Archive for August 15th, 2008

Swiftboating Obama

I predicted that this would be a very negative campaign, and it appears it already started. Jerome Corsi, who was a driving force behind the debunked swiftboat attacks against John Kerry in 2004, has decided to use lies and mud to try to take down another Democratic Presidential candidate, this time Barack Obama. I doubt it will work.

When the attacks on Kerry came out in 2004, the Senator chose at first not to dignify them by refuting them. The media treated Kerry as the story — are these claims true? As it came out that the ‘swiftboaters’ had actually not served with Kerry, and Kerry’s experiences were verified by his colleagues, people started to realize that the book and attacks were nothing but smears. Now the term “swiftboating” refers to that kind of dishonest character assassination against a political personality. The worst they could get on Kerry is that he may have been wrong about when he was in Cambodian waters (he recollected Christmas, it may have been sometime near Christmas), but he’d already noted that publicly. Exemplary of the dishonesty behind the swiftboaters is that Corsi’s cowriter, John O’Neill, claimed it was “impossible” for Kerry to have been in Cambodia because he would have been disciplined, no swiftboat commander would do that. Yet it’s on record that O’Neill admitted to President Nixon himself he had been in Cambodia around the same time.

Barack Obama’s campaign, unlike John Kerry’s, is ready for this. That already is shown by the reaction to Corsi’s book. While it’s a best seller, the news story is not “is Senator Obama a radical leftist hiding Muslim connections” (the book’s claim), but rather “will this scandal by an author lacking credibility sink the Obama campaign.” In other words, the story is about the smear, not about the candidate. It’s assumed the book is dishonest propaganda, but that it might nonetheless be effective. In 2004 the book was considered credible, and it was really only after the campaign that the extent of the swiftboat fabrications were revealed.

Unlike Kerry, Obama is set to meet smears head on, knowing that the Kerry approach (like Dukakis in 1988 ) doesn’t work. The media needs ‘the other side’ of the story, or else it’ll get reported with more credibility than it deserves. John Kerry himself is part of this, starting a website “truth fights back,” designed to not only respond to smears, but enlist supporters in reporting smears that are out there so they can be dealt with. In the past this ‘no smear left behind’ approach was seen as dangerous, it might give the smears more credibility than they deserve. And indeed, really outlandish and silly smears (e.g., Obama’s birth certificate has problems, etc.) are pretty much ignored. But ones like these need to be met.

John McCain has certainly suffered smears in his political life, most notoriously the false rumors of his “black child,” apparently planted by the Bush campaign in the 2000 primary. From what I’ve been able to find on line, there aren’t many smears at all against McCain yet. There are exaggerations: connections with lobbyists or the Georgian government are used to insinuate that McCain is in the back pocket of DC insiders, and not a maverick at all. They’ve also twisted a poor choice of words about “100 years if necessary” concerning Iraq to paint him as a war monger. But twisting words and bringing up connections to make misleading statements about politicians is now standard fare. It’s used by and against both parties.

The “gotcha game” is played when instead of having real political debate and discourse you wait for the opponent to make an error – a gaffe, a moment of stupidity – and you jump on it to try to get political advantage. Nothing is served by this tactic; those involved know that anyone in the public eye will say something stupid now and then, but if you can put another person on the defensive, that can yield political benefits. It was used against Obama when he used the word “bitter” to describe rural Pennsylvania voters, or against Kerry when he tried to make a joke that students should study hard or else they’d end up fighting in Iraq.

Both parties do it. When Senator George Allen called some one in the audience a ‘macaca’ it led to a huge hubbub, and charges of racial insensitivity. He went from being a likely 2008 GOP Presidential nomine to losing his Senate seat. When Trent Lott made kind comments to former Senator Strom Thurmond, saying the country would have been better off if he had become President, he was vilified and forced to give up his leadership position because Thurmond in 1948 (when he ran for President) had been a segregationist. Of course Lott wasn’t supporting segregation, but in the gotcha game that doesn’t matter.

True smears go beyond the gotha game, and work on innuendo, lies, propaganda and whisper campaigns. It’s the stuff of websites like no quarter, which has tried to spread baseless rumors about Obama for months (it was originally a pro-Clinton website, so this is Democrat vs. Democrat), and of course it is the stuff for writers like Corsi. To be fair, the McCain campaign has stayed aloof from this, both candidates seem to be willing to play the gotcha game, but don’t want to smear.

Are Americans really naive enough to fall for such things? I suspect not, but only if the opponent creates an alternative storyline and makes sure the media knows it. Kerry didn’t respond to the swiftboaters, so by the time he realized he had to, the allegations were now in the public psyche. Obama’s decision to respond to everything forcefully already has paid dividends as Corsi’s book is being reported as coming from a discredited source, and the media feel obliged to give Obama’s side of the story alongside claims from the book. This doesn’t mean it won’t have some impact, but it will probably be a muted impact.

Defending against the ‘gotcha game’ is in some ways more difficult. It requires candidates be so careful not to go off script and risk some gaffe that they become scripted and boring. The challenge is to do so while still being able to convince voters. This is where Obama has to take more risks. He’s been an amazingly disciplined candidate so far (though McCain has become more disciplined in recent weeks). That discipline allowed him to defeat Clinton and create a real movement. Yet it also now means that as others try to define him as elitist or humorless, his disciplined conservatism (in personal demeanor, not political policies) could work against him. It appears Presidential, but not necessarily likable, and at this time he has to show he can be both. Obama has to define himself, show humor, and convince people that he can be a leader we can trust.

Ronald Reagan had similar problems in 1980, and polls were close until near election day (he held a slight lead before the conventions, like Obama now). People were uncertain if this inspirational actor really was a leader, or just a likable guy who learned his lines well. He convinced people he could be trusted, and he got a landslide. That is the job Obama has to do if he wants to win — answer the swiftboaters, and connect with the American people. If he can do it, he’ll probably win. If he can’t, then even those who like and are somewhat inspired by Obama will decide McCain is a safer pick.

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