Go negative, Barack
If the Obama campaign is making one major mistake, it's underestimating their opponent, John McCain; how desperate he is to win the presidency, and how low he is willing to sink in order to do so. As Josh Marshall pointed out today, to my firm agreement, McCain has already so sullied his reputation as a "maverick," an independent thinker, and an honorable man, he has to win this election, or slink back to the Senate as little more than an angry old man.
If Team Obama is making a second mistake, it's overestimating the sophistication of the average voter, who really is only lightly paying attention to the details, and thus is susceptible to generic negative messages like those being proffered daily by the McCain campaign. In fact, the sheer barrage of negative messages is offering any voter who may have, say, race-based discomfort with Barack to choose from any number of alternative "trap doors" through which to fall and not vote for him, even if they don't like McCain.
If the Obama team is making a third mistake, it is underestimating the determination of the media to make the 2008 election a horse race, and thus, to keep McCain in the running. Dana Milbank should have taught them that the media is almost institutionally biased in favor of the Republican in the race, if for no other reason than to prove to themselves that they are not institutionally biased toward the Democrat in the race. They will continue to bend over backward to advance whatever narrative McCain's team puts forward, no matter how absurd, in order to keep the tight race (and the ratings) going.
Therefore, brushing off McCain's attacks will not be enough. Assuming that "no intelligent person would buy his sophomoric attacks" risks seriously overestimating the number of intelligent people, and thus is a recipe for losing the election. And counting on the press to clear up the lies makes about as much sense as handing the campaign's messaging over to Dana Milbank.
Jonathan Chait makes it plain in his widely circulated LAT column today:
Obama is making the enormous mistake of letting the race be entirely about him, which is the only way he can lose.And:
McCain may be committing lots of blunders, but the blunders aren't hurting him because the spotlight is on Obama. McCain is getting attention for his attacks on Obama, especially his frequent insinuations that Obama lacks patriotism. The attacks are usually based on lies (such as McCain's discredited claim that Obama canceled a visit with wounded troops when he discovered the media couldn't tag along -- in fact, he canceled the visit, but the media were never scheduled to come).And needless to say, it didn't work. What Kerry failed to do, and I worked with a 527 that went down with that campaign, so I remember it painfully well, was to mount a successful offense. He never went after George W. Bush on the easy stuff: his failure to complete his military service, for instance, or his failed business dealings and poor stewardship of Texas, not to mention sending up his blue blood background, phony rancher credentials and "son of a president" elitism to counter similar attacks against Kerry. Yet they absorbed attack after attack that, even if disproved, set the narrative table for the media day after day.
Obama has barely hit back. His weak-tea replies express "disappointment" with McCain and reject the "same old politics."
Here's the likely rationale: The public, by a wide margin, wants a Democrat to win the presidency. So all Obama has to do is make himself acceptable and he'll win. Hence the focus on building up his own credentials rather than tearing down McCain.
Perhaps that sounds familiar. Let me refresh your memory: it was the John Kerry campaign strategy in 2004.
It is happening again. This cycle, the media has almost always adopted the daily McCain narrative of the campaign, just as they did with Hillary Clinton during the primary. The bully usually gets his (or her) way, when it comes to the mainstream press. Even when they're debunking some outrageous lie from the McCain camp, the bottom line is that the reporterati and pundit class spend an entire news cycle dissecting whether or not it really is true that Obama hates the troops, is too foreign, is an arrogant lightweight, is Paris Hilton, or is playing the race card. By the time they get to the debunking part, half the audience has come away tainted by the McCain argument. That's how negative campaigning works. And when you add the force multipliers of the late night shows, the Internet, and 24 hour cable, you get a storm that it's very hard to fight your way out of. As one analyst noted on CNN tonight, McCain may not be lifting his poll numbers out of the 40s, but by attacking, he's keeping Obama down in the 40s with him. And when Obama chooses not to hit back, but rather to laugh off the attacks in a town hall, (and use the attacks mostly for fundraising,) I think his team is making a mistake.
Today, for instance, Obama had a great riff during a campaign speech, about McCain taking millions of dollars from the oil companies, and proposing huge tax breaks for them while at the same time championing their cause for offshore drilling. Said Obama to a receptive crowd:
Well, that kind of thing belongs in a hard-hitting television or radio ad, not just in a fund raising email, which is where it wound up. Otherwise, the campaign is simply preaching to the converted, and the people on the MyBarackObama list aren't the ones contemplating a vote for John McCain in order to get the drill rigs going off the coast of Florida.
The Illinois senator quickly incorporated news of Exxon Mobil's nearly $12 billion quarterly profit into his remarks at a town hall meeting here.
"No U.S. corporation ever made that much in a quarter," Obama said. "But while Big Oil is making record profits, you are paying record prices at the pump and our economy is leaving working people behind."
McCain's response, Obama said, is to propose a corporate tax plan that would give "$4 billion each year to the oil companies, including $1.2 billion for Exxon Mobil alone" and a gas tax holiday that Obama said would only "pad oil company profits and save you — at best — half a tank of gas" over an entire summer.
The insularity and frankly, the passivity of the Bill Burton communications operation is really starting to worry me, especially after six months of relentless attacks by the Clinton team. Unfortunately, I think the lesson the Obama folks took from the primary was that the Clinton attacks didn't work. Except that they did. Obama spent the entire primary fighting off charges -- including from the media -- that he is an elitist, a black extremist, or a Muslim, and hello! All three charges have carried right over to the general election campaign. They have became a part of his narrative, just like the word "maverick" is permanently tattooed on John McCain's butt cheeks courtesy of the lips of every reporter and pundit in Washington and New York.
It's time for the Obama campaign to hit back. They don't have to be as nasty or anti-factual as the McCain folks. Hell, how could they be? These are the Karl Rove trainees, who would saw off their mother's head to win an election (and then have Rush, Hannity and RedState.com blame HER for it.) But they have to be tough, and direct, and loud enough to drive the media narrative in the direction they want it to go: toward a debate over whether John McCain is too close to Big Oil, too much of a flip-flopper to be trusted, and most importantly, a human embodiment of George W. Bush's "third term."
As Chait puts it:
Why is Obama-as-alternative failing? First, it ignores Bush. The reason people want a Democrat is that they deem Bush a failure. By letting the race become a referendum on Obama, Bush recedes in voters' minds. McCain's ad blaming Obama for high gas prices was preposterous, but you can see why he ran it. The media are covering Obama as if he's already president. So what's that Obama guy done about high gas prices, anyway? Let's vote the bum out and give McCain a shot! ...I can't answer that question, and frankly, that bothers me. The other day, Keith Olbermann rattled off a string of votes John McCain cast against veterans' issues, in a manner tailor made for a TV or radio ad. But has the Obama campaign gone up with such an ad? Nope. Better not to touch St. John's military record. Or what about an ad hitting McCain's 95% record of voting with President Bush, or one pointing out that he has surrounded himself with the same advisors who got us into the Iraq war, or using his quotes saying he's with the president 90 percent of the time, or that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq? Where are the ads slamming McCain's 30 year tenure in Washington during which he has "changed" nothing, and his newfound ties to Big Oil?
...McCain has de-emphasized or reversed nearly every position that set him apart from Bush, most notably the tax cuts for the rich that are the heart of Bush's economic program. To prove his partisan bona fides during the primary, he boasted that "I did everything I could to get [Bush] elected and reelected." And when an interviewer suggested that McCain was different from Bush, the senator replied, "No. No. I -- the fact is that I'm different, but the fact is that I have agreed with President Bush far more than I have disagreed. And on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush." Why haven't we seen these words in television ads?
Instead, we get these rather soft spots proclaiming the McCain attacks to be "the same old politics," but only obliquely attacking McCain's Bush-like policies. Sorry, but YAWN. Maybe the spots are designed to be soothing, but most Americans aren't political junkies who sit around decrying the politics of the past. They want STUFF: cheaper gas prices, better paying jobs and a dignified end to the Iraq war. And most of all, they want to be rid of the Bushies, the neocons, and the corporate raiders who have been stripping this country naked for nearly eight years. Tie McCain to all three of them, and do it EVERY DAY, and Obama will win this election. Let him off the hook and he will shiv you like Pookie in the prison yard.
The reluctance of the Obama campaign to go up with comparative ads -- hell, with negative ones -- rather than the gauzy, biographical ads about how much Barack loves his country (which I guess are designed to reassure little old ladies in West Palm Beach that he isn't an Islamofascist terrorist) has left a lot of us out here in "old politics land" scratching our heads. Sure, it may seem that the current strategy is working, but that's only if you discount what I think is an 8-10 percentage point gap between what many white voters tell pollsters they're going to do, and what they're actually going to do on Election Day. The McCain team isn't going to play by the Marquis de Queensbury rules. They're going to attack every single day until every American voter has at least one negative meme about Barack rattling around in the back of their minds at voting time. It's time to take off the gloves.
From what I've seen, what I've heard from Harvard friends who knew him or of him in law school, and having met the man (once) and chatted with him for a few minutes, Barack Obama seems to be a genuinely good guy (unlike McCain, who by all accounts and appearances is a complete ass.) No matter what happens in November, he will leave this campaign with his honor intact, having made history, and because I really can't see him running anything other than a principled campaign. However, if in the end, McCain and his Karl Rove goon squad win the White House, once again by a 50-plus-one margin (which is the only way they know how to win,) leaving half the country embittered, enraged and hating the man in the White House for for more years, what will have been the point?
Labels: 2008 election, Barack Obama, dirty politics, John McCain, negative campaigning, political advertising, presidential candidates, right wing smear machine