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In a race about contrasts, there may be none greater than that between the Obama and Clinton campaigns when it comes to political strategy and campaign philosophy. Mark Penn and other Clinton senior advisers have treated the campaign like a boxing match, throwing jabs and combinations without anticipation of their impact in later rounds. David Axelrod and his team of operatives have done quite the opposite. Every tactical decision has been made within a long-term strategic framework, designed with a focus, three, four, sometimes five moves ahead. While Mark Penn was boxing, David Axelrod was playing chess.

The fingerprints of these dueling strategies can be seen in every memo, every sound bite, every speech of this race:

From the very beginning, Mark Penn’s default position has been to react to political realities in the short term, with little note given to the unforeseen complications that might arise. He based the initial campaign strategy around inevitability, responding to the short term national polling that showed Clinton leading, without asking what impact an Iowa loss could have on such an argument. Without looking many moves ahead, Penn steered the Clinton campaign far off course.

Having found a policy difference between Clinton and Obama on health care – Clinton’s plan, but not Obama’s, has a mandate – he attacked, failing to contemplate the possibility that a mandate that enforces penalties could easily be seen as the more unpopular position. He argued that Hillary was more experienced than Obama without confronting the possibility that, even so, people could see Obama’s experience as sufficient. A strategist’s best tool is the ability to predict outcomes, an ability that requires analyzing all scenarios, not just the best case.

More recently, the Clinton campaign recognized the need to attack Obama on his credibility, but again responded without a clear view of the consequences: The Clinton campaign hit Obama on using Deval Patrick’s words in a speech, but went too far, calling the act “plagiarism.” In doing so, the issue was framed in the one way that could let Obama off the hook, with the media asking, “Does that really count as plagiarism?” The consensus, almost universally, was that it did not; in the face of a sure-fire winner – Obama had copied Patrick’s words, after all – the Clinton campaign failed again, throwing punches without weighing consequences.

Seeing the chance for another jab on trust, Clinton misfired again, joining John McCain to attack Obama on public financing. In doing so, she began actively describing a scenario that had her losing the nomination. And with the Democratic primary electorate eager to have a fundraising advantage for the general, the attack on Obama was unlikely to shake loose the votes for which she was aiming.

Time and again, long-term strategic thinking could have put the Clinton campaign on a far different path. But instead of a chess game, her strategists were boxing.

For the first eight months of the election cycle, it was Clinton’s campaign that was regarded as flawless, a political masterpiece of sorts, built to compete, likely to prevail. Perhaps the media sees politics as a boxing match too. Yet during that play-by-play, which focused unwisely on national polls and inexplicably ignored the closeness of Iowa, it was the Obama campaign that would emerge mistake-free. Sure there had been some subpar debate performances, an occasional misstep on the trail, but from the perspective of a long-term strategy, David Axelrod proved to be a grandmaster.

Axelrod recognized that defeating Hillary Clinton would require not just enormous sums of money, but the ability to sustain a fundraising operation well into the spring of 2008. As early as February 2007, the campaign was already laying the groundwork for an online fundraising juggernaut, fueled almost entirely by small donations. By the time the first quarter of fundraising was reported, Obama had outraised Clinton for the primary. Today, he’s nearing one million donors.

Axelrod’s plan was fully-funded and based on sound strategy. Applying the lessons of the Kerry campaign four years earlier, the Obama campaign focused all of their attention on the early states, especially Iowa, recognizing that a win there would send Obama skyrocketing in the polls. Applying the lessons of the Dean campaign, Obama strategists recognized that a strong and capable organization was the only way to mobilize voters to a caucus. They hired Paul Tewes, one of only a handful of strategists who has mastered Iowa.

The campaign crafted a message that could withstand the length of the campaign and could showcase their candidate’s strength while exploiting Clinton’s weaknesses. From the beginning, they were envisioning the end. With each tactical decision, they proved adept at looking many moves ahead, at recognizing points of attack and applying appropriate pressure.

When attacked, Obama’s responses have always been couched in the larger rationale for his candidacy. By branding Clinton as the status-quo, he has been able to draw a line between each of her attacks, stamping them out together, with a single, stinging line: “She will do anything to win this election.”

In recognition that chess can be a game of attrition, the Obama campaign did significant planning for the post-February 5th contests. Axelrod joked that “apparently [the Clinton campaign has] an 11-month calendar over there that’s missing the month of February,” an allusion to the Clinton campaign’s dismal planning. The Obama team recognized that in a mad-dash for delegates, losses had to be well-contested, and wins had to be inflated. While the Clinton campaign flailed, the Obama campaign was replicating their Iowa template all across the country.

All told, the Obama campaign will be remembered as an extraordinary operation, innovative and compelling, easily the first of its kind. And as voters make their final decisions about whom to support as the nominee, one cannot imagine choosing Mark Penn over David Axelrod as head coach.

After all, this is chess. Not boxing.

***For more from Dylan Loewe, visitLoewe Political Report.

Originally posted to dloewe on Thu Feb 21, 2008 at 07:22 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Actually (6+ / 0-)

    Boxing is a lot like chess. Clinton's people aren't boxing very well. They're throwing wide, sweeping hay-makers that they telegraph from a mile away.

    A better comparison might be chess and checkers.

    •  I agree that there is a better boxing analogy (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      American Zapatista

      between Obama boxing for points and tactical maneuvering designed to go the distance and the sweeping hay-makers that Hillary has been throwing. And it looks as if her campaign counted on having the DNC being as fair as the notoriously crooked boxing commissions and the judges giving her the win unless Obama won by knock out.

      Don't look now, but Hillary's already had one standing eight count, and she looks like she's back up against the ropes again.

  •  True for the most part, but . . . (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Prof Dave, Tackle

    the Obama campaign focused all of their attention on the early states, especially Iowa, recognizing that a win there would send Obama skyrocketing in the polls.

    Actually, Obama had field offices open in I think 22 states before the voting in Iowa, whereas Clinton might've had five or six. Same thing in post-Feb. 5 states, before Feb. 5. Yes, he definitely focused on the early states, but clearly not exclusively.

    •  Yes (0+ / 0-)

      and his timing in opening them was perfect.  They always had to work at a feverish pitch to make everything happen - and they did.

      His grind-it-out ground game won him this primary.  He made very few and small mistakes, and he stuck to message always.  

      Gotta give it to them.  Axelrod and Obama kicked ass.

  •  Nice diary (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueintheface, Tackle, Empower Ink, pvlb

    There have been quite a few times during the past six months that I was worried about the way Obama was running his campaign.  Now I realize that all my worrying was for nothing.  He really does know what he is doing.

  •  Haven't you heard of chess-boxing? It's quite (0+ / 0-)

    popular in Europe.
    Frankly, these comparisons of advisers are silly.
    The winner is always a "genius" and the loser always a "moron".
    In truth, the winner is lucky, more than anything.
    It's like the stock market. The odds are that there will be some winners---even big winners. Those people generally are no smarter than anyone else. They're just lucky.

    One thing all campaign advisers seem to have in common is that they are complete morons on policy.
    Carville was; Rove was; and I infer that Axelrod is.
    Why? Mandates. Yes, going against mandates is smart politically, but it's terrible policy.
    When your Svengali makes the policy calls, they will always be wrong.

    •  I just don't see how mandates will work. (5+ / 0-)

      How will that address the cost of health-care?  How will telling Americans they must have insurance or face a penalty make said insurance more affordable?  How will it stop insurance abuses, and denials based on pre-existing conditions?

      Mandates do nothing to reform the system, they merely reinforce and prop up a broken one.

      An agnostic not because I don't know if there's a God, but because I don't care.

      by filmgeek83 on Thu Feb 21, 2008 at 07:38:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Mandates work because they include all adults (0+ / 0-)

        in the insurance pool, including the healthy ones.
        Under Obama's plan, healthy young adults don't have to buy insurance---and they won't.
        This makes his plan almost twice as expensive per capita as Clinton's.
        Btw, Obama will make you pay in the hospital if you seek care but haven't bought insurance. Is that really preferable? I don't think so.

        •  I just went over to her site and read her pdf. (5+ / 0-)

          She does nothing to cut the cost of health care. Zero.  Her solution to the rising cost of health insurance is tax cuts.  I'm so sick of tax cuts as solution to all our problems.  So, the cost of insurance will stay high, but you'll have extra money to pay for it?  Bullshit.  I'd rather pay higher taxes and eliminate insurance costs.  Or, barring that, I'd rather have access to cheap, government sponsored health insurance and pay for it, which would be like paying taxes anyway.

          Mandates don't work, they reward greedy insurance companies, and they don't need to be rewarded.

          An agnostic not because I don't know if there's a God, but because I don't care.

          by filmgeek83 on Thu Feb 21, 2008 at 07:48:06 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  OK....what is the Penality segment of HRC's Plan? (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Prof Dave, blueintheface
          1.  So what is the penalty if you don't buy insurance?  Garnish wages?  Fines?  Prison?  Please help me out.
          1.  And if you choose not to have insurance, even if it would be subsidized, then it should be free?  You have to sign up for food stamps for goodness can't walk into a supermarket and say I am starving, give me food for free.
        •  Yes, Boring, I Always Like to... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Prof Dave, blueintheface

          make insurance companies rich. And I look forward to having my wages garnished.

          Mandates have worked really well in MA. NOT.

  •  Thank you for clarifying this. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueintheface, Empower Ink

    A Chicago writer named Finley Peter Dunne once said "Politics ain't beanbag."  The Clinton staffers seem to be playing 'scumbag'.  However the analogy to a chess game seems more apropos.

    "Some men see things as they are and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'I need to quit drinking!'" - Greasy Grant

    by Greasy Grant on Thu Feb 21, 2008 at 07:43:43 AM PST

  •  March 4th is a double discovered check, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    leading to mate in 1.

    "Capital consists of living labor serving dead labor for the maintenance and expansion of the latter." --Karl Marx

    by Kab ibn al Ashraf on Thu Feb 21, 2008 at 07:55:49 AM PST

  •  Sound critique (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Good job, but should have mentioned Hillary's own plagiarism issues.

  •  Well put. An insurgency usually wins... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Prof Dave, blueintheface

    when the entrenched empire's general is intellectually rigid and strategically inept, incapable of playing the long, deep game.

    Obama and Axelrod must be delighted to be running against the myopic, tin-earred Mark "Jabba" Penn.

    Patti Solis Doyle fumbled Hillary's campaign financing. Penn has fumbled the message and tried to apply a Rovian divide-and-conquer, race-baiting strategy which is now massively collapsing.

    Hillary's campaign has degenerated into a series of desperate, flailing, negative, tactical attacks. Unfortunately for Hillary, she is saddled with a blackboard-scraping edge to her voice, and so her tactical political attacks tend to incite a reflexive cringe down the backs of listeners, especially of undecided ones. The more she attacks, the more voters she drives away. The more she campaigns, the lower she falls in the polls.

    As Sun Tzu observed 2,500 years ago in The Art of War:

    Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

    Hillary's campaign staff may have produced an inadvertently prophetic, self-referential campaign ad just before Super Tuesday. Remember Freefall?

    In terms of most policy positions, there is not much distance between Obama and Hillary, except on Iraq and foreign policy in general. But at least thus far, the insurgent Obama and Axelrod have run by far the more strategically adept campaign against a rather flat-footed empress with her retinue of ineffectual courtiers and a meddling consort/regent, i.e., Bill, who for the most part has undercut Hillary's credibility as an independent leader.

  •  I have (0+ / 0-)

    subscribed to your diary here and like your writing, but I wish that if you continue to post here that you do more than a "drive-by".  That is to say, if you are going to post here, stick around and discuss it with those reading it instead of cross-posting and leaving.  

    It doesn't help your cause, really.  Even David Sirota and others have started to have some discussion rather than do drive-bys.

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