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10th September 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:45 am

Obama, Messaging, and Dean Wormer


Take a moment to watch this clip.  It’s from an Obama town hall appearance yesterday in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

At first glance, it seems pretty good.  He says that “there should be no contradiction between keeping America safe and secure and respecting our Constitution.”  He gets in a good shot in about the need to catch the terrorists before you worry about what to do with them.  And he has a great line at the end:  “Don’t mock the constitution.  Don’t make fun of it!  Don’t suggest that it’s un-American to abide by what the founding fathers set up.”

Those are all good points.  The problem is that along the way, he violates two fundamental rules of messaging:

1.  Don’t use your opponent’s talking points to frame your arguments.  Obama did that on three occasions:

“Senator Obama is less interested in protecting people from terrorism than he is in reading them their rights.”

“You may think it’s Barack the bomb thrower, when in fact it might be Barack, the guy running for president.”

“The reason you have this principle is not to be soft on terrorism.”

When you do this, you reinforce people’s preconceptions about you.  If folks are already inclined to worry about whether you’re the right guy, then what they’re going to hear is that Obama is soft on terrorism, has a Muslim name, and is interested in protecting the bad guys.

2.  Don’t try to convince people with facts.  Obama spends over a minute explaining the concept of habeas corpus.  He sounded like a professor.  Most people don’t have any idea what the words “habeus corpus” mean.  But they do understand the underlying principle:  that sometimes, our government makes mistakes, and we need rules to protect innocent people from being thrown in jail indefinitely.  They’ll understand that much more readily than talking about how this right goes back to before we were a country.

So what should have Obama said?  How about something like this:

You know, all of us want to be treated fairly.  You could say that’s the basic idea behind the Constitution and the Bill of Rights:  do unto others as you would have them do onto you.  In this country, we give people the chance to be heard. We promise them that they won’t be tortured.  We say to them that they have the right to prove that they are innocent of the charges against them, and that they don’t have to incriminate themselves.

These are our core values.  These are incredible gifts that the founding fathers gave to us.  And these are the very things that our opponents are now mocking.  How dare John McCain and Sarah Palin suggest that what was good enough for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin isn’t good enough for us.

Other than our familes, our freedoms are the most precious thing we have .  They are what made this country great.  They are the promise that all men and women are created equal, that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and, as you said so beautifully, ma’am, that we are the sweet land of liberty.

John McCain and Sarah Palin, just like George Bush and Dick Cheney, want you to believe that our security is more important than our freedoms.  What you know and what I know — and what McCain and Palin and Bush and Cheney certainly should know is that we cannot have security without freedom.  We cannot have justice without freedom.  We cannot be America without our freedoms.

Those who suggest otherwise should be ashamed of themselves.

They should be ashamed for resorting to torture, for doing the very same things that John McCain himself suffered in Vietnam.  They should be ashamed for letting places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, instead of places like Farmington Hills and Peoria define who we are.  They should be ashamed for allowing waterboarding, beatings, sleep deprivation, and other techniques that we used to think only happened in places like Zimbabwe and Burma and Cuba.  They should be ashamed of themselves for believing that it’s all okay because the President can do anything he wants anytime he wants.

That’s not my America.  That’s not your America.  That’s not George Washington’s or Abraham Lincoln’s or Teddy Roosevelt’s or FDR’s or JFK’s or Ronald Reagan’s America.  Nowhere in our Constitution does it say the President can do anything he or she wants.  Nowhere.  That’s not Martin Luther King’s or Susan B. Anthony’s or Bobby Kennedy’s America.  That’s George Bush’s America.

It’s time we reclaim our heritage of freedom, our role as that shining city on the hill.  It’s time we say “not on our watch,” not here, not in Guantanamo, not anywhere.

It’s time that we say to Bush and Cheney and McCain and Palin and anyone else who supports them, we’re taking America back.  We’re taking America back to what it stands for.  We’re going to make America great again.  We’re going to be the America that respects people’s rights, that honors our core values, that draws so many people around the world to our shores.

Let’s start showing the world why we’re better than our enemies.  Let’s honor our founding fathers by returning to the values that make America America.

That would knock McCain and Palin on their butts.  It would force them to explain why they support the very torture techniques that  John McCain himself endured.  It would make them explain why they aren’t un-American.  It would require them to argue that they don’t want to destroy the Constitution or shred the Bill of Rights.  Tar them with every sin of the Bush Administration, and do it in a way that will leave them no space to reply except by repeating your arguments.

That, after all, is exactly what they’re doing to the Democrats.

So for crying out loud, Senator Obama, stop defending yourself and start attacking them.  It’s the only way you win.

P.S.  To my colleagues in the blogosphere and the mainstream media, this goes double for you.  Stop caring about how many times Sarah Palin lied about the bridge to nowhere and start talking about why Obama and Biden are the right choice. Stop parsing every lie that McCain and Palin tell and start talking about what their Administration would do to the country.  And if you can’t, then shut the hell up.

It’s the Dean Wormer Theory of Politics.  In Animal House, Dean Vernon Wormer tells Flounder, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

In politics, defensive, bitter, and angry is no way to win an election. 

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