By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Don’t worry, Democrats, the worst of August is over.
Like baseball players, political people are superstitious. In the Democratic imagination, August is the month when Republican presidential candidates destroy their opponents with clever, underhanded attacks that meet with ineffectual responses. Democrats are now petrified that if John Kerry was Swift-boated in August 2004, Barack Obama was Paris-Hiltoned this summer, and there will be no coming back.
Never mind that this analysis is based on the experience of exactly one election. Superstitions are not necessarily rational. This time, Democrats decided that as a political matter, they would end August early by holding their convention and unveiling a running mate during the month of the jinx.
But you don’t have to be superstitious to notice that the polls have edged in John McCain’s direction since June, or that Obama seemed to lose the initiative from the moment he returned from his foreign journey last month—a trip whose triumphs were quickly undermined by McCain’s cheap but apparently effective attacks.
The next week will test whether an Obama campaign that has earned respect for its discipline and steadiness is also capable of adjusting quickly, responding and listening to advice. The Obama folks will hate hearing this, but in planning for the next 10 weeks, their campaign would do well to learn from what Bill Clinton achieved in 1992.
During a trip last week though Pennsylvania—a state Obama must carry—I spoke by phone with two Democratic congressmen who offered flip sides of the same advice.
Rep. Mike Doyle, who represents Pittsburgh and some of its suburbs, argued that many of his constituents, particularly working-class voters and union loyalists, want to vote for Obama, but don’t feel they know him yet. Their discomfort, he insists, is not about Obama’s race—“These are good people,” Doyle said of voters who keep sending him to Congress—but a more general sense that Obama represents something very new.
Obama’s task, says Doyle, is to raise his constituents’ comfort level. He won’t do this, he adds, with big rallies (yes, McCain’s ads have had some success in discrediting the rally as a political art form) but with relentless smaller-scale campaigning in the neighborhoods and the union halls.
Over in the Philadelphia suburbs, Rep. Joe Sestak agrees that Obama needs to engage in more down-to-earth campaigning—“a diner in the morning, a hoagie in the afternoon, a bar at night.” But Sestak’s advice is directed toward a slightly different end. “It’s not so much about whether they know him,” he says of his constituents and Obama. “They want to know that he knows them.”
In other words, empathy, the gift that Bill Clinton kept on giving, is now an Obama imperative. And some of the Democrats’ policy mavens see a link between empathy as a personal attribute and the way a candidate discusses policy—again, something Clinton understood.
What Obama still lacks, they say, is a compelling narrative about how Americans who now feel economically insecure will be find their way toward greater confidence. And he needs a few signature policies to drive home so voters can remember them, as Clinton did with health care and job training. McCain not knowing how many houses he owns should help Obama in the empathy battle.
McCain has enjoyed one other success in recent months, seizing control of the Iraq debate. Voter frustration with a war that most Americans believe should not have been waged helped Obama in his early primary victories. McCain has moved the discussion away from the war itself toward a narrow focus on the troop surge and whether it has been successful.
Thus another Obama priority is to move the Iraq debate back to whether he or McCain was right about the war in the first place. And given the priority of the economy to voter choices, it’s surprising that Obama has not done more to link the hundreds of billions spent in Iraq to the nation’s current economic difficulties.
Around this time last summer, the Obama campaign was being written off as a desultory failure and the candidate was forced to reassure his donors that he knew what he was doing. There are signs—notably during his trip through rural Virginia this week—that Obama has been listening to his critics on the centrality of economics and the empathy imperative. At next week’s convention, understanding both will be essential if Obama is to consign the August jinx to the dustbin of Democratic fears.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group