So I'm reading American Lion, the biography of Andrew Jackson. As a Tennesseean, I have always loved Jackson. He's basically the only TN president worth a damn (the others are Johnson, famous for being impeached, and Polk, famous for, uh, having a name very close to a common meat product).
What I've always loved about Jackson is this: when he lost the election of 1824, he believed he'd been screwed in a backdoor deal by Henry Clay and John Q. Adams, with Clay taking the Secretary of State under President Adams in return for throwing his support to Adams. This all despite Jackson having won the popular vote.
So Jackson did what any clever politician would do: he spent the next four years criticizing the administration, decrying the corrupt bargain that had defied the will of the people, and worked his way into the public imagination as their savior.
He won the 1828 election, unseating Adams and causing a furor.
When he took office, the Washington insiders were horrified. They despised him. Some of them opposed Jackson on everything on the grounds that if Jackson wanted it, it must be wrong.
Despite all this, Jackson remained popular with the people and, more often than not, got what he wanted done.
I find this interesting because we've only ever seen this strategy used once in the past forty years, when Reagan kept himself in the public eye after losing to Ford in 1976 to re-emerge four years later as the "people's champion" in the 1980 election. And Reagan, as you may know, ended up with a successful (in his eyes) presidency.
In 2000, Al Gore could have used this strategy. If he'd simply conceded, kept himself pushed forward as a stern critic of George Bush, and not gotten distracted lecturing about global warming, I'm convinced he'd have easily cruised to victory in 2004. But for some reason, Gore didn't do this. How he could miss this strategy, coming as it does from the founder of the Democratic party and a president from his home state, always perplexed me.
I wonder, though, if this isn't the place that Sarah Palin is carving out for herself. She certainly seems to be in the heads of the establishment, which despises her. She's clearly set herself forward as an opposition voice to the Democratic Party and President Obama. She seems to be making her case directly to the people, as Jackson once did.
She can leap upon every misstep by the President, every error by his cabinet, every unfortunate incident, and use it as a club against them and then explain how much better she would do. And with no real duties of her own to perform, there is nothing to yell back at her except insults, which rarely resonate well outside of partisans.
Witness the power of her "death panels" attack. She says it, the Democrats go apoplectic, and finally they end up changing the provision. Whether it's a fair attack or not, or a fair comment, a woman who is essentially a private citizen riled up the entire Democratic party and forced a change in a proposed bill.
That's more power than actual elected Republican congressmen have.
She has set herself up to spend the next three years as an optimist, explaining how it could be done better, while her opponents must explain poor performance(bad) or embrace failure(worse). That, to me, sounds very much like a hybrid Jackson/Reagan strategy.
I'm not saying that Palin's destined to be president. I'm saying that, at the current time, she certainly seems to be running a better strategy than any that's been deployed since Reagan lost his challenge to unseat Ford.
And that may explain a lot of the hair-tearing that surrounds her by Democrats.
Can this strategy be defused? Certainly. Here are four ways Obama could cut her off at the pass:
1) It's the economy, stupid: tomorrow, appear on TV and say a variation of the following: "My fellow Americans, let me be clear: the economy is our top priority. Starting from today, November 6th, my administration is pushing every other issue to the back burner until the suffering from this global recession has abated. We may have inherited the problem, but that won't keep us from creating the solution. Yes we can!"
Then, enforce ruthless message discipline: we don't talk any more about health care, or card check, or cap-and-trade, until unemployment is dropping and the economy has clearly recovered. So long as something else is atop the agenda, the American people assume (rightly) that the President and the Democrats don't care that the economy's in the tank.
Go on TV every week and talk up the economy. Livestream it over the internet. Call it a monitor-side chat. FDR would be proud.
This, incidentally, sank the first Bush and elevated Clinton. So it's inexcusable for them not to know this.
2) Ignore the critics, say nothing, and then repeat: it's maddening that a gifted campaigner, who has the media stepping atop one another to defend him, feels the need to crouch down to take pot shots at radio personalities and former governors. There's an old adage about getting in a pissing match: always piss up. When you're president, you can't piss up! So don't get in pissing matches, morons!
This goes for his surrogates, too. When David Axelrod whines about Rush Limbaugh, it elevates Limbaugh. The recent hand-wringing over Limbaugh's commentary makes me laugh: who is it that elevated Limbaugh to the President's level? It wasn't Limbaugh; it was the President himself by getting cheesed off over the infamous "I hope he fails" line.
When Reagan re-ran for election in 1984, Mondale desperately wanted to debate him. Reagan, with a monstrous lead, wouldn't have it. Why give Mondale's campaign any oxygen, when ignoring it was all that was required to win? So this is what Reagan did, unable to hear Reporters asking "why won't you debate?" because of the helicopters.
Reagan wins in a landslide. Why is Obama pumping pure oxygen to Sarah Palin?
3) Laugh and the world laughs with you: For me, candidate Obama's greatest moment in the campaign was when he was asked what his greatest fault was at a debate, and he said he had a messy desk. The other two candidates (Clinton and Edwards, if memory serves) answered after him and gave the typical "sometimes I care so much it keeps me up at night" answers.
After the debate, Obama joked that if he'd known the answers were supposed to be like that, then he'd have said that his greatest fault was that sometimes he went out of his way to help old ladies across the street (or something to that effect). It was funny. It was human. It made us like this guy who, like us, thought that a lot of this political stuff was phony and stupid.
Where did that guy go? I'm not asking for a comedian as a president, but the dour, stern-faced, angry president who sends on-air corrections and runs a White House tipline is a fary cry from the one who could laugh at himself eighteen months ago.
4) Remember whose shoes you fill: President Obama. Until 2012 (and perhaps beyond) he is our President. The office is worthy of respect, regardless of the man (or woman, someday) who fills it. It's the office that was filled by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and other bold, visionary men who, for better or worse, changed this country and its people.
It was also filled by William Henry Harrison, James Buchanen, Jimmy Carter, and other men who are better forgotten than regretted.
But at all times the President should carry himself with dignity. He should be wary of expending the dignity of his office in political pursuit. He should treat other heads of state with respect and dignity, regardless of his personal feelings. Our President should succeed at those things to which he turns his hand, because he is our President.
He should represent all of us, not some of us, and he should never apologize that we exist, nor grovel in the face of other nations. Just as we would not grovel to him, nor should he ever expect us to.
Clinton did not let himself be made a fool of on the international stage by prostituting his office in a vain (and fruitless) civic pursuit. Monroe, in the infancy of our nation, told the Europeans that they were not welcome here, and that they should look elsewhere for colonies, instead of groveling before them and begging their forebearance.
Our President should never bow, nor kiss a ring, nor show any obesiance to any other ruler or potentate on all this planet. We are a free people, and he is our leader.
President Obama needs to remember this: carry himself with dignity. Let a mayor throw out the first pitches, and let a governor campaign. Let an assemblyman harangue policemen.
The President has more important things to do.