Archive for October 11th, 2008

Fear, Racism and the Campaign

The following is from a story in Politico (

“Fearing the raw and at times angry emotions of his supporters may damage his campaign, John McCain on Friday urged them to tone down their increasingly personal denunciations of Barack Obama.

It won him two rounds of boos from his own supporters.

“I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States,” McCain told a supporter at a town hall meeting in Minnesota who said he was “scared” of the prospect of an Obama presidency and of who the Democrat would appoint to the Supreme Court.

“Come on, John!” another audience member yelled out as the Republicans crowd expressed their dismay at their nominee.

Another woman went even further.

“I’ve heard that Sen. Obama is an Arab,” she said.

McCain, who had shared his wireless microphone with the voter, yanked it out of her hand.

“No, ma’am,” the Arizona senator assured. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”

Thank you John McCain.  The stories today about the anger and the increased negative campaign tactics from the McCain-Palin campaign have created a kind of divisiveness that the country doesn’t need at this time.  John McCain is doing what must be done to prevent that, though his campaign still can be blamed with “going negative.”

Even George Will has been critical about the McCain campaigns sudden shift into negativity.  McCain and unsurprisingly FOX news has been trying to tie Obama to a 60s radical turned education professor.  FOX seems to trumpet this story constantly and for long periods of the last couple of days has Ayres image on the screen, as if trying to create a story from nothing.  This has helped incite growing anger and emotion at McCain rallies as polls increasingly suggest the odds are very good that Barack Obama will be the next President.  The campaign seems to want to focus less about issues, and more about raising questions about Barack Obama’s character.

If Obama were white, this kind of tactic wouldn’t stand a chance.  President Bush the Elder tried a similar line of attack on Bill Clinton, and it backfired.  Then as now the campaign realized in the last month that it was losing to a young, untested and inexperienced upstart, and decided the way to win was to focus on Bush being experienced and steady, while Clinton was a womanizing draft dodging dangerous dilettante.  The arguments against Clinton were far more powerful than the arguments currently against Obama.  Bush could call on Clinton’s past, both documented and alleged, while the best McCain can do is try a weak guilt by association ploy.

The facts first: William Ayres was a 60s radical involved in violence.  He later became a professor of education (he was acquitted for his crimes due to illegal government wiretaps and the like), and a leader in Chicago education reform.  He has been embraced by Chicago Mayor Daley for his efforts (Daley has been praised by McCain), and was part of a project that received funding Annenberg, an organization created by a conservative Republican.  Obama served leading a board overseeing how that grant was spent, a board on which many people sat, conservative and liberal, including Ayres.

How, one might wonder, could this possibly be used against Obama?  Should he have refused to participate in a grant that helped Chicago children get an education by indignantly refusing to have anything to do with someone whose past contained radicalism?  And what about the conservative organization funding the grant, or the others on the board?  There is no way this can possibly be seen as negative against Obama; compared to the charges heaped on Clinton in 1992.

Absurd?  Yes…unless…unless there still is within a large segment of the American electorate a real racism that needs only a slight bit of stoking to invoke fear.  The idea here is that people already see Obama as different.  He’s a Harvard educated lawyer, black, raised by a single white mother and his white grandparents, and his biological father was from Kenya.   He lived for a while in Indonesia, and his name is different:  Barack Hussein Obama.  The middle name has been stressed more at McCain campaign rallies in the last week.  Hussein…is he Muslim?  Of course not.  But perhaps because he’s black and his name is different, well, people will wonder about him.  Perhaps hinting at an “association with terrorists” will paint a picture of a man who might be friendly to Islamic extremism.  Perhaps we can’t trust this black man with the strange name.  Maybe it’s safer to vote for the old white guy.

I pointed out yesterday, not only do people vote for the person rather than the issues or ideology of a candidate, but it is rational to do so.  If McCain can raise doubts about Barack Obama the man in the mind of voters in swing states, maybe he can alter the dynamic of the election.  It’s a cold, cynical, even dirty strategy.  But politics is a cold, cynical dirty business.

The Obama campaign has a strategy to respond.  They have been airing “bio” ads stressing his “Americanness,” and is going to buy half hour ad blocs on major networks the week before the election.   Given how disciplined, effective, and cash-rich his campaign has been, one expects that they will be pro-active and effective in countering the mud slinging strategy.  They will likely sling some mud of their own, using indignation for McCain’s strategy as a rationale.

We don’t know what the impact of race will be on this election.  We don’t know if the higher vote turn out that is expected from Obama will actually occur, or if it will offset the “race factor.”  And, to be sure, Obama is hoping for a high minority turn out, voters who will be voting explicitly for him because he is black.  Race in this contest is a complex issue.  Until election night, there will be some uncertainty.  But as the McCain campaign, after a series of stumbles, heads into negativity, emotion and anger as their primary attempt to turn the dynamic around, the next few weeks will say a lot about what kind of country America has become.

Some quotes suggesting that this is a dangerous direction, first from John Weaver, former top strategist for John McCain:

“People need to understand, for moral reasons and the protection of our civil society, the differences with Senator Obama are ideological, based on clear differences on policy and a lack of experience compared to Senator McCain,” Weaver said. “And from a purely practical political vantage point, please find me a swing voter, an undecided independent, or a torn female voter that finds an angry mob mentality attractive.”

And CNN commentator David Gergen:

“One of the most striking things we’ve seen in the last few day, we have seen it at the Palin rallies and we saw it at the McCain rally today, and we saw it to a considerable degree during the rescue package legislation. There is a free-floating sort of whipping-around anger that could really lead to some violence. And I think we’re not far from that.”

John McCain has the moral and ethical responsibility to fight against such things, and not feed the flames.  The quote at the top about a campaign stop in Minnesota suggest he recognizes that while an energized base is important, he can’t let it devolve into an angry mob.