I was reading this Andrew Ferguson article on Fred Thompson’s campaign, and it occurred to me that Thompson suffered from a deficiency of the thing that Obama has in excess, and this excess will eventually bring down the latter as surely as the deficiency has the former. Thompson and Obama do not have exactly the same problem, obviously, but their problems are related. Thompson was the candidate who hated process and did not like to be constrained by the rules of the process in this cycle. It was a telling moment for Thompson that one of his best moments in the entire campaign was his refusal to raise his hand in a debate, the perfect example of a rebellion against a genuinely stupid part of the process that nonetheless reflected a deeper antipathy to the role of the media in campaigns. Huckabee and McCain, by contrast, are virtually always available to journalists and talk shows (how many times has Huckabee been on Scarborough’s show? at least 32 times), while the loathing for the ultra-scripted Romney among many journalists is palpable. Accessibility and personaibility lead to more and more positive coverage.
On the other side, Obama is obsessed with process and with transforming process. To that end, Obama subjects himself to the rigours of campaigning more readily than Thompson was ever willing to do (it helps that he is also twenty years younger), but also gives the impression that he finds much of it as distasteful as Thompson does. (In fairness, I think any reasonably well-adjusted, intelligent human being would have to have distaste for what these people are called upon to do–put it down as another mark against mass democracy.) It is in his desire to “change” the process and “change” politics in the capital that Obama wins the endless positive coverage from the press, while he feeds their cynical hearts with the ambrosia of his “uplifting” rhetoric. Thompson was hoping to change the electoral process by ignoring the rules, while Obama wants transformation of politics as such by going along with them, albeit somewhat reluctantly. The chant that has now become an inescapable part of the Obama campaign, “Fired up! Ready to go!” was, as many of you will already know, the product of Obama’s own listlessness one early morning on the campaign trail when his supporters had to spur him on.
Michael Crowley described the scene last fall:
Tired and cranky, he steps out into a downpour, and his umbrella blows inside out. On the interminable drive, “my staff’s not talking to me because they know I’m in a bad mood.” Obama arrives at a small building to find a mere 20 supporters. “And they don’t look too happy to be there, either.” The mood shifts, however, when an elderly woman in the back strikes up a call-and-response cheer. “Fire it up!” she shouts. “Ready to go!” answers the group. Obama describes being baffled at first. But then, he says, “I’m startin’ to feel fired up! I’m feeling ready to go!” At big rallies, the recitation of the anecdote culminates with Obama himself leading a spirited call and response with his crowd. “Fire it up!” “Ready to go!” “Fire it up!” “Ready to go!”
It’s an uplifting story. But it’s also, notably, one about a cranky candidate who needs firing up in the first place.
Both candidacies emerged in a similar way, as the result of glowing media coverage and an initially enthusiastic response to the personality of the candidate, but their fortunes diverged sharply as Thompson embraced a largely adversarial relationship with all media, both mainstream and conservative, and Obama cultivated his media image and his campaign remained fairly open to journalists. Both are celebrity candidates, but an important difference in their fortunes is that Thompson made the mistake of shunning the trappings of being a celebrity and sought instead to become the Serious Policy Candidate. The policies he proposed were often quite good by conservative standards, but evidently he thought that he had been drafted into the race because he was smart and informed, and not because he had a deep baritone and made jokes about sending Michael Moore to mental asylum. Obama, meanwhile, has done best when he keeps substance to a minimum and can talk about being a hopemonger. The hopemonger who nourishes the media with high-flown, empty talk naturally fares much better than the candidate who takes a certain pride in his contempt for mass media (a notable if not entirely surprising attitude for an actor to take). In the end, however, even the hopemonger must provide more than fluff and soaring phrases. When he has tried to provide this, as he has done in the debates, the “magic” of his speeches is gone and he reverts to the one-term Senator with slightly uneven delivery, a lack of discipline in fending off attacks and too little, well, “fire in the belly” for throwing punches at his rivals.