There may be a bit more at stake, but the differences between student politics and the competition for the most powerful job on earth aren’t as big as you might think.
The discipline, the procedure, the polished rhetoric – it was all on show at the Democrat National Convention last week. When it comes to strategy, these chaps have hit the nail right on the head. How can I tell? Because I’ve been there before.
Any successful, or aspiring, campaign follows a simple model – and it applies to all campaigns, no matter what the scale. In fact, it would seem that running for President of the United States of America is just like running for the Oxford Union, complete with slate meetings (well, a convention); albeit on a slightly larger scale. It’s all in the strategy:
To start, we’ve got Michelle Obama, the nation’s sweetheart, put in place to open the convention – and she hits the ground running. In Union terms she’d be the Secretary. The most junior of the big-guns; she’s the one all the foot-soldiers (for the Union, read ‘seccies’) come to for a heart-to-heart. She’s charming, she’s endearing, she’s self-deprecating, and above all she can relate to the individual – to the worn campaigner seeking the energy to carry on the fight, to the deprived student aspiring to better things – she was there once and, well, look at her now, and in that dress! Don’t we all want to be her? Here we’ve got empathy combined with all the characteristics of that simple but sweet girl-next-door. That’s it, lure them in…
… and then BANG – time for the heavy artillery. Step up Bill Clinton: the old hand, the ex-Pres still with a foot in the door. Still at Oxford catching up on the final year of a misplaced degree once long forgotten, the election is a welcome distraction from otherwise mundane studies and a chance to reignite past glories. He doesn’t need to be elected – so he can throw as much dirt as he likes at the other side. The ex-Pres is at liberty to say what he likes – to paint the opposition as the villains, to spell out the unfavourable comparisons. He’s got the authority, the experience, and can tell it exactly how it is, and that’s all it takes to make what he says true. By the end of his speech the entire slate has really rallied around him, you can almost feel the blood pumping.
Next we’ve got Joe Biden. In the Union, he’d be the Treasurer. The old-faithful. He came out second best to the current Pres and hasn’t quite made it. There’s still time, and one day he may reach the top, but for now is happy to play second fiddle to the big man himself. No negatives, lacking a bit of the charisma shown by the ones at the top, but savvy nonetheless and enjoying the limelight while it’s still there.
Finally, come in Barack Obama – the President. He’s got the ideals, and the oratory to go with it. He knows exactly what he’s going to say and how he’s going to say it. Most in the slate are so in awe that any mistakes that are made go unnoticed; forgiven because he simply is so great. The confidence is oozing, he’s got a smile to charm any hardened spinster and that cheeky wink is in place, just to reassure you that there’s a human side to him too.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Democrats: they’ve got the floor plan, they’ve built the foundations, but, and it’s still a big but, it remains ito be seen whether they can successfully build their house.
You see, the problem is, that no matter how sincere, how truthful and how passionate Obama and his team may appear, it might not be enough. The convention was slick, it was professional, and it got the message across. However, the problem is that all the convention really did was reinforce votes already won – anyone there was going to vote Democrat anyway. The task now is to win over the rest – the ones not at the convention and those who didn’t even know it was happening – the majority of the American electorate. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the hate directed towards Obama, spouted by more than a few members of the Republican party, is a much stronger emotion than any of hope, of aspiration or of any passion for change. To overcome that hurdle, Obama needs a new strategy altogether, one which we’ll see unfold in the weeks to come – and who knows, maybe he could do worse than revisiting the tactics used in his Harvard days…