Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

19 June 2007

Senator Obama: Please Fire the Idiots Now!

Last week someone in Senator Obama’s campaign leaked a “secret” memo attacking Senator Clinton. The memo was based in part on the Clintons’ revelations about their blind investment trust. It chided Senator Clinton for her investments in and coziness with Indian business at a time when India is siphoning away many desirable middle-class U.S. jobs. Because Clinton’s own report had bragged about her ability to be elected as a representative from Punjab, a state of India, the campaign memo identified her at one point as Senator Clinton (D-Punjab).

The “D-Punjab” memo created a tempest in a teapot. It flew around the blogosphere. It has even made the newspapers in India. Its casual tone of apparent antipathy to Indians offended Indian-Americans here at home and Indians in their own country.

From a substantive standpoint, the memo is unworthy of serious attention. Senator Obama assures us that he had no knowledge of it beforehand. He’s claimed—as should be obvious to anyone who has followed his campaign—that the memo does not reflect his attitude toward Indians, outsourcing, or proper campaign etiquette.

But Obama must do more. He must fire the people responsible for the memo publicly and soon. Here are five reasons why.

First and foremost, the nature of Obama’s campaign demands it. Obama is much smarter and more thoughtful than any other candidate for president in either party. He is brilliant while Senator Clinton is merely smart.

But he can’t run on that basis because (1) doing so would seem elitist and (2) the average person simply has no basis for understanding how smart Obama really is. The average voter has no idea what it means to be President of the Harvard Law Review or a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. The average voter also lacks the knowledge of economics and industry practices to understand, for example, just how creative and thoughtful Obama’s health-care plan is.

Because Obama’s brilliance is lost on most voters, he has to run on style. So far, he’s succeeded at doing so. He has leveraged his Lincolnesque ability to understand and empathize with divergent points of view into a credible campaign for a “new politics.”

Yet, as many blog entries have pointed out, the controversial memo is antithetical to that style in both tone and substance. It is simplistic, puerile, and casually offensive to an important ethnic group. Although there is no way that Obama himself could have written it, he will have to take responsibility for it, at least in some voters’ minds, unless he distances himself from it decisively.

Second, Obama must take firm control over his campaign to show that he can be an executive. Cracks are starting to appear in his organization, and the word “amateur” pops up repeatedly. Unjustified doubts about his experience are rampant, and Obama simply cannot afford to let them persist. He has to act decisively to show that he can govern his own house.

Third, Obama must take control of his campaign to keep it on track. He is an extraordinary man in every respect. Inevitably people who work for him will fail to meet his high standards—intellectually, morally, and ethically. Yet under present-day campaign attack rules his opponents will tar him personally with any lapse on the part of his staff.

The only defense to that sort of negativity is to set high standards and maintain them religiously. Obama must be sure that his bright mind and illuminating moral spirit shine through everything his campaign does. He must be ruthless in maintaining high standards.

Fourth, Obama must show he can be tough. That is the one doubt his supporters still have. We know he is brilliant, thoughtful, creative in problem-solving, charismatic, centrist, non-ideological, and tolerant. We’re not yet sure he is tough. If he can’t be tough with his own campaign staff, can he be tough with Iran, North Korea, the Russians and Hamas?

Finally, our nation has languished too long without accountability. George Tenet botched 9/11 and failed to inform the president personally of his doubts about the war in Iraq. He got the Medal of Freedom. Michael Brown botched the response to Katrina and got a pat on the back. Donald Rumsfeld ruined our war strategy and our nation’s international reputation. He got three more years in office than he should have had, plus the president’s heartfelt thanks. Alfredo Gonzales tried ineptly to turn our Department of Justice into their counterparts in Russia and China and got the president’s unqualified support.

Those of us who daily worry and strive to do our jobs well are starving for accountability. So Obama must show he is different. He must show he can hold people accountable. He should start with his own campaign staff.

Obama’s brilliance, charisma and human greatness will do us no good if he doesn’t win. We need his good leadership desperately. The pain he may feel on firing someone who may be a committed supporter, friend, or protégé is nothing to the pain this nation will feel if we don’t get his good leadership. Obama must show he can make tough decisions. He should fire the responsible people now.

A Code of Conduct for Senator Obama’s Campaign Staff

    1. Unlike most politicians, your boss is brilliant. He’s a Bill Clinton who can keep his pants on. He’s probably much smarter than you. Keep that in mind, follow his instructions carefully, and don’t let him down.

    2. Sometimes smart people do stupid things. If you think he’s about to do that, make sure you get his attention, or the attention of someone he trusts. Then explain your point carefully. If he disagrees, salute and execute. He’s probably right, and he’s the boss.

    3. Your biggest problem will be showing voters how smart and thoughtful he is. Most voters will have no clue unless and until he wins. If you can find just one way a week to cut through the bumper stickers and sound bites and show what he can do, you will do him and your country a service.

    4. You second biggest problem will be maintaining standards. Because ordinary people can’t understand how smart he is, your boss has to run on style. He has promised a positive, clean, ethical campaign. His winning depends on people continuing to believe that he represents a new kind of politics. Keep the faith.

    5. In the heat of the campaign, you may be tempted to zing your opponents. Don’t. Your boss is running as a saint. He hurts himself every time he acts like a sinner. Assume that everything you do will be widely publicized and attributed to him, and act accordingly.

    6. Clear all negative campaigning with your boss or his senior staff. No exceptions.

    7. You are working for your country. You are here because you believe your boss is the best person for the job. Keep that in mind, and stay positive.

    8. You are here because you want a new kind of politics, based on issues and civility. You are tired of childish games of “gotcha!” Repeat that to yourself each day when you arise and when you retire.

    9. Make sure you know your boss’ position, in detail and including nuances, on every issue before you open your mouth or begin to type.

    10. There are myriad ethnic groups in this country, and all have their own sensibilities. Before you mention or refer to any one, make sure you’ve thought of all the angles. When in doubt, keep quiet.

    11. Campaigning is like flying airplanes. One mistake can ruin a whole career. Be cautious. Don’t take risks: that’s the candidate’s job.

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