Archive for August 5th, 2008

The Race Card?

Back in early June I pointed out how Obama would have to deal with racism in this campaign. The goal of the GOP, I noted, would be to try to make Obama seem risky and “strange.” As I put it then: “One will simply be to try to paint Obama as somehow strange. Strange name. Look at his former church. Weird background. Lived awhile in Indonesia…subtext: is he really one of us?”

It’s clear that the biggest impediment to Obama beating John McCain is the possibility that Americans will think this rather inexperienced strange black candidate is just too risky. After all, being President is a huge responsibility, if doubts can be cast on whether or not Obama is really qualified, or if people can start to question just what kind of person he is, swing voters might put McCain over the top.

Obama can’t beat around the bush here, he has to tackle this head on, saying “I know they’ll try to make you think I’m strange, risky, etc.,” and then make a convincing case as to why he is not. That case ultimately will have to include his Vice Presidential choice (I still think Wesley Clark would be a good pick) and the people around him. But already he is stating this clearly, and confronting this weakness of his candidacy. The response of the McCain campaign: to accuse Obama of playing the race card.


Now, I can see why the McCain campaign would rather Obama not confront this issue effectively. But to accuse him of “playing the race card” by just mentioning that he’s black, well, that’s a bit over the top. The McCain campaign has also very quickly gone negative, focusing on calling Obama a glitzy star like Paris Hilton or Brittney Spears (note the choice of people not held in high esteem by most of the public, especially not swing voters) who lacks substance. Obama meanwhile goes on a world tour and generates considerable media coverage, while McCain seems so outside the loop that Jon Stewart’s theme song for McCain is “All By Myself,” in a series called McCain’s “quest for attention.” Obama speaks in Berlin, McCain answers outside the “Haus of Fudge” in Wisconsin. It almost seems surreal. What’s going on? Is the race card being played? Is the media being unfair? Does Obama have substance?

At this point Obama’s team — the people organizing his campaign — are waging a much more effective battle than McCain’s. Yet, as the polls show, McCain is very resilient despite Obama’s efforts. All of this points to a really intriguing election ahead.

Obama does lack experience, he is relatively unknown, he does have a funny name, and a lot of people like him, but aren’t sure if they really want to vote for him. McCain is old, has a reputation for a nasty temper, and has been prone to gaffes. Yet he is respected, liked, and seems Presidential. Obama’s trip to Europe and the Mideast is meant to try to erase that sense that Obama is inexperienced and lacks substance. He’s being accused of acting like he already is President because he wants to appear Presidential — he is addressing his weakness.

McCain recognizes that given the basics of the campaign, the election is all about Obama. Here’s why: Political science may be an inexact science, but it’s been well known for a long time that external factors rather than the candidates often determine an election’s outcome. If the economy is down, if the public is in a sour mood, and people want a change, then they will vote for the candidate from the outside, whether he’s Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. In all three of those cases there were real questions as to whether the former actor or peanut farmer, or promiscuous small state Governor was up to running the country. But the mood was one of change, and people welcomed an outsider. Once the public decided they could trust the outsider, it was all over — Carter beat Ford narrowly, but Reagan and Clinton had surprisingly comfortable margins of victory.

This year, on paper Obama is easily set to beat McCain, especially given McCain’s age and lack of resources (Obama may outspend him two or three to one). Even the close polls are misleading. Carter led or was very close to Reagan up until the end; structural factors were behind the late break to Reagan. The same can be expected for Obama this year. Yet unlike Reagan, Carter or Clinton, Obama is truly different. He is black. His middle name is Hussein and his last name sounds almost like Osama. His old church had a radical pastor. He has lived abroad. In fact, these negatives are so powerful that in any other year he probably would not have been the nominee; if this was like 1972 his prospects would be akin to those of George McGovern.

Hence the fascination at this election: from one angle, Obama looks like a shoe in. From another angle, he looks risky and destined to lose to someone as well liked and respected as John McCain. Either angle could become reality in November. For once, the campaigns really matter.

For McCain the strategy is simple: if the election is about the qualifications and character of your opponent, go negative. Be vicious. Yet even that is problematic, since McCain has run as a “different” kind of candidate, someone appalled by the tactics of Karl Rove, which destroyed his 2000 bid against George W. Bush. Yet it’s a price worth paying; going negative usually works, even if the public says they don’t like it.

For Obama the strategy is also simple: stay positive, be Presidential, and respond to the negatives as they come, letting surrogates attack McCain. Yet while this sounds simple, it’s much harder to pull off than going negative. I’m sure Michael Dukakis’ staff thought that riding in a tank looked Presidential, when actually it turned into a caricature. So far, Obama’s campaign has been run in a very impressive manner. They have made few errors, and seem to be executing a well designed strategy, with a very disciplined candidate. At this level it’s more marketing than politics, and Obama’s people understand that.

McCain’s campaign has been sluggish, but going negative doesn’t require the finesse that trying to stay positive while fighting off negative attacks does. And that brings us to the race card. It’s clear the McCain camp knows that the most effective counter to the effort to “make Obama appear strange” is for Obama to address it head on. They have decided to respond in a way designed to make it appear Obama is “playing the race card” if he even acknowledges race as part of what causes some people to be uncomfortable with him. In that sense, it’s really the McCain camp who played the race card, but I think they overplayed it. Negative campaigning works, but doesn’t guarantee victory. After all, it’s usually the underdog who has to go negative.  Obama’s team is running a more effective campaign so far. Unless McCain’s campaign improves, Obama still could prove to be the Democratic Reagan.