Here’s a communications strategy parlor game for you communications strategy geeks: What would Republican communications strategist extraordinaire Karl Rove do if he were, horror of horrors, working for Senator Hillary Clinton?
While many communications strategists in both politics and the private sector aim tactics at their opponent’s perceived weakness, Rove’s central strategic philosophy is that you must relentlessly erode your opponent’s perceived STRENGTHS.
How is the Clinton campaign doing on this front? Well, Senator Obama’s biggest strengths at this stage are his a) lead in pledged delegates, which appeals to political opportunists in the pivotal super delegate ranks, b) ability to inspire with his remarkably effective rhetorical skills; c) promotion of a new brand of politics that eschews conventional personal attacks and bickering, and d) potential to defy all odds and become America’s first African-America president. Inevitable, inspirational, innovative, and improbable.
My guess is that Mr. Rove admires the recent work of the Clinton camp to erode these strenghts, though Rove probably would be critical of the fact the Clintons got started down this path much too late.
The Clintons are quite effectively attacking Obama’s strengths. They are belittling Obama’s delegate lead, by pointing out that the wins are gifts from mere African Americans, latte drinkers, red staters, and fly-over dwellers. They are mocking his inspirational advantage with “words versus actions” attacks that frame the ability to act and the ability to inspire as mutually exclusive gifts, and the ability to inspire as a quaint but unimportant asset in a red phone ringing residence.
By employing their “kitchen sink” strategy, the Clintons are successfully baiting Obama into tit-for-tat exchanges that make him look like more of a typical bickering politician than he did a month ago. Finally, they are eroding the first African American appeal by suggesting that there is, as Gertrude Stein famously said, “no there there” beyond his blackness.
This is a classic Rovian disassembly of an opponent’s strengths. It’s an open question whether these tactics at this late stage will ultimately work better for Clinton or McCain, but they are working. The Obama of mid-February is much diminished from the Obama of mid-March.