Dan Payne

...and what we've learned

By Dan Payne
November 1, 2008
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WITH 99 percent of this remarkable campaign now behind us, we in the political class have learned some valuable lessons.

Candidates get the campaigns they want. John McCain is no better than his campaign. He's responsible for what comes out of his mouth. McCain's campaign was sloppy, erratic, ugly, feckless, and rife with last-ditch recriminations. Barack Obama's was disciplined, poised, seamless, and powerful.

Never call your running mate a "whack job." McCain's spinners claim solidarity with Sarah Palin, but it's not a good sign when an unnamed top McCain aide tells a reporter that she is "a whack job."

A bad VP pick can be costly. According to Howard Fineman of Newsweek, of 70 or so politicians, newspapers, and pundits who shifted from McCain to Obama, 38 said they did so in part because of Palin. The New York Times poll shows 59 percent of voters now believe she is unprepared for the job.

Women aren't suckers. They will not support a female candidate just because she's a woman. Palin is ditzy, unaware, mean-spirited, and embarrassing.

The endless primaries helped Obama. They hardened the candidate, broadened his fundraising and volunteer bases, and let the country get used to the idea of a black president.

Public financing of presidential elections is over. Obama had said he'd limit his general election spending to $84 million in public presidential funds. He reversed himself and raised $150 million in September - with an average contribution of $86. Meanwhile, McCain took the $84 million, criticized Obama, and got no credit for abiding by the McCain-Feingold spending reform law.

Obama's 3-D chess game. Obama has so much money, he's playing 3-D chess while McCain is playing checkers. Obama used his TV dollars to force McCain to resign in Michigan, while he's moving in North Carolina and has checkmate in Virginia.

Crisis reveals character. Obama responded slowly, but wisely, to the Wall Street crisis. His press conferences revealed a calm, confident, reassuring, and - yes - presidential manner.

McCain misread the severity of the crisis ("The fundamentals of the economy are strong."), pretended to suspend his campaign to "help" in Washington, did nothing, then flew to the first debate in time to lose it.

Late-night comedy kills. Palin was the butt of a running joke on "Saturday Night Live," and a daily target for Jon Stewart. One of David Letterman's Top 10 lists was Excuses why Palin took $150,000 worth of new clothes: "Need to look good for the Russians who can see me in Alaska."

The Clintons aren't invincible. Hillary went from favorite to tenacious underdog but ultimately fell short. Bill sullied his reputation with African-Americans and thereby helped Obama unify the black community.

War can be fatal to Democrats. No Democratic senator who voted for the Iraq war survived the primaries. Clinton's vote to go to war, followed by her stubborn refusal to admit she'd been wrong, gave Obama a chance to seize the liberal flag and claim first place in anti-war Iowa.

Don't put your campaign headquarters in DC. Obama's and Bill Clinton's first campaign headquarters were in Chicago and Little Rock, respectively. Neither suffered from Washington-style leaks, backstabbing, and blame games that haunted McCain's and Hillary's DC-centric campaigns.

Answering every attack is not mandatory. Obama responded when an attack looked damaging. But no matter how many times McCain linked him to Bill Ayers, tax-and-spend, and socialism, the Obama campaign answered that Americans need healthcare, jobs, and a middle-class tax cut.

If the incumbent president of your party is despised, distance yourself from him. But do it before the final week.

Americans want to believe. How else do you explain crowds of 100,000 in St. Louis and 75,000 in Kansas City, Denver, and Portland, Ore.?

The Internet beckons. Campaigns everywhere will try to mimic Obama's success with the Web. Now all they need is a brilliant, charismatic candidate.

Lie down with Schmidt and you'll get up with sleaze. Steve Schmidt, a Karl Rove thug, took over the McCain campaign after the primaries. McCain took his advice and lost the press and the voters.

The final narrative: poised beats erratic. Obama is poised for a big win Tuesday.

Dan Payne is a Boston-area media consultant who has worked for Democratic candidates around the country. He does political analysis for WBUR radio.

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