The Chicago Way: Obama as the heir to Lee Atwater

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the
hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That’s* the *Chicago* way!” (The Untouchables

Not that long ago, the Republican Party was a ruthless election machine.  You may not have approved of its tactics (Willie Horton, anyone?) but you couldn’t deny its results.

Now there’s a new sheriff in town.  Republicans have tried to paint Barack Obama as a Chicago politician.  And they’re right.  Obama’s presidential campaigns have been masterpieces of electioneering.  And I’m not just talking about things like tapping into grassroots over the internet.

At every stage, the Obama campaign has showed a ruthless willingness to exploit any possible advantage, especially in terms of money.  In 2008, Obama turned down public financing so he could take advantage of his fundraising machine, and buried the much poorer McCain campaign.  McCain was likely to lose anyways, but no sense taking chances.

This cycle, the Obama campaign did something similar to Mitt Romney:

One Sunday in May, Mr. Messina, the manager of President Barack Obama’s
re-election campaign, went to the president along with other top
advisers and proposed an unorthodox strategy. The campaign, he said,
wanted to spend heavily, starting immediately, on ads blasting away at
Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in
the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters’ impressions with a heavy
expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The
plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start
slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And
it could leave the president exposed later.

“If it doesn’t work, we’re not going to
have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall,” Mr. Messina
said, according to people in the meeting.

The strategy also caught Mr. Romney at his most vulnerable time. The
Republican nominee had been damaged by the bruising primary season. He
limped out of it in mid-April battered and short on money to defend

His top advisers
faced the harsh reality that no matter how much money they raised for
the general election, they couldn’t, under election law, spend it until
Mr. Romney officially claimed his party’s nomination in late August. Mr.
Romney would have to weather months of negative ads without the
financial resources to respond forcefully.

This is tough-minded, hard-nosed campaigning.  Obama’s campaign broke with conventional wisdom and attacked when the opposition was fiscally vulnerable.  It’s like kicking a guy when he’s down, and if you’ve ever been around me when I’m watching an action movie, you’d know how much I favor that strategy.  If there’s a woman in peril who kicks her assailant in the groin and runs while he’s on the ground, you’ll hear me shout, “No, you idiot, kick him when he’s down!  You don’t have to run if you fracture his skull and kill him!”

You don’t have to admire the tactics or even the candidate to appreciate watching a master at work.*

* As one friend (who voted for Obama) noted when I described my admiration, “Too bad his team doesn’t bring the same competence to governing!”

1 thought on “The Chicago Way: Obama as the heir to Lee Atwater

  1. It would be nice if Obama didn't have a three-step plan cribbed from the Underpants Gnomes:

    1. Taxes
    2. ???
    3. Profit!

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