What the White House Didn't Learn from the Obama Campaign.

My friend Ed Luce at the Financial Times has written what seems to me the best and most succinct rundown of what's gone wrong in the White House, with particular attention to the role of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

A concluding theme of the piece is that the White House, flush with the enthusiasm of an "amazing victory" in 2008, essentially carried the mood and tactics of the campaign into the White House. The November trip to China, in which administration officials with expertise on China were apparently kept at bay by Obama's inner circle, is described as, "the Obama campaign goes to China."

But in one important respect, the article suggests that the White House forgot the campaign's most significant political innovation, the one without which either Hillary Clinton or John McCain would be president. Here's a key quote from the piece:

“The whole Rahm Emanuel approach is that victory begets victory – the success of healthcare would create the momentum for cap-and-trade and then financial sector reform,” says one close ally of Mr Obama. “But what happens if the first in the sequence is defeat?”

In other words, the White House embraced a momentum strategy -- move fast, move big, and once things are rolling, they'll keep rolling. That's a very traditional way to see a new presidency. It's the legend of FDR's Hundred Days; it's Reagan in 1981; it's advice Obama probably got from almost everyone.

But momentum -- big victories beget victories -- was not the only strategy. And a momentum strategy has a significant downside: Since everything follows from the first victories, the only thing the other side has to do is stop the first, and the whole train runs off the rails. And while there is a powerful case that health reform should have priority on an economic and moral basis, putting it at the head of a momentum strategy, based on history, is not the soundest bet.

The thing is, momentum, or "victory begets victory," is the traditional advice given to insurgent presidential candidates as well. In place of health reform, put "New Hampshire," and the formula is the same. Presidential campaigns pour all their resources into Iowa and New Hampshire on the theory that if they win, more victories and more money will follow, and if not, they're doomed anyway. But the actual brilliance of the Obama campaign was to recognize -- after losing the Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary -- that every victory is its own accomplishment and none actually matters more than the delegates it produces. Rejecting a momentum theory, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe deployed resources to dozens of states that wouldn't vote for weeks, picking off a dozen or more caucuses and primaries through that patient, grind-it-out strategy that resulted in winning the nomination on points, not a momentum-driven knockout.

Could there have been a governing equivalent to the Obama political strategy -- a comparable patient, grind-it-out, accumulation of small wins, building up to bigger consequences? It's hard to say. Just like the political strategy, it's never really been tried -- certainly not by Democrats. And Emanuel is hardly alone in believing that a momentum strategy with health care in the lead was the administration's best and only option. Indeed, many of Emanuel's sharpest critics from the left would have been even more outraged if the administration had pursued a different strategy. But all that's finished now, and a more strategic, piecemeal strategy is the only option that remains. Fortunately, it's the one that Obama has already mastered.

-- Mark Schmitt

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