I try to leave the unquantifiable and unfalsifiable strategy/ horse race BS to better qualified folks like Mark Halperin and David Brooks, but last night's speech crystallized what I've been thinking for a while about Obama's strategy. I've heard a lot of Democrats recently feeling very distressed over what they have perceived as the weakness of the Obama campaign so far. The national polls have tightened as McCain has laid into Obama again and again, while Obama campaign has seemed to respond only half-heartedly. Some attributed this to Obama's gauzy, one-hand-behind-my-back message of a New Politics, some to his lack of experience running against a GOP opponent, some to traditional Democratic wishy-washyness.
But this diagnosis, I think, misreads the deliberateness -- and, possibly, brilliance -- of Obama's strategy. And in his acceptance speech last night, he finally played his hand. Sullivan hits the nail on the head:
What he didn't do was give an airy, abstract, dreamy confection of rhetoric. The McCain campaign set Obama up as a celebrity airhead, a Paris Hilton of wealth and elitism. And he let them portray him that way, and let them over-reach, and let them punch him again and again ... and then he turned around and destroyed them. If the Rove Republicans thought they were playing with a patsy, they just got a reality check.
By responding passively over the summer, he let the McCain campaign dig its own grave with negative and frankly silly attacks that made increasingly unsubstantiated claims. Now, proving the ridiculousness of those attacks is a rather low bar, and what's more, he can still claim the high ground as he goes after McCain. I endured a summer of this nonsense, he says to us, and enough is enough -- It's time to respond. And respond he did -- and, now, in self-defense, and out of a poignant sense of wounded honor. I think one of the most effective line of his speech was the one in which, after laying out his decidedly un-elitist life story, he said in a low voice, "Now, I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine."
If you'll recall, this closely mirrors the strategy he employed against Senator Clinton. For the first half of the primary season, he sat above the fray, outlining his positive vision and letting Clinton attack him with similarly laughable accusations (remember the Kindergarten debacle?) which Obama could swat away with "I guess it's silly season." Nonetheless, he remained behind in the polls until the month before the Iowa caucus, when, defending himself against the months of Clinton smears, he began to mount a counter-attack. In this way, he was able to attack while maintaining his higher-ground brand. McCain, by going down the swift-boat path early, may have just played right into Obama's fall strategy.