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Wake Up, Obama Camp

Theda Skocpol

The last month has been excruciating for Obama supporters, watching him and his campaign squander so many hopes and resources on an utterly wimpy campaign. For me, the last straw was yesterday -- in the VFW speech when supposedly Obama was gettting tough against McCain's character assassination strategy -- to watch him speak like a soporific college professor, repeating McCain's charges at length, flattering McCain as honorable and patriotic, and then, finally, sort of begging McCain to take it back! Josh Marshall is totally right to call Obama out on this.

What are they thinking in Chicago? Why would they ever imagine that Americans will vote to make President a candidate who evades and begs? This is like football. If you are hit hard in the pile, you hit back, you don't run to the refs. If the refs (media in this context) make a bad or missed call, you just get up and play harder, hit back harder, throw passes. You never expect the other side to play nice, you never beg for that; and you take for granted that the refs will overlook a lot of stuff.

On evasion: A national, turning-point campaign is not an academic discussion of the issues! You don't go into Saddleback and give a ridiculous, distanced, abstract, evasive, talmudic answer to the abortion question you knew was coming! You look the television camera/voters in the eye and crisply explain your own personal moral perspective in clear, plain language -- acknowledging AFTER you state your views that other moral people can have different views and underlining that you will always respect them, listen to them, and look for common ground. This is not rocket science!

On fighting back: For weeks, Obama has ignored or wheedled when McCain and Lieberman attacked his patriotism and judgement. He has repeatedly begged them to stop because, supposedly, they are more honorable than that. He has asked them to discuss the issues dispassionately. What an insipid approach! McCain has NOT been honorable or honest, and Obama and his surrogates need to hammer on that incessantly. Use words like "lying" and "losing himself" or " (better) "forgetting what he is supposed to stand for." Stop focusing on decades ago in the POW camp. Talk about now, about the last years and months. Make the really obvious point that no candidate for President at this time can really be putting country first if he runs a dirty, lying campaign of false smears. That betrays the public trust. Tell it like it is, Obama!

Politics is not just about issues, it is a metaphorical test of strength. If a man will not get immediately -- if quietly -- angry and fight back when his patriotism is attacked, why should we trust him to defend the country? And if he won't punch back by explaining clearly why his approach to foreign policy is actually tougher and smarter, why McCain's is thoughtless and reckless, why would we think he is better to be Commander in Chief?

And on issues like oil drilling, why not recognize that McCain has adopted an ACTIVE metaphor that makes emotional sense to people? He is saying we should act to tap U.S. resources, and people are not really concerned about how many years it would take to tweak pump prices. They hear action and will and resolve -- and these are highly valued in a President! Obama can certainly get a hearing for other active steps, but he and the Dems should stop pretending that they can parry drilling with logic.

Obama is lucky he is not further behind already. And he is going to fade fast if he just runs a feel-good, bland convention about abstract "hope" and "change." In addition to getting gritty and colorfully clear about his recipe for making Americans' lives better -- AND about his approach to make this nation safer and stronger in the world -- Obama needs to signal all the major speakers at next week's convention to go after McCain in a key part of each speech. We need to hear why McCain is wrong and dangerous and no longer so honest and honorable. It needs repeating with force and humor and passion.

Otherwise, the Convention will be wasted, and this historic turning point for our country will be lost.

And pick a FIGHTER for VP, please. Do it yesterday. Obama, you need someone who will push hard at your side and make you better, too. And you never should have gone on vacation (shades of Kerry) without a VP to carry on. Biden will work, I think, but -- and I never expected to believe this -- it might be time to turn to Hillary. She is at least a fighter, and this election really matters to a lot more than you and her.

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Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology and former Dean of the Graduate School at Harvard University.

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