Mark Ambinder on hunting the Mama Grizzly

Why Barack Obama needs to go after Sarah Palin.

If I had to make a living by correctly predicting political outcomes, I’d starve. (Ask President Gore and President Kerry.) So when I say that the Democrats ought to make Sarah Palin the issue for this November, my opinion ought to trade at a hefty discount.

But Mark Ambinder does political analysis for a living, so when he says the same thing you should pay attention. The “small gummint” shtick, no matter how bogus it is, has real resonance with swing voters. But they’re mostly over the culture wars, and Palin is the culture-war candidate extraordinaire.

Whatever else a President can or can’t do, he can always make news. And of course the 24-hour news cycle lives on interpersonal conflict. “Obama Attacks Palin” is a great headline. He can, and should, do it gently, and with humor. But this can’t be left entirely to subordinates. We need to haul out the big gun.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

18 thoughts on “Mark Ambinder on hunting the Mama Grizzly”

  1. I don't know. If you happened to see Jon Stewart's announcement of his planned rally, there was something very appealing in his attitude toward all the radical, culture war discourse – of which Palin certainly is the Mama Grizzly. It seemed to transcend the pettiness and dishonesty. I'm not sure how it's done (and that's a big problem), but finding a way to reclaim the narrative without meeting them on their own turf seems important.

    I guess I'm just worried that we'll end up playing right into their anti-authority victim shtick.

  2. She and her followers thrive on victimhood. (And is there anything more pitiable than the modern conservative?) I can't see giving them what they want.

  3. Attacking Sarah Palin is something a Republican leader can profitably do. If Obama were a Republican President, struggling against Palin for the loyalties of conservative voters, this recommendation would make some sense. Palin appeals to the fallen angels of the conservative soul; and an Eisenhower-figure might attempt to appeal to the better angels of Republican nature.

    Obama's coalition in 2008, took a slice of secular conservatives, repulsed by the increasing irrationality and irresponsibility of the Bush Administration, and brought them into the Democratic electorate (and more important) fund-raising base. It was always a politics of centrism, and the price of that centrism, has been Republican policy. On the wars, on torture, on the financial crisis, and, yes, on health insurance reform, Obama's policy has been the policy of a moderate Republican. Shockingly, Democratic constituencies are not all that enthusiastic about the consequences for them, of Republican policy.

    An Obama tactic of attacking Palin (who is not running for any elective office, and would not be viable as a candidate, if she was) and the tea partiers, has, as its best possible result, the defeat of a few Tea Party Senate candidates. It will make the loss of the House inevitable, and leave the Democrats in only nominal control of a Senate dominated by Republicans and very conservative Democrats.

    That's a desirable result, how?

    Oh, I forgot the mantra: "it could be so much worse!" This is cheerleading in a game, which is being actively manipulated, in order to remove all choice, which might affect policy.

  4. Umm, I think only one of the above mentioned got enough votes to earn the title of President. It's just too bad he couldn't get a handful more.

  5. These candidates are declining to appear on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, or , in O'Donnell's case, even on Fox News Sunday. Maybe their opponents' theme ought to be, "If they can't stand up to Bob Schieffer, what makes you think they will stand up for you in Washington?"

    It won't influence the true believers, who see their beloved idols as victims of the mainstream media, but it seems that some big national figure (ain't this what vice presidents are supposed to be for?) should get on TV and ask, "What kind of mama grizzly is it that runs away from a TV camera?"

    Even the "small gummint" rednecks ought to get that one.

  6. "To all, may you be sealed for a good year."

    I'll settle for a beat-the-expectations year. Ah, life, New Hampshire primary — which of you imitates the other?

    Oh, and Stewart's rally will never happen. The Interior Dept. will be bullied into not granting the relevant permits, on the grounds that green-lighting Stewart's rally would amount to the Federal gov't choosing sides in an election. Which it can't do.

    Granting the teahadis their permits, etc. — well, that's just respecting the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition for the redress of grievances.

  7. Bruce, I think that's pretty fair. What I don't get, however, is why the centrist Republicans thought Obama was a good choice. These are probably the people we hear who say – I voted for Obama, but this isn't the change I wanted! OK. So what did they have in mind? Even if they weren't paying attention to his campaign promises – which he's been pretty consistent on, what did they want?

    I think the most legitimate critiques of Obama are that he hasn't been liberal enough. I can see Democrats being disappointed, but the Republican centrists ought to be thrilled with his conservatism on wars, Guantanamo, don't ask, financial reform, cap and trade, health care reform, education reform, tax cuts for the middle class, etc.

    I guess the question is why the radical right/Tea Party has won these voters over. Aren't these the positions that centrists are essentially defined by. Has right-centrism somehow disappeared? Or have they bought the radicalist propaganda that Obama is somehow radically left?

  8. We're all victims of the mainstream media, Ed. At least the Tea Partiers are dimly aware of that.

    Bob Schieffer? Really? That would be the Bob Schieffer, who was a close personal friend of George W. Bush? (Bob's brother, Tom, was a business partner of GWB in the Texas Rangers, and served as an Ambassador in the Bush Administration, as well as a major campaign fundraiser. I believe that was the foundation for the personal association of Bob and G.)

    The idea that Bob Shieffer exemplifies "liberal bias" in the media has been a staple of right-wing propaganda for years, when, in fact, Bob Schieffer, though generally at least minimally professional as a journalist, often shows hostility to Democrats and to liberal ideas, while feeding the public Republican talking points.

    We're way down the road from the right-wing merely "working the refs". The "refs" were bought up a long time ago. And, if your brilliant idea is propaganda to the effect that Bob Schieffer is an exemplar of journalistic professionalism, that tactic will backfire, because he will savage Democrats/liberals/progressives, while delivering Republican talking points, as he has been doing, practically his entire career. You will build up a credibility Bob Schieffer hasn't earned, and then, Bob Schieffer will use that credibility to destroy Democratic candidates and ideas.

    I'm not saying that there's any obvious way out of that. But, if we're going to find even a non-obvious way out, we need to take a more realistic strategic view. Sarah Palin is a gambit — a channel of populist resentment, bought, paid-for and brand-managed by the plutocracy's corporate media. The populist resentment is well-grounded in the reality of policy and its effects, even if the ideological content is utter ignorant nonsense (by design; see Beck, Glenn). The plutocrats want to motivate an ineffectual political tribalism, which is only going to be exacerbated by attacking Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin, personally, will make millions as a celebrity spokes-person politician, as utterly fake as the star of any reality teevee show, and that's what her "leadership" in the Tea Party movement is — a reality teevee show personality. (That's one of Marc Ambinder's more incisive points, and something worth paying attention to. Ambinder is a conservative voice of the plutocracy, and his endorsement of a strategy ought to be treated with as much skepticism as the recommendations of Karl Rove to the Democrats.)

  9. Bruce, I think that’s pretty fair. What I don’t get, however, is why the centrist Republicans thought Obama was a good choice.

    Some voted for Obama because they could. They could vote for the colored guy, and get the "You're just racist" monkey off their back. They could show the world that this is a big country, not just a large country, or a strong country, or a rich one. Or did it so the could tell their kids "I did so vote for Obama". It's tokenism, to be sure, but tokenism of this sort is a benign vice.

    Policy had nothing to do with it, and with the election done and dusted, any attachment to Obama, his administration, his party, his party's agenda, and Uncle-Tom-Cobley-and-all went into a box in the hall closet with the tennis racket from thirty-five years ago.

  10. Eli: "I don’t get, however, is why the centrist Republicans thought Obama was a good choice. These are probably the people we hear who say – I voted for Obama, but this isn’t the change I wanted!"

    The people I meant to identify as centrist Republicans probably are pretty satisfied with Obama. I'm imagining people, whose worldview is exemplified by Chuck Hagel or Richard Posner (that is, conservatives, who have something like a coherent world-view), as well as standard-issue split-the-baby "moderates", and corporate chieftains, who want the world to continue working well enough that they can make their millions, while keeping their victims and critics at bay. Obama has been absolutely great for the last group, who are our ruling class. And, except for funding, I don't imagine anyone in these groups has much to do with the Tea Party. If anything, alarm about the Tea Party is meant to keep these folks in camp.

    The foundation of populist impulses in politics is the cluster of attitudes, somewhat unfortunately known as an "authoritarian personality". This is *not* a personal psychological pathology — we're talking about the normal range of attitudes and ambivalence that everyone shares. But, there's a definite cluster at a relative extreme of the range of various attitudes, which has been called, "right-wing authoritarianism", and, when groups form, which are made up, almost purely of people with that cluster of attitudes, those groups can become a source of social and political pathology.

    Bob Altemeyer is a good source on the social psychology, and he has a helpful note on the Tea Party movement.

  11. Going after Palin is without a doubt the correct strategy:

    1) The emergence of far-right nuts as the dominant force in the GOP is the Democrats' issue for this election. They're not going to run on the economy, and going after W seems too backward-looking.

    2) Palin is the face of GOP nuttery and is constantly in the news. She also endorsed most of them, and they owe her.

    3) There are too many O'Donnels and Bucks, etc., to go after individually. Palin embodies the most ridiculous aspects of these loons, e.g. pig ignorance, dodging the press.

    4) Palin is profoundly personally unpopular.

    5) No Republicans dare cross her, so if she wants to stay in the spotlight, she will. And she will want to.

    6) Palin supporters are already going to vote this Fall, but nothing is stirring up the liberals. The threat of the Palinocalypse will, somewhat.

    This is the only strategy left.

    So, of course, the Dems won't do it.

  12. Bruce Wilder has Bob Schieffer's number all right. But O'Donnell couldn't even face him. Hence the need for a 30 second spot with the Marlboro man (minus the cigarettes) dismounting from his horse, saying, "They don't make mama grizzlies like they used to. I never seen a mama grizzly that was afraid of a fella in a suit and tie."

    This would probably work better than a spot with a guy in a bookstore wearing a cardigan, saying, "What kind of mama grizzly runs away from Bob Schieffer? A soi-disant mama grizzly, that's my conjecture."

    Let the consultants decide.

  13. Toasters, it's about the marginal people, not the committed. The narrative needs to be Republicans are wacky, not Democrats (especially the President) are mean.

  14. Lots of smart comments on here, but as discussed before in Mark's "Strategy" post, I have one question to ask:

    Why get into it with someone who doesn't have to face a approval/disapproval poll on the Economy?

    Additionally, the racial overtones of headlines such as "Obama Attacks Palin" might be the kind of stuff that energizes the ultra scary Teahadists to come out in larger numbers. Why are we doing GoTV for these people?

    Ok so it's more like two questions.

  15. BruinAlum– The Teahadists are already near maxed out in GOTV. Something needs to scare liberals and moderates into voting their interests.

    CharleyCarp– um, I agree that the narrative needs to be "Republicans are wacky." It seems you think I don't.

  16. calling all toasters: until recently, I thought there couldn't be any more of these crazy teabaggers out, but with the kind of smearing going on, especially the kind of obvious racial smearing going on (i.e., "Luo tribesman") it's a play for fear.

    The thing that's always baffled me, and I myself don't know the answer, why isn't our side as good as they are about creating hysteria based on hyperbole, lies, and a victimhood that the media isn't covering "the whole story"? Why can't we smear the other side with suggestive nicknames and twist someone else's history to scare voters into our camp? Is it because we feel we don't need to do that? Because we don't think like fear mongering plutocrats? Because we think birth certificates are boring?

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