our grandsons’ property.
Finally … there are the really dirty attack strategies. These are the ones your opponent would be using against you if the tables were turned. The attacks on character.
John McCain’s story isn’t exactly spotless, now is it? Need I detail how he screwed around in the Naval Academy, got special benefits in the military, dumped his wife as soon as she lost her looks, got embroiled in a financial scandal, completely flip-flopped on his principles (even to the point where he is now “moderate” on torture)? Any or all of these points could be major campaign themes.
To be clear, I’m not advocating that you start hurling mud to destroy McCain’s reputation for character. But just keep that weapon in mind, because (a) he and his minions would be resorting to that against you, and (b) it should be a reminder that everything short of that is fair game. The point is that you must hit him and hit him hard on the issues to the point where Americans would be put off by the thought of a McCain Presidency independently of whether you were running against him. You’re not going to get most voters to thirst for an Obama Presidency. But if you can combine your fans with another large group of voters who are anti-McCain, then you’ll have a winning coalition.
As for “when” to attack, I’m satisfied with your decision to run a positive campaign through the end of your convention. I’m satisfied with the idea that you must come across as a “different kind of politician” who offers more hope than fear. But when, starting in September, he punches again, you should let him have it – and not just with one counter-punch combination but with a sustained offensive. That’s what’s critical. As I learned long ago when I became prosecuting fraud cases for the government, because of the primacy of ethics, a government lawyer has to tie one hand behind his back … just don’t tie both!
There is one final point to make. The Veep decision you’re about to make in the next couple of weeks will be critical to your ability to attack in the fall. Please do not inoculate McCain against criticism for supporting the Iraq War. Please do not neutralize your “judgment” advantage in opposing that war by nominating a Senator who supported it.
I won’t suggest who you should nominate. But allow me to suggest who you shouldn’t: anyone who publicly supported that awful decision to invade Iraq. That includes Biden (who I’d otherwise support), Bayh, and, of course, Clinton. If you can just stay clear of making that mistake and then wage a hard-hitting but above the belt campaign, you should come out victorious in November.
Thanks for listening.