Barack and Howard’s Excellent Adventures

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, August 13, 2008)


With a pair of recent trips undertaken at the same time, two of the Democratic Party’s most prominent voices set about rebuilding some relationships that have taken hits in recent years. Both were needed interventions if their party aspires to turn the wave election of 2006 into a longer-lasting majority and restore the country’s standing in the world.

For obvious reasons, most of the press coverage focused on Barack Obama’s successful trips to Europe and the Middle East. Now that the dust has settled on the silly television-news storylines of whether he’d commit a “gaffe” or whether the trip would create “Obama fatigue,” the visit seems to have achieved its purposes.

Granted, in Europe, Obama’s public speeches generally stuck to general policies. Further granted, the mere fact that he isn’t George Bush makes the potential president popular abroad. Also, as Obama acknowledged at a press conference in London, “you’re always more popular before you’re actually in charge of things.”

This was a case, though, where merely showing up was a big step toward success.

As any American who’s spent time in Europe over the past few years can attest, there’s a palpable sense of hurt and confusion at how cavalierly the Bush Administration has treated the views of its NATO allies. The Continental perspective that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq didn’t require an invasion looks better by the day, but those who were proven right were the same ones castigated by the American far right as forming an “Axis of Weasels” or prompting a need for “freedom fries” to enter the vernacular.

Still, for all the whining of some conservatives about “old Europe,” it isn’t America that’s unpopular there; American foreign policy and the current initiator of it draw European disdain. If anything, a new president who reverses Bush’s course has the potential to not only rebuild but also actually strengthen the long-valuable trans-Atlantic alliances.

In a world where shared intelligence and international cooperation remain far better ways than military force to track down terrorists and other dangerous criminals — and a world where American allies from London to Madrid to Bali have also borne the brunt of extremist retaliation — there’s a desire to like and respect America abroad again. That’s one thing the McCain campaign missed with its ad portraying Obama’s appeal overseas as mere “celebrity.” (Even setting aside that Sen. McCain, of course, parlayed his own celebrity and intriguing backstory into a long and distinguished political career).

The sheer numbers of spectators drawn to see Obama stand as further evidence of that desire to again embrace America. His speeches reinforced historic ties, reciting examples of cooperation from the Marshall Plan to the Berlin airlift, and he spoke of the need for those ties to bind again.

“In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common,” Obama told a crowd of thousands in Berlin’s Tiergarten. “In America, there are voices that deride and deny the importance of Europe’s role in our security and our future. Both views miss the truth — that Europeans today are bearing new burdens and taking more responsibility in critical parts of the world; and that just as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe.”

And, let’s be honest. While the trip was important for cementing Obama’s popularity abroad, it was even more important at home with the people who actually determine whether he gets into the Oval Office.

Visuals are important in American politics, and the images of Obama meeting with foreign leaders and generally being received as the president-in-waiting can’t help but weaken charges that he lacks foreign policy experience. (Note how that line of questioning has been absent from press coverage since). Remember that John McCain consistently challenged Obama about making an Iraq visit, and Obama’s ability to go there and emerge with the prime minister’s backing for his withdrawal plan was a nice bit of political jujitsu. In an election cycle where he’s too often had to respond to the moves of his opponents, first Hillary Clinton and now McCain, the trip also gave Obama an opportunity to “commit news” on his own timetable.

That same week, though overshadowed by the Obama trip, Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean was on the road himself, visiting territory too often deemed foreign by national Democrats. The former Vermont governor drove a biodiesel bus through the South, stopping in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and North Carolina. The stated purpose was a voter-registration drive but, again, the mere presence of the chairman was symbolically important. His speeches generated coverage for the party in those states, and gave him a chance to again underscore the importance of the “50-state strategy” he’s advocated since becoming chairman in 2005.

“We will never again make the mistake of not going to the South and proudly delivering our message,” Dean said during his Southern tour. “The Democratic Party’s message will no longer be delivered by Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.”

Both Dean and Obama have long recognized that the Democratic strategy of the past few election cycles — to camp out in party strongholds and challenge a fairly small number of swing states — doesn’t work. A good defense may be a good offense in some sports, but in politics it’s a recipe for close losses. Obama’s first national platform, his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, centered around the need to get over the artificial divide of “red” and “blue” states. (It’s worth noting that, when Dean created the Democracy for America PAC in 2004 before running for party chairman, one of the candidates the grassroots-driven organization backed was Obama himself).

As a presidential candidate in 2003, Dean took flak for saying Southern voters with Confederate flag decals on their pickups should be voting Democratic for economic reasons — an endorsement not of the flag but of the need for Democrats to compete for all voters. As chairman, Dean’s put that broad approach into action, hiring more organizers in states such as Alaska and Nebraska and backing candidates in races once deemed quixotic.

That the notion of a nationwide campaign was considered radical three years ago underscores just how much territory the Democrats had effectively conceded. In 2006, some of the old-guard party operatives hammered Dean for spending money in states that weren’t competitive in recent elections. James Carville famously called for Dean to resign just days after the Democrats recaptured both the House and Senate, in part by winning crucial, supposed “red-state” races where Dean’s DNC had devoted hitherto absent resources.

Dean argued that his plan would pay dividends in 2008, and it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that prediction coming true. As Dean said in Crawford, even if Obama doesn’t win a state such as Texas, contesting the state and turning out more voters might be enough to lift Senate or House candidates there to victory. Dissatisfaction with the administration is obviously a driving force behind the almost universal predictions of Democratic gains in both houses of Congress this year, but that’s also a testament to the DNC’s (and the party’s House and Senate campaign committees’) rebuilding efforts over the past few years.

Meanwhile, polls show Obama has a fighting chance in states where Al Gore and John Kerry didn’t even bother to try. Even Karl Rove’s most recent polling showed Obama leading in Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico — with Virginia, Missouri, Nevada and North Dakota deemed tossups. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to win all those states,” Obama told reporters on his flight back from Europe. “But at least we’re making it a contest and giving voters something to choose from.” Both Dean and Obama are devoting money and staff to places such as Georgia and North Carolina and, for all the talk about Obama’s national lead sitting “only” about six points ahead of McCain, that margin would be one of the biggest in recent memory were it to hold up.

The big-picture story of Republican victory in 2004 was often about asking what was the matter with Kansas. If Democrats write a different ending this year, it will be in part because the son of a Kansan is treating more people — at home and abroad — like they matter.

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