A very thought-provoking email from a Talking Points Memo reader:

I’ve noticed something about both your recent, frequent campaign posts and most of what the Obama campaign itself has had to say recently. Both talk about Sen. McCain — sometimes mentioning Sen. Obama as well, sometimes not — and neither mentions President Bush very much at all.

Now, of course as a blogger you can write whatever you feel like — though I have to say your bitter comment a couple of days ago about McCain having married into his money sounded pretty strange coming from a guy who supported John Kerry four years ago and who had until fairly recently many nice things to say about Hillary Clinton. As far as Obama’s people are concerned, though, doesn’t it seem to you that they are doing things the hard way?

After all, it is President Bush whose approval ratings are in the mid-20s, not McCain’s. Obama is trying to promote himself as the candidate of change, but from what? Obviously, from Bush and Bush’s administration. The biggest question voters have about Obama is, what kind of President would this guy be? This isn’t just about what he would do (or try to do) but about how he would operate and the kinds of things that are important to him. He can’t answer that question very well by contrasting himself to McCain — not because McCain is a phony maverick or gives lousy prepared speeches, but simply because McCain has never been President.Bush has, and so far it seems to me that Obama’s campaign has rather taken for granted Bush’s unpopularity and its usefulness in helping Obama overcome voters’ uncertainty toward his candidacy. Moreover, Obama’s rote linkages of McCain to “Bush’s failed policies” are delivered in a way that demands nothing of McCain. Specifically, they don’t put McCain in the position of having to either defend Bush or agree with Obama’s criticism: the former identifying him further with the unpopular President, the latter antagonizing Bush’s admirers in the GOP base, most of whom don’t like McCain to begin with. Finally, Bush will never be provoked into answering attacks from Obama if all Obama’s attacks are aimed at McCain, and provoking Bush should be an Obama campaign objective.

I wouldn’t call this campaign advice for Obama’s camp, not really. This is because I don’t know exactly what they are trying to accomplish (it is, of course, possible that with so much time left until the election they are merely pacing themselves). It looks as if his people are running a fairly conventional “base-plus” campaign that will emphasize maximizing turnout among likely Democratic voters and doing just enough otherwise to make it across the finish line first. I think they can do this for Obama doing what they are doing now — again, simply because the dead weight of Bush’s unpopularity is not something any Republican candidate this year could shed. This strategy worked for Nixon in 1968, and should work for Obama this year.

I can’t help thinking, though, that such a strategy doesn’t aim very high. In no meaningful sense is the Republican Party today John McCain’s party. It is George Bush’s party. Its elected officials and political consultants (including some on McCain’s campaign payroll) owe their primary loyalties to Bush, not McCain; its platform this year will be written mostly by people who would nominate Bush for a third term if they could. A candidate promising a clean break from Bush can quote chapter and verse from too many policies and people to list here, better defining himself while making it difficult for McCain to respond as his own man (and incidentally presenting the same difficulty for Republican candidates for the House and Senate).

I suppose it might be possible to so “expose” a candidate far more popular personally than either the incumbent President of that candidate’s party or the party itself that the candidate would become unpopular. That seems to be what Obama and his supporters are trying to do at the moment — as I suggest above, really doing things the hard way.

Obama absolutely needs to do a better job of tying John McCain to George W. Bush.  The reader could be right in that they’re waiting until the climax of the campaign, after the conventions, to ramp things up.  But, whether that’s the case or not, it needs to happen, and so far — it hasn’t.

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