Monday, December 03, 2007


The Oprah Factor

The Wall Street Journal asked me to write an op-ed on the Democratic presidential primary contest, through the lens of the celebrity surrogate showdown between Oprah Winfrey (Team Obama) and Barbra Streisand (Team Clinton). My take, which was published in today's edition, follows below.

The Oprah Factor
December 3, 2007; Page A21

It's tempting to write off the celebrity-endorsement bout between the Obama and Clinton campaigns -- with Oprah Winfrey in Barack Obama's corner and Barbra Streisand in Hillary Clinton's -- as just another episode of the Democratic Party's long-running series of superstar superficiality.

But there's actually a meaningful and telling metaphor wrapped up in this fleeting game of dueling divas, one that helps explain why Sen. Obama's much-hyped yet largely unfulfilling candidacy is finally breaking through, and why the Clinton juggernaut appears (at least for the moment) to be breaking down.

Indeed, after spending much of this year struggling to escape the experience box that the Clinton campaign had so adroitly stuffed him into, Sen. Obama could not have asked for a better, more striking contrast of surrogate symbols to draw out his major differences with the front-runner, and to drive home his increasingly trenchant argument that Mrs. Clinton is the candidate of the status quo.

Let's start with the "O-factor." Oprah is the Swiss Army knife of political validators, a spectacularly accomplished black woman who is admired by Americans across every demographic, and would thus be a boon to any candidate. But her particular potency for Sen. Obama in this contest is not her race or gender or even the sum of her many parts, but what she is perceived to be lacking -- a political agenda.

More than anything, Oprah is a uniquely transcendent figure in our public life: engaged in serious debates and willing to put her money where her mouth is, yet unsullied by the ugly political and culture wars of the past two decades, and independent in her thinking and affiliations. In this, she personifies the new post-Bush, post-partisan, post-boomer politics Sen. Obama is preaching. She is the way we want things to be (at least those of us outside the narrow margins of the ideological extremes): genuine, unifying, trustworthy, aspirational.

So how did the Clinton campaign respond to the news that Oprah would be stumping for Sen. Obama this coming weekend? Instead of sticking to their core message, and showing the confidence of a true front-runner, they fell into the tit-for-tat trap of countering with the endorsement of the polarizing, '60s-studded Streisand -- in essence, the anti-Oprah. In doing so, the Clinton camp did not just fail to blunt or dilute the O-factor, they managed to accentuate it by unwittingly suggesting Mrs. Clinton stands for -- like the Streisand anthem -- the way we were.

To many Democrats, that brings back broadly positive feelings of peace and prosperity. But for hard-core activists, that could also mean the misty, waffle-colored memories of triangulation, corporate friendliness and job-killing trade pacts (among other liberal gripes about Bill Clinton). And for less partisan primary voters, it could be the scattered pictures of equivocation, Whitewater, Lewinsky, and a continuation of the petty, divisive politics that have come to define the Bush-Clinton years for voters across the political spectrum.

This points to one of the least-discussed wildcards in this most unusual of races -- and arguably the most dangerous for Mrs. Clinton in the primaries. How will Democratic primary voters weigh the relative benefits and baggage of a Clinton restoration? Will they see Hillary as the best way to fix the awful mess President Bush has created? Or will they conclude that she is more part of the problem than the solution, incapable of delivering the fresh start Democrats are desperately seeking for the country. Not least of all, how many Democrats will pull back from Mrs. Clinton simply because they are afraid that her problematic past could doom the party in the general election?

For the first 10 months of the year, the Clinton team did a brilliant job of taking this variable out of play and avoiding reminders of those memories that, as the Streisand song suggests, would be too painful to remember. They resisted the temptation to shove the Clinton administration's record of results in voters' faces, and instead subtly used it (and him) to credential Hillary and buttress her argument that she has the strength and experience to make change happen. Just as importantly, Bill stayed on message on the stump, fully leveraging his undeniable popularity and charm, and made it easy for voters to latch onto what they liked best about the '90s.

Then something changed. Over the last month, Team Hillary moved from dominating the conversation and diminishing her rivals to a defensive crouch. The strong and clear statements gave way to fuzzy and evasive, starting with Mrs. Clinton's famously fudgy answer to a debate question on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. She went from making a substantive, presidential-sounding case for her experience advantage, to taking what many viewed as a petty potshot at Sen. Obama's childhood years overseas. And her husband slipped from world leader to weasel-wording this past week, when he claimed he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, dredging up the worst impressions of the way they were.

To its credit, the Obama campaign moved quickly and deftly in the last few weeks to exploit this opening and recast the race, not just as choice between the past and the future, but zeroing in on the issue of trust and character and how that relates to change.

Like the O-factor, this argument played to Sen. Obama's strengths and reinforced his core message. And not surprisingly, it's gotten the kind of traction his attacks on Iraq and other issues could not. Most Democratic voters in Iowa, 55%, say they're more interested in a "new direction and new ideas." Indeed, the most recent Des Moines Register poll, out yesterday, shows Sen. Obama as the new front-runner in Iowa among likely caucusgoers.

While Mrs. Clinton still leads on more personal attributes than any of her competitors, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, just half of Iowa Democrats believe she's willing to say what she really thinks. Sen. Obama beats her by 2-1 as the most honest and trustworthy candidate. Moreover, her advantage on experience, while substantial, has softened since the summer. She has notably less support in Iowa than nationally in trust to handle a variety of specific issues -- on Iraq, for example, Sen. Obama now runs evenly with her.

The key to getting the Clinton machine back on track is, ironically enough, to go back to the way things were -- not for Bill in the '90s, but for Hillary earlier this year. She was in charge of the campaign when she was in charge of the campaign -- taking forceful stands on issues and even more importantly against the Bush administration, big-footing the other candidates with big ideas and policy proposals (on health care, for example) that forced them to react to her, and talking straight about votes that may be unpopular with elements of the base (something she failed to do on the Lieberman-Kyl resolution urging the State Department to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization). That's how she thrived as a restoration candidate in a change election.

Going forward, one of the best moves Mrs. Clinton could make to refocus the conversation on her strengths is to give a major speech about her time as first lady and why that makes her more prepared to be leader of the free world than her rivals. Sen. Obama has given her a perfect opening to do so, by not just questioning but belittling her experience in her husband's administration. Now's the time to get past the health-care bugaboo of 1994 and spell out in detail what else she did (which few Americans actually know), how she learned from it, and why the gamut of her experiences in the White House will make her a more effective change agent than any of her competitors.

Which is to say, forget about Oprah and Barbra and the celebrity sideshows. If Hillary is, as her campaign once argued, the most famous woman you don't really know, her surest hope of holding her lead is taking the lead in showing voters just who she is.

Mr. Gerstein, a senior adviser on Sen. Joe Lieberman's vice presidential and presidential campaigns, is a Democratic strategist and political commentator based in New York.

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