GELFAND’S WORLD--Yes We (Still) Canis a recent book that has much to teach us about what it will take to win back the presidency in 2020.
Author Dan Pfeiffer worked for Barack Obama from the early days of the 2008 campaign right up through 2015, at one point rising to the post of White House Communications Director. Reading between the lines, I began to draw a few conclusions, one being that all of us in the anti-Trump camp should be setting aside fantasies about bringing back Bernie for one more run, or imagining that there is some collection of position papers and promised policies that will cobble together a bare majority in the Electoral College.
Although Pfeiffer does not say it overtly, what comes through in his book is the message that we should be looking for another Barack Obama in time for the 2020 battle. We need somebody who not only can tell a good story. He has to be a good story.
The book is something of an Obama hagiography, but comes across as heartfelt. Pfeiffer has a few points to make about Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination (which she famously lost to Obama):
"The mistake most politicians make is that they start with the focus-group-tested sound bite instead of the larger story.
"Hillary Clinton struggled with this throughout her 2008 campaign. Her campaign changed messages like most people change socks. It was the worst of what I call lowest common denominator campaign strategy. No one on the team can agree, so you take a little from column A and a little from column B, meld it together, so people will stop fighting, and the meeting can end. This was most comically evident in Hillary Clinton's final tour of Iowa in late 2007."
Pfeiffer then points out that the Clinton campaign settled on the following slogan: "The Big Challenges, Real Solutions: Time to Pick a President Tour."
What I abstracted out of these passages and the experience of several presidential campaigns is something like this: Hillary Clinton, a very smart and learned person, has always tried to play the politician rather than the intellectual and moral leader. This was most evident in her vote in favor of the Iraq war, which as much as anything else, soured a lot of Democrats on her in 2008.
Pfeiffer's background is an interesting element. He was a young man fresh out of Georgetown University who couldn't quite decide to go to law school, so he worked in Democratic politics for a while. By 2007, he was tired and disillusioned. Then inspiration struck in the form of his exposure to a young politician named Barack Obama. He joined the Obama campaign in 2007, went to work in the White House after the election, and eventually became White House Communications Director. He spent his final White House years through 2015 as Senior Advisor to the president.
He spent the evening of the 2016 presidential election in shock and surprise, and woke the next morning not to a Brave New World, but to a world of Fear and Loathing. What to do?
Pfeiffer and three of his colleagues decided to create the podcast called Pod Save America. The title contains multiple layers of puns. (Did they consider the pods in the classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers?) In any case, Pod Save America (with the unfortunate acronym PSA attached to it) has become a big hit. It has a substantial following. We found that out at a recent discussion put on by the local organization Writers Bloc, the PSA guys spoke to an audience of nearly a thousand, many wearing their Pod Save America shirts.
The book and the live presentation pointed out the problems inherent in Facebook and Twitter. The problem presented by Trump's tweets is pretty obvious to almost every American, but the complexity of the Facebook problem is yet to be solved. I will leave this discussion to readers of the book, but will take one quote as illustrative: "If fake news is the disease, Facebook is the carrier." Pfeiffer explains that fake news stories that spread through the population during the Obama presidency were passed along on Facebook.
The other major problem is, of course, Fox News. Pfeiffer does not mince words, pointing out that Fox News functions primarily as a propaganda organ for the Republican Party. Its one essential function is to damage the opposition and support Republicans. More and more, it is focused on supporting Trump insiders.
These points aren't exactly new, but the take home lesson is that we should give up any false hopes that Fox News or right wing talk radio will somehow reform.
Just in case there is anyone out there who doesn't know what a podcast is, it is a digital audio recording that you can access through your phone or computer. The term apparently came about when audio downloads became available for the then-new device called the iPod. I haven't been a big follower of the podcast phenomenon, but there are tens of thousands available, and the series called Pod Save America is one of them.
I listened to the most recent Pod Save America. As a media critic, I find the genre a bit slow. In this case, the four presenters went on for an hour and a half. The first hour consisted of a discussion of the week's political news, the big story being the special election for the 12th Ohio congressional seat. I didn't hear anything that I hadn't already read on internet sites such as Vox or Talking Points Memo, but they got the major points in. The final half hour was more interesting, as it featured an interview with a man who had founded a Twitter campaign to dissuade advertisers from allowing their ads to run on Breitbart. Usable information on resisting the right wing is always of interest.
In brief, the podcast medium can be interesting, but like history plays or Wagnerian opera, it takes a bit of getting used to.
The overall lesson from Yes We (Still) Can and the podcast is that things are really bad, but we can effectively resist going down the drain. The main takeaway seems to be that people have to vote. That doesn't seem to be very new, but it is timely. Moreover, trying to convince people to vote is a position that rejects the cynical view that "all politicians are crooks" and that the parties are alike.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)