Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Republican Attack Machine

There are many reasons for the Barack Obama campaign’s disappointing performance. His abrupt shift towards the center has emphasized his lack of experience, and his inability to attract disaffected Hillary Clinton voters ensured that his party would remain divided. And Obama has had some rough moments—he badly lost the final Democratic debate and the first general election one, and his apparent messianic complex has probably alienated a few voters, as have Michelle Obama’s many gaffes. Obama’s awkwardness off-Teleprompter hasn’t helped either. But the biggest cause of Obama’s problems is the GOP attack machine. The Republican party can paint an enduring, negative picture of its opponents—and the Democrats can’t.

In 2004, John Kerry ran on his military experience—until the Swift Boat vets came along. In a matter of weeks, Kerry’s story of valiant Vietnam service was ruined—and became a negative. Kerry went from an American hero who served in Vietnam to a flip-flopping fraud. (I would like to say that the label of “flip-flopper” is another brilliant GOP attack—but really, with a candidate who announced he “voted for it [war funding bill] before I voted against it,” how hard can it be to paint him as some one who can’t make up his mind?).

The Swift Boaters were devastating to Kerry. But the reason they were so devastating was because they attacked Kerry’s key attribute (his military service)—and Kerry allowed them to. Had Kerry counterattacked right away, perhaps his campaign would have been more effective.

In contrast, the Democrats couldn’t pin any lasting label on George W. Bush. He made it through the campaign relatively unscathed—the only negative labels were of his own making. (And if people want to think a guy who coined the word “misunderestimate” is an idiot, they can go right ahead as far as I’m concerned).

The same thing is happening today. Barack Obama’s biggest selling point was his uniqueness; the sense that he represented a new era in history. He was a larger than life celebrity who transcended politics—until John McCain (or more precisely, Steve Schmitt, McCain’s campaign manager) came along. Now he’s just another politician.

In the ad “Celebrity”, the McCain campaign brilliantly skewered Obama’s star image by pairing him with such celeb airheads as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. (Hilton responded with a kinda sorta funny sham ad. It’s about what you would expect). In the background, devoted Obama acolytes chant Obama’s name in perfect, cult-like unison. It’s hard to take Obama’s messianic persona seriously after seeing the ad, and lines like “this is the moment the rise of the oceans began to slow” take on a whole new meaning.

Obama should have counterattacked—hard. He could have pointed out that being cool and popular isn’t altogether a bad thing, or that whole point of “Celebrity” was irrelevant (which it was). Instead, he played the race card, suggesting that Republicans would attack him because of his race (an obvious falsehood). Obama surrogates began suggesting that the ad was a coded racial message, featuring as it did two promiscuous white women and a black man.

Playing the race card was a mistake—the only people likely to be persuaded by it would vote Democrat anyway, and more importantly, it doesn’t answer the original charge. Obama allowed himself to be painted as an out of touch elitist without even putting up a fight.

The Left’s attacks on McCain have been embarrassing by comparison. Obama’s only major negative attack has been a rather pathetic attempt to paint McCain as an out-of-touch elitist who doesn’t even know how many houses he owns. (No one else seems to either, though the best answers are four and seven). But it’s hard to attack a former POW and war hero as an elitist, which is something that maybe Obama should have thought of.

McCain is still the War Hero, and Obama is, at least to many people, the Celebrity. Certainly, he is no longer considered the Messiah he was a year ago. Obama’s attacks are weak, and are doing nothing to stop McCain. McCain’s attacks are effective, and are killing Barack Obama.

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