Both McCain and Obama are effectively running against Bush, but neither is able to frame his argument in a coherent way. That is, we have criticisms of this policy or that one, but no general position that ties them together and makes them look like anything more than random corrections. McCain’s problem is obvious—he’s really running against his party (the “maverick” trope)—but what about Obama?
Republicans have put forward different frames over recent years, but two are central to actual policy: free-market economics and the unrestricted, hegemonic use of police and military power (“standing tall”, “keeping us safe”). You could say that the current financial crisis blows away the first and that Iraq discredited the second. So this is an opportunity for the Democrats to engage in a little frame replacement to their own advantage. Instead, what do we get?
Obama talks about the Iraq disaster in an apolitical fashion, as a simple error in judgment. As one who saw through the bs from the beginning, he claims to have superior judgment compared to someone like McCain. What’s missing, however, is how his rejection of Bush’s war reflects a broader position on military and foreign policy. No doubt he is afraid of being labeled “soft”, and this explains his reckless belligerence regarding Pakistan. Yet it would not be very difficult to construct a politically saleable alternative to the shoot’em up philosophy of Bush/McCain.
You’d think he would do better on the economic side. The lessons of the financial mess are straightforward and lend themselves to a reframing of the public role in directing the economy. Still, Obama goes only halfway. He talks repeatedly of the “failed philosophy of the last eight years”, but he says nothing about what the new philosophy should be.
A failure to frame is politically disabling on multiple levels. It cedes too much of the political turf from the outset, and does nothing to predispose the voters to support you. It means that every policy initiative has to start from zero, with no ideological headstart. Above all, it represents an abandonment of the leadership role of politics, the struggle to change the political center of gravity. If one side hammers relentlessly on its frames and the other talks about competence and judgment—well, we know what you get.
There is no evidence at this point that the Democrats are prepared to conduct a political fight in broad daylight to change the direction of this country.