It is dangerous to assume your opponent will screw up.
‘Axelrod is endeavoring not to panic.” So reads a sentence in John Heilemann’s exhaustive article on Barack Obama’s campaign in this week’s New York magazine.
Heilemann is a fine reporter and was co-author with Time’s Mark Halperin of a best-selling book on the 2008 presidential campaign. While his sympathies are undoubtedly with Obama, he does a fine job of summarizing the arguments and tactics of both sides.
And he’s capable of directing snark at both candidates. Samples: Romney “seems to suffer a hybrid of affluenza and Tourette’s.” “A cynic might say that the liberation Obama feels is the freedom from, you know, actually governing.”
Heilemann’s article is well-sourced. It’s based on interviews with David Axelrod, the former White House aide now back in Chicago, David Plouffe, the 2008 manager now in the White House, and Jim Messina, the current campaign manager.
The picture Heilemann draws is of campaign managers whose assumptions have been proved wrong and who seem to be fooling themselves about what will work in the campaign.
One assumption that has been proved wrong is that the Obama campaign would raise $1 billion and that, as in 2008, far more money would be spent for Democrats than Republicans.
Heilemann reports the campaign managers’ alibis. Obama has given donors “shabby treatment,” he writes. This of a president who has attended more fundraisers than his four predecessors combined.
As for the Obama-authorized super PAC being $90 million short of its $100 million goal, well, it was late getting started and some money-givers don’t like negative ads.
A more plausible explanation is that big Democratic donors don’t trust the political judgment of super-PAC head Bill Burton — who was passed over for promotion to White House press secretary — the way big Republican donors trust Karl Rove.
Here’s another: A lot of people like the way Obama has governed less than they liked the idea of Obama governing.
A second assumption is that the Obama managers “see Romney as a walking, talking bull’s-eye” and have “contempt for his skills as a political performer.”
You can find some basis for this in Romney’s performance in the primaries. But you can also find evidence to the contrary. In my own experience as a political consultant, I found it dangerous to assume your opponents will screw up. Sometimes they don’t.