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The "Grist for the Mill" Strategy

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Yesterday's speech on race in America should serve as a template for how Obama should conduct the heart of his campaign for the forseeable future, perhaps all the way until the election in November.

The template consists of this:  Obama should regularly get on the news by manifesting the essence of what he and his candidacy are about.

The "get on the news" part is what requires elucidation.  We should be clear:  the media did not treat this speech on race as a headline story because it was eloquent, because it movingly built bridges across our divisions in a brilliantly even-handed way, or because it offered hope for healing America.  No, this speech was given attention because it was a response to a dramatic problem that threatened to do serious injury to Obama's candidacy.

The media are interested in conflict and drama.  A candidate could have a fool-proof blueprint to make America into heaven and earth, and it wouldn't make the news in today's America.  A candidate could have a vision of how to renew the shedding of God's grace on America, and the media we have today could care less.  For them, the campaign is a boxing match, and they treat as important every blow, however low, and keep their eyes peeled for any sign of cuts and bleeding.

The videos of Pastor Wright's inflammatory comments seemed to put Obama on the ropes, and so the media were eager to see if the challenger could take the punch and survive the round.  Had Obama come up with a speech to reply to the ad with the 3 AM phone call on the red phone, that speech too would have been "news."

Thus, for Obama, every blow that excites the media is an opportunity.  Every attack is grist for his mill.  

That takes care of the "grist" part of the strategy:  Obama is going to be attacked, and every attack becomes an opportunity to get the attention he needs to reveal himself to the American people.

Then there's the "mill" part of the strategy:  how Obama grinds that grist into something that will feed his message.

In the race speech, Obama revealed many of those salient virtues that make him the leader that America needs, a figure so much finer than his opponents that no one with half an eye open could miss the difference.  Not least, he had a chance to demonstrate his compassion and his ability to understand and embrace both sides of a festering division.

Other attacks will bring up matters other than race, but whatever issues they raise --fear-mongering, negativity, divisiveness, unfairness, lack of principle, unwillingness to respect the rules (to name some we've witnessed recently)-- they can lead Obama into the same core message that he's been presenting from the outset:  He wants to elevate America, to heal America, to work with the people of America to make genuine progress toward realizing the best of our promise as a nation.  

Obama is a great speaker and he composes great speeches.  Every chance he gets to show his heart and soul and vision to America will boost his campaign.  Now that there is a stretch with no primaries to give him a Tuesday night spotlight on national television, he needs to continue to introduce himself to America through this wonderful gift he has.  

I'd say he should not let two weeks go by without such a speech.  Even if he has to give up some of the routine campaign appearances to compose these speeches, he should do it.  Campaign appearances are retail, while speeches like the one yesterday are wholesale.  Since Obama does not initiate food fights, he doesn't otherwise get to choose how he gets onto the mass media.  And then, because his opponent does, his appearances are always on the defensive.  This is what has happened for the past two and a half weeks, until yesterday, and it weakened him.

Yesterday’s speech clearly strengthened Obama, and the numbers on Intrade (which had been drifting downward since the Ohio/Texas primaries) showed it.

The "grist for the mill" speeches are the way to respond to the attacks, and they are the way to control in a powerful way what it is that he shows the nation.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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