Monday, August 4, 2008

Battle of the Surrogates: Should We Be Picking a President This Way?

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

A new threat to Barack Obama's campaign has emerged, and it has nothing to with race, offshore drilling or the surge: Obama is losing the battle of the surrogates. Which raises a question: Is this any way to pick a president?

This issue popped onto my radar on July 5, when Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) sat silently on ABC's This Week while Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) spouted a steady stream of Tass-worthy propaganda about the candidates, specifically that McCain's position on Iraq had been consistent and correct, while Obama had flip-flopped on Iraq and other issues, so much so that the American people cannot trust him to lead. Reed didn't raise any of the obvious responses to Lieberman's pile of horse crap. He never brought up how McCain has flip-flopped on every major issue, nor how McCain was completely wrong in 2002 in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, promising Americans that the U.S. army would be greeted as liberators, that the oil revenue would pay for the war, that the war would be over quickly, and that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Anybody completely ignorant of the U.S. political scene (sadly, including many Americans) who watched the This Week segment would have come away thinking that McCain was rock-solid consistent in his positions, while this crazy Obama guy was all over the place on his views. In other words, the exact opposite of what is actually the case.

Clearly, in a head-to-head debate between Obama and McCain, Obama would have done a far better job than Reed did in setting the record straight. But that fact didn't matter as Lieberman cleaned Reed's clock. (Note to Obama: If you decide you want Reed to be your running mate, please do every Democrat a favor and watch the tape of his abysmal performance on This Week before making your final selection.)

If Reed's impersonation of Silent Bob on This Week was an aberration, it would have been meaningless. But that hasn't been the case. Rather, a trend has developed of Republican surrogates outperforming their Democratic adversaries.

A week after the Reed debacle, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) represented Obama on Meet the Press, squaring off against Carly Fiorina, the deposed Chairperson of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of HP, who now works for McCain's campaign. McCaskill was infinitely more effective than Reed, actually making some salient points and not backing down in her battle with Fiorina. But Fiorina, with her years of boardroom experience, came off as more calm and authoritative than McCaskill, who was so riled up that she seemed to be gasping and jumping out of her seat with every point she made. Fiorina even parried Tom Brokaw's charge that McCain's numberless plan to balance the budget was flawed, asserting that as a businesswoman, she knows budgets, and McCain's plan was sound. She took an obvious flaw in McCain's campaign and made into a positive, while McCaskill wasn't able to make the budget issue stick, even with the facts on her side.

Once again, McCain's surrogate scored a victory over Obama's representative, even though McCain himself would not have fared as well against Obama. Just picture McCain trying to explain his budget plan to Brokaw, with Obama sitting next to him, arguing the weakness of the approach. It would be hard to imagine McCain doing a tenth as well as Fiorina did.

Yesterday morning featured a double feature of Obama's surrogates letting him down. First, on This Week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was completely flummoxed by host George Stephanopoulos's repeated queries as to why she would not allow an up-or-down vote on offshore drilling. At one point, she was so twisted in circles, she sputtered, not answering the question. Pelosi was jumpy and defensive, certainly not inspiring confidence in viewers. (It doesn't help that Congress's approval rating is lower than President Bush's numbers.) And when Pelosi's session was over, former Gov. Tom Ridge, speaking for McCain, sailed in and gave an assured, confident interview. Unlike Pelosi's butchering of the offshore drilling line of questioning, Ridge easily handled Stephanopoulos's probes on how his pro-choice position on abortion could be reconciled with McCain's strong anti-choice stance.

If the juxtaposed interviews were a boxing match, Ridge won by a first-round knockout, with Pelosi going through the ropes and landing on the laps of the spectators in the first row. But again, Obama would have handled the offshore drilling question so much more smoothly than Pelosi did. The Pelosi-Ridge battle was especially vexing, since it turned the dispositions of the candidates upside down. Obama is cool under pressure, rarely allowing himself to be riled. McCain is more liable to stammer, evade and come off as uncomfortable. And yet, to anyone watching This Week yesterday, Ridge was the voice of reason, and Pelosi seemed less credible.

Minutes later, Lieberman went head-to-head against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Meet the Press. While Kerry performed better than Pelosi had, he was anything but a good representative for Obama. There is something in Kerry's tone, combined with his inability to cut to the heart of issues, that renders him a less than convincing debater. Considering his off-putting style and the fact that he lost the 2004 election employing that same style, who thought that this guy would be a good choice to advocate for Obama's positions? Obama should be trying to distance himself from Kerry, not look for ways for Americans to think of them together. What's the point of Obama hitching his wagon to someone who has already been rejected by the voters? What's next? Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale speaking for the campaign?

There are really two issues here. The first is if Obama is being well-represented by his media surrogates. That's an easy one to address: No. McCain's representatives are doing a far better job than Obama's proxies in these debates. And, more importantly, McCain's people are doing better than McCain himself would have done in these appearances, while Obama's surrogates have not come close to performing at the level their candidate regularly achieves. So the solution to this problem is easy: The Obama campaign has to be more aggressive and selective in choosing its spokespeople, using more strong, smart advocates like Sen. Joe Biden and Sen. Jim Webb, and keeping Pelosi and Kerry as far away from the media as possible.

The second issue is more philosophical: Should we be judging the candidates by their stand-ins? Does Fiorina's and Ridge's debating skills mean that McCain would be a better president than Obama? And does the inability of Reed, Kerry, McCaskill and Pelosi to speak compellingly on television mean that Obama shouldn't be president? Even more to the point, as voters, are we served by listening to these surrogate debates? I would argue we are not. The question is whether Obama or McCain would be a better leader for the country, and whose policies would better serve the country's vital interests. Whether the candidates' representatives can accurately and effectively make those arguments has no bearing on the underlying arguments themselves.

But as much as I can say that surrogates shouldn't be called in to speak for the candidates, the reality is that this practice is not going to stop, not with the networks needing to fill time in a 24/7/365 news cycle. There will be shows seeking to put representatives of each campaign against each other, and there will certainly be a guest arguing for McCain on all of them, given how well his surrogates have done so far. So it's not like Obama has a lot of options, short of leaving the McCain side unopposed and turning ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and CNBC into, essentially, Fox News. Obama has no choice but to play the surrogate game. But, again, that means that his campaign has to be more engaged in monitoring who is going on these shows to represent the candidate.

It's been a bad week for the Obama campaign, with McCain's new tactic of attacking Obama in false, pandering commercials actually gaining traction with voters. But as Obama moves to fight back, his campaign needs to keep in mind that it's not just the man-to-man battle with McCain that he has to win, but also the larger fight between his surrogates and McCain's stand-ins. Obama is used to winning head-to-head matchups. It's time for him to realize that his teammates are letting him down.