Bill Clinton's advice to Barack Obama
By: John F. Harris
September 12, 2008
There they were in Harlem on Thursday, the 42nd president and the Democrat who hopes to be the 44th, for a two-hour lunch hour chat at Bill Clinton’s office.
It is not at all clear that Barack Obama particularly wants Clinton’s advice about how to win the presidency — after all, he kept the former president at a cool distance, with just occasional phone calls, for months — but many Democrats believe it is increasingly clear that he could use it.
The fact that Obama is even with or behind John McCain despite so many favorable trends for Democrats shows that there is still plenty he could learn from the master — the political Houdini who is the only Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two terms.
We do know that Clinton was happy to share his thoughts. He recently offered 10 minutes of “here’s what Obama needs to do” wisdom while standing in the popcorn line with someone he just met at a New York movie theater, according to one Democrat privy to the conversation.
The Clinton-Obama meeting was closed. We don’t know for sure what they said.
But it is not hard to make an educated guess. Here, based on 16 years experience watching Bill Clinton campaign — and interviews with a half-dozen veterans of his political teams — is a reasonably safe bet about his campaign advice to Barack Obama:
1. Don’t make this about you.
Clinton is always skeptical of politicians who try to win races on the basis of their life story or supposed personal virtues. Those can be nice side dishes (“The Man from Hope”) but they can’t be the main entrée. Voters just don’t care that much about you. They care about themselves and what you will do for them. Clinton believes, plausibly, that this is why he emerged from sex scandals and all manner of other controversies with his job approval ratings intact.
“What Bill Clinton always told me is, ‘If we make this about their lives instead of mine, we’ll be better off,'” recalled Paul Begala, who served as strategist in the 1992 election and the second-term White House. “It’s always about the voters, never about the candidates.”
What’s more, the politics of biography can turn in an instant, as happened to John F. Kerry in 2004 when what was supposed to be an asset — Kerry’s Vietnam service — was turned into a distraction and even liability by the Swift Boat Veterans.
Clinton thinks Obama has erred by putting too much focus on himself and on his supposedly transformational brand of politics — it’s too airy, and it puts him at risk of being branded a hypocrite when, as inevitably happens, he needs to play rough.
2. Define yourself through policies — yours and theirs.
Clinton would often dismiss proposed speech drafts handed him by his staff writers with a mocking phrase, “Words, words, words!”
He has never thought much of Obama’s rhetoric-driven campaign.
While Obama has plenty of policy proposals, there are not many that he has managed to make recognizable signatures, the way Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” in 1992.
Most people know Obama claims to represent “Change you can believe in.” But Clinton believes people won’t believe him — or any politician — unless change is defined with specificity. That means describing, in language that sounds plausible rather than partisan, what you believe in versus what the other guy believes in.
3. Have more fun.
Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton are both obsessed with how — as they see it — Republicans have perfected the art of the bogus attack, the distracting wedge issue, “the politics of personal destruction.”
From the Clinton vantage point, both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 lost when they allowed Republicans to get under their skins and hijack their public images.
Obama has hinted that he believes that, too, and has signaled that he will fight back hard.
But that is not as easy as it might sound. A candidate needs to do more than just complain about the unfairness of it all, as when Obama this week shouted “enough!” and denounced “lies, outrage and swift-boat politics.”
The trick is counter-punching without looking rattled, and without letting your opponents set the agenda of the conversation. Though he did not always follow his own advice, Clinton believes humor is one tool that can help a politician connect with audiences and convey toughness rather than whininess.
Mark Penn, the Clintons’ longtime pollster and strategist, said Obama may have listened too closely to people urging him to “fight back, fight back.”
“He’s got to learn how to completely eviscerate the guy with a smile,” he said.
4. Make the election about something big.
It’s a mistake, Clinton believes, for a presidential nominee of one party to be arguing about the vice presidential nominee of the other party, as Obama has been over Sarah Palin in recent days.
The best way for Obama to convince people he’s ready to be president is by talking about ideas that sound presidential.
During both his presidential runs, Clinton gave major speeches at Georgetown University that were not partisan or even in the strict sense political — they were wide-ranging discourses about where the United States stood at that moment in history.
Clinton believes Obama is on losing terrain if he allows the election to be about pigs and lipstick. Obama needs to soar above that by talking about large themes like energy and global warming, and how to harness the opportunities of a global economy.
5. Spend more time speaking to your opponents.
Most Democrats, Clinton believes, spend too much time enjoying the cheers of the home crowd — and not enough trying to persuade people who do not already agree with them.
One of his favorite rhetorical tactics is to describe an opponent’s ideas in ways that sound perfectly fair and reasonable — as a prelude to why the opponent is dead wrong.
Successful politicians, he believes, look for opportunities to speak to skeptical audiences. Clinton went to New Hampshire to talk to gun owners — even though many hunters there were furious over passage of a crime bill that hunters feared would take away their guns. “All our guys in Washington thought I was crazier than the March Hare,” Clinton once told me and Mark Halperin. “And they said, ‘Well, you don’t want to talk about this.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, I do.’”
Obama’s convention speech in Denver was a spirited performance that thrilled Democrats, but did not have enough passages aimed at people who don’t already support him. What’s more, Obama has not taken enough positions that make clear he is not a standard-issue Democrat.
6. Don’t take Hillary voters for granted.
Obama’s strategists believed that they did not have to worry that much about Hillary Clinton’s female backers, because they figured that most of them were liberal, abortion-rights supporters who will vote for the Democrat even if the nominee was not their first choice.
That was probably true for about two-thirds of those voters, according to one Clinton strategist’s appraisal of polling data. But another one-third of Clinton’s women supporters were more conservative-tilting, working-class women, who were drawn to Clinton because they admired her pluck — and these voters are now a key target group for McCain-Palin.
7. Stop smoking whatever it is you are smoking.
In his cool treatment of both Clintons over the summer, and in the way he allowed expectations among Democrats and the news media to build, Obama has acted as if he were on a glide path to a relatively easy victory.
Clinton knows this attitude is delusional. Someone who grew up in Arkansas as the state — and much of the South — was growing more conservative can never forget how hard it is for Democrats to win in what for the past two generations has been a center-right country. Democrats have only won more than 50 percent in a presidential election there twice since 1944. Republicans have done it seven times.
One important thing to remember: Obama has never faced a serious race against a Republican. His important victories in Illinois and this year have all been against other Democrats in nomination battles.
Some Clinton allies say this may tend to warp his perspective about how politics works and what kind of issues and stories matter in a presidential context. Bottom line: it does not matter who is getting better coverage in the New York Times.
“This is a new experience for Obama — facing a Republican who will do and say things far different from the Democrats he has faced. Republicans don’t care what Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd or establishment media has to say about them,” said Penn.
8. And while you are at it, give me an apology.
The meeting in Harlem was friendly, and Obama could hardly have hoped for a more lavish endorsement than he got from Clinton at the Democratic convention in Denver.
But he errs if he thinks the former president does not still have resentments toward Obama, and that those resentments might not surface at unwelcome times, in the view of many former aides.
Simply put, Clinton will never be fully at peace with Obama until the Democratic nominee makes clear — in emphatic words, in public — that Clinton is not in any way racist, and that he did not try to “play the race card” during the Democratic nomination contest, as some commentators have suggested.
There’s no question that Clinton was impolitic in comparing Obama’s victory in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s victory 20 years earlier. But Clinton is understandably outraged that people would argue this remark negated a career-long commitment to racial equality — and that Obama stood by mute while such charges were made.
Clinton swallowed his medicine with his speech for Obama in Denver. Obama has still not fully swallowed his by making a public defense of Clinton on race.
John F. Harris, the editor-in-chief of Politico, has written two books about Bill Clinton and his politics, “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House,” and “The Way to Win; Taking the White House in 2008.”