Symptoms Of A Failing Presidential Campaign

Opinion

 
on June 14 2012 4:20 PM

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But this doesn't apply to those human organizations known as political campaigns.  Having worked on my fair share of failed campaigns, I contend they are indeed all alike.  This is good news for Mitt Romney and bad news for President Barack Obama -- I'm detecting some familiar signs emanating from the White House and Chicago.

Here are two losing symptoms that I've spotted lately:

Your friends look semi-funereal.  We all know the look. The stiff, sad-ish face you put on for the funeral of someone to whom you're not really close.  I'm seeing a lot of it on Morning Joe these days, by the lefties, not by the Joe himself.  Liberals must be asking themselves how much they want to invest in a sinking ship.  Hint:  If you're not invested, you won't feel so badly when the ship sinks.  Lifeboats, anyone?

Your friends make excuses for you.  This week it's:  Obama has a day job, so he can't campaign as much as Romney. But wait, wasn't the long primary season supposed to be bad for Romney?  What happened to the power of incumbency?  And if the president is so darn busy, how did he have the time to write a kid's book?  And how about Obama's much-vaunted ability in 2008 to campaign and simultaneously deal with the financial meltdown -- I guess that vanished like a you-know-what in the wind.

But we have a ways to go before the November election, so here are three more symptoms to watch for in the coming months:

When the campaign chants: It'll get better once we ....  This was the mantra of George H.W. Bush's losing campaign in 1992.  Bush's operatives pinned their electoral hopes on some big thing, usually a speech, that (they hoped) would wow the voters and seal the deal.  Look at the puffery around Obama's major economic speech Thursday in Cleveland.  Pundits are asking, (and hoping) Will this get Obama out of the doldrums? Be warned. Later this year, it'll be all about Obama's performance at the convention.  Look for those semi-funereal talking heads and fake-cheery campaign aides repeating like zombies: The president's numbers will get better once he gives his convention speech.

When campaign consultants blame each other in the press.  For normal humans, campaigns exist at the margins of our lives.  For consultants, however, it's a front-and-center paycheck.  When they start to publicly fret about the current campaign's impact on their ability to get their next job, that's a bad sign.  For example, in the closing weeks of John McCain's 2008 presidential run, the big story was about the furious finger-pointing surrounding his campaign's handling of Sarah Palin.  Did the story add to McCain's slide in the polls?  It certainly didn't help him as it added to the Obama campaign's argument that McCain couldn't manage things.  While this sort of piling-on is a troubling sign, the absolute worst is ...

When supporters start blaming the candidate and vice versa -- before the election.  This is a sure-fire indicator that the campaign is done.  Former supporters, to save face, paint the candidate as unsellable and/or incompetent.  Recall the final hours of the 2010 special Senate election in Massachusetts when we saw Rahm Emanuel scrambling to distance his then-boss Obama from Marsha Coakely's impending defeat to Scott Brown.  When some tried to pin Coakley's problems on lukewarm support by Obama, Emanuel turned the guns on Coakley via private conversations by Hill sources.

In those not-so-private conversations, the sources recounted Coakely's many flaws, such as refusing to do the grip-and-grin thing at Fenway Park and not being aggressive enough.  Coakley's campaign (remember, this was before the election) returned fire by leaking an adviser's memo that faulted D.C. Democrats (and their tepid support) for Coakley's problems.  This was a bottom-of-the-barrel bad that must have cheered Scott Brown.

Considering the current campaign, just how bad will it be for the Obama team between now and election day?  Keep this checklist handy and you'll be one of the first to know.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional Republican staff member at the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.

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