ASPEN - I took part in an interesting panel last night at the Aspen Ideas Festival, discussing the ins and outs of Barack Obama and John McCain with David Brooks, Stuart Rothenberg, Jim Wallis, Jonathan Capehart, Amy Goodman, and Jonathan Alter moderating.
I was particularly interested in the takes of Brooks and Rothenberg. They were smart, knowledgeable, eloquent... and utterly wrong.
Brooks was even-handed with both candidates. He suggested that McCain's biggest failing was his weakness as a manager (I said I was far more concerned with the disastrous direction in which he wants to lead the country). And he criticized Obama for lacking the "Senatorial skills" of either McCain or Hillary Clinton. (In an unrelated riff, Brooks let the audience know that, based on an off-the-record conversation with President Bush, he could categorically assure us that we would not be bombing Iran.)
Towards the end of the panel we were all asked whom the nominees should pick as their VP. One of Brooks' recommendations for Obama was Tom Daschle because the former-Senator understands how to get things done. In Brooks World, the presidency is all about keeping the machinery greased and the cogs of government running smoothly. It's leadership as McDonald's management: keep serving up the tried and true, with maximum efficiency.
Rothenberg -- astute, detailed, and supremely confident -- dipped into his political analyst's bag and pulled out a steaming chunk of conventional wisdom, echoing his recent declaration that "This whole election is about swing voters. Whoever wins them, will win the election." Where have we heard that before? Oh, yeah, that's right -- from countless inside-the-Beltway pundits and Democratic strategists in every election the Democrats have lost, going back a generation.
But, as we've seen, Barack Obama is not immune to the seductive call of the Conventional Wisdom sirens. And it's a call that's only going to get louder. He'll hear it from the chorus of pundits standing outside his window -- folks like The New Republic's Noam Scheiber, who today counseled Obama that being labeled a "typical politician" is a very good thing for him because it will assure wary voters that he won't do anything rash.
He'll hear it from some of the advisors inside his campaign. Folks like the aforementioned Daschle, for whom caution is part of his political DNA. Don't forget, as Senate Majority Leader, Daschle had gone along with the president's desire to hold the vote authorizing war with Iraq before the 2002 elections because he and many other Democrats believed an early vote could help shift the focus off the war and onto the economy, which they felt was their strong suit. And we saw how well that strategy turned out. Daschle was also the poster child for Democratic spinelessness on the war, going from supporting the use of force to questioning it to ultimately supporting it with his vote because he felt it was crucial for America "to speak with one voice at this critical time." And we know how well that turned out, too.
Obama will also hear the siren call from inside his own head. According to Brooks, Obama's overriding personal characteristic is caution.
So, to counter the conventional wisdom pundits, the cautious campaign advisers, and his own inner cautiousness, I'm offering Obama the following suggestions for staying true to the vision and message that took him from longshot "unlikely candidate" to presidential frontrunner -- and for avoiding the fate of the many before him who fell prey to the misguided belief that the path to the White House runs down the middle of the road.
1) Load up your Kindle with passages from leaders who were looking to fundamentally change the country and following an inner compass, not the latest focus-group results. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be a good place to start.
"Some men see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'" (RFK)
"There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right." (King)
2) Load up your iPod with passages from your own speeches. They've inspired others; now let them re-ignite the inspirational leader in you.
"This campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us - it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice - to push us forward when we're doing right, and to let us know when we're not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.... That's why I'm in this race. Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation."
3) Get your campaign to give you a printout of the names of the over 1.5 million people who have donated to your campaign (at an average of $197 each). Give that list a read every day; feel the heft. And remember -- sorry, Stu Rothenberg -- that the tried-and-untrue swing voter strategy is what has led to the Democratic Party's prolonged identity crisis. Forget the fence sitters. Instead, continue to speak to those who have turned their backs on the electoral process -- those who are struggling without health care, without decent schools, without jobs, without hope.
4) Tape to your mirror the poll results from July 2004, where Kerry was up by six, and June of 1988, where Dukakis was up by 15... and don't get complacent.
5) Go to YouTube and watch the concession speeches of Kerry, Gore, and Hillary Clinton, each of whom decided to run to the middle in an attempt to attract undecided swing voters.
6) Don't let the daily petty squabbles of the campaign distract you from the core message that this campaign is not a referendum on John McCain's war record or the level of your patriotism -- but rather on the future of America. Are we a nation driven by hope and promise or a nation driven by fear?
When Bobby Kennedy was agonizing over whether or not to run in 1968, he told one of his advisors: "People are selfish. But they can also be compassionate and generous, and they care about the country. But not when they feel threatened. That's why this is such a crucial time. We can go in either direction. But if we don't make a choice soon, it will be too late to turn things around. I think people are willing to make the right choice. But they need leadership. They're hungry for leadership." Forty years later, we are starving for it. Real leadership, not a poll-driven facsimile. Not swing-state, swing-voter leadership. Leadership defined by an ability to capture our imagination and a willingness to challenge us. Leadership geared to transforming the country through the audacity of hope instead of keeping it mired in the politics of fear and division.
7) Heed the old Texas advice of Dandy Don Meredith and Molly Ivins: "You got to dance with them what brung you."
Voters longing for hope, inspiration, a new kind of politics, and fundamental change are "them that brung you" to the big dance. Don't let the pundits, the advisors, and the cowards convince you to let someone else cut in.