Hillary skidded on gasoline

I’m sure it sounded like a good idea when someone in the McCain camp came up with the idea of the “gas tax holiday” message. “It shows you care,” someone would have said. Over in the Clinton camp, you can imagine the discussion that lead to upping the ante. Go McCain one better. Give voters a three-month tax holiday and make Big Oil pay for it. Classic Clinton. Not only would the candidate demonstrate that she felt voters’ pain, she would pass it on to the big corporations making billions off higher gas prices. “What could Barack Obama do to top that?” someone must have wondered.

Well, we’ve now seen what he could do. He could use it as a lever to get the discussion off the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and back on the politics of the future. As I wrote here last week, my “lunch bunch” focus group was a lot more concerned with the price of diesel than with the rantings of a wild-eyed preacher. They were also smart enough to know that both John McCain and Hillary Clinton were pandering. Playing politics. Doing what candidates always do — making a promise they knew there was no way they could keep.

The Clinton campaign demonstrated once again that they really know how to play 20th-century politics. They also showed that they do not understand what has attracted so many younger and better-educated Democrats to Barack Obama. America is experiencing a paradigm shift in political discourse. I’ve written here before about how Obama’s message of hope and cooperation and thoughtful change has energized a new generation of voters.

African-Americans, younger voters and college-educated voters have built a new coalition that is challenging the traditional Democratic base that Hillary Clinton has relied on, and that has delivered for her in many of the primaries. It just hasn’t delivered in enough of them.

One of the lessons I’ve learned in over a quarter-century of waging issue advocacy campaigns is the importance of opinion leaders. About 25 to 30 percent of the American population falls into that category. They don’t all have college degrees, although many do. They tend to be higher-income, but many are salaried, blue-collar working people. They aren’t all liberal — in fact, they tend to be independent or Republican — and they aren’t “elitists.” 

But they are informed. They spend more time online, read more newspapers, watch more cable news and listen to more talk radio. They are involved in the political process and often interpret events for their peers. They tend to be good indicators of where the nation is headed. In 2008 they are fed up with politics as usual.

Democrats and independents among them fueled the Obama campaign. But in Pennsylvania Obama seemed to play the same political game as the rest of the field. After his loss there many pundits were saying he should go on the attack, as Clinton had done. Then the Rev. Wright rolled his hate grenades onto the playing field. Obama responded forcefully but seemed a bit off stride, prompting some pundits to suggest the candidate, if not the campaign, had run out of steam.

Then Hillary Clinton went on the attack with her gas tax holiday. With two-thirds of voters citing the economy as their top issue, it must have seemed like a knock-out punch to many of her advisers. Instead, it put Obama back on message. He called it a gimmick. He put together a thoughtful, rational response explaining that such political sleight of hand was exactly what was wrong with Washington. First of all, it was never going to happen — not with George Bush in the White House. Second, it was a $28 feel-good pill that had nothing to do with the real problem. Finally, it was the worst kind of political pandering.

Hillary Clinton stuck to her guns, even dismissing all the economists who said the plan wouldn’t work by saying she paid no attention to academics and elitists. It was so 20th century, and it fell flat even among blue-collar Indiana voters.

Obama’s high-road approach reminded voters of what they liked about him. “What Sen. Obama proved tonight was, the first thing he is going to change about America is how an American candidate for president gets elected,” said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) on election night. If Barack Obama stays true to his message, his instincts and his 21st-century approach to politics, Mr. Wexler may well be proven right.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.   E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com