The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank captured the angst foes of Barack Obama are feeling.
The Clintons in the past couple of weeks have done all they could to cook him up into an airy souffle, a candidate so light in substance that he collapses when speared. They exposed him as a guy who copies others’ speeches and makes lofty pledges only to break them.
And yet: The Obama Souffle continues to rise.
Why that is has befuddled many Democrats, particularly Clinton followers. How can Obama score so many wins by offering so little — just hope — and yet everything — hope?
I can answer that question. It’s because Obama gets it. He’s been reading the George Lakoff and Rockridge Institute playbook, Thinking Points and skillfully applying it. Lakoff and Rockridge rewrote the progressive strategy with the concept of framing. Had my guy, John Edwards, followed their advice and like Obama, gone lighter on the policies and heavier on the values, he might be where Obama is today. Dennis Kucinich would have won a primary or two. John Kerry might be president now. Al Gore would not have needed the Supreme Court in 2000.
Richard Wirthlin, chief strategist for former president Ronald Reagan, made a discovery in 1980 that profoundly changed American politics. As a pollster, he was taught that people vote for candidates on the basis of the candidates’ positions on issues. But his initial polls for Reagan revealed something fascinating: Voters who didn’t agree with Reagan on the issues still wanted to vote for him…
Reagan talked about values rather than issues. Communicating values mattered more than specific policy positions. Reagan connected with people; he communicated well…It was not because all of his values matched theirs exactly. It was not because he was from their socioeconomic class or subculture. It was because they believed in the integrity of his connection with them as well as the connection between his worldview and his actions.
Are Lakoff and Rockridge saying that personality matters more than positions? Pretty much. Because if you don’t have the right kind of the former, you will never get to act on the latter.
Issues are secondary — not irrelevant or unimportant, but secondary. A position on issues should follow from one’s values, and the choice of issues and policies should symbolize those values.
One misunderstanding, common among progressive circles, is that the Reagan and George W. Bush elections were about “personality” rather than anything substantive. Nothing is more substantive than a candidate’s moral worldview — and whether he or she authentically abides by it.
Wirthlin’s discovery happened to be about a presidential candidate, but it applies much more broadly. It should be taken to heart by all progressives: Concentrate on values and principles. Be authentic; stand up for what you really believe. Empathize and connect with the people you are talking to, on the basis of identity — their identity and yours.
In Hillary’s better moments, before she stumbled and brought Bill and other surrogates out to take cheap shots, she was doing this. At some point, she allowed herself to morph into the candidate who does not represent change, the candidate who derides hope, the authority figure who announces the party is over and it’s time to get back to work. Who wants to vote for that?
Thinking Points lists 12 traps that progressives often fall into, and Hillary and her supporters exemplify many of them.
The Laundry List Trap. Progressives tend to believe that people vote on the basis of lists of programs and policies. In fact, people vote based on values, connection, authenticity, trust, and identity.
The Rationalism Trap. There is a commonplace — and false — theory that reason is completely conscious, literal…, logical, universal, and unemotional. Cognitive science has shown that every one of these assumptions is false. These assumptions lead progressives into other traps: assuming that hard facts will persuade voters, that voters are â€œrationalâ€ and vote in their self-interest and on the issues, and that negating a frame is an effective way to argue against it.
The Policies-Are-Values Trap. Progressives regularly mistake policies with values, which are ethical ideas like empathy, responsibility, fairness, freedom, justice, and so on. Policies are not themselves values, though they are, or should be, based on values. Thus, Social Security and universal health insurance are not values; they are policies meant to reflect and codify the values of human dignity, the common good, fairness, and equality.
The Centrist Trap. A common mistaken ideology has convinced many progressives that they must “move to the right” to get more votes. In reality, this is counterproductive. By moving to the right, progressives actually help activate the right’s values and give up on their own. In the process, they also alienate their base.
Those calling for more steak and less sizzle from Obama should give it up. The senator’s instincts are perfect, and there’s only one thing better than perfection: hope.
Update from Bruce Budner, Exective Director of the Rockridge Institute: “Rockridge is a non-partisan think tank and doesn’t work with or endorse Obama or any candidate or party, but we are so gratified to see that a candidate is proving the wisdom of our message.”