Obama a Socialist?

…or a friend of terrorists, or a Muslim, or a believer in radical black theology, or a killer of babies…

Whew.  Those are just some of the attacks being made by either John McCain or groups supporting John McCain in the last week of the election.  It is the kitchen sink of fear, trying to do all they can to assure that when voters go into the voting booth they decide, “you know, I’m just not sure about Obama…I don’t really like McCain, but he’s safer.”  Will it work?  We’ll know in less than a week.

First, though, the “socialist” attack is obviously fatally flawed.  Socialism as an ideology is for the government to control the means of production, and plan how the economy operates.  No candidate advocates that, and even so-called Social Democrats in Europe have abandoned that approach.    McCain’s argument seems to be that any government involvement in the economy is socialism.  Yet, of course, he’s voted himself for large budgets and a bailout of the US financial system, a piece of legislation that directly gives government ownership and the ability to control to some extent banks and financial institutions.

Both McCain and Obama are fundamentally “liberal” in economics — believers in capitalism, markets, and individual rights.   They do differ on what amount of government involvement is necessary to make the system work in a way that provides real opportunity to all Americans, and what kind of governmental programs should exist.   That difference is minor; the fight is over about to allocate a relatively small percentage of US government spending.

In some cases, both candidates are extremely free market.  Both health care proposals are far more “capitalist” then most of the rest of the industrialized world.  Hard core conservatives in Europe almost always support their “socialized” medical systems, seeing it as a part of what should be socialized.  In America we’ve socialized protection (police), education (public schools), emergency relief (FEMA), protection of the homeland (military spending), transportation (roads and interstates), and a large variety of other things that the public thinks needs to be provided to all.   Europeans, left and right, tend to put health care in that list, Americans resist.  But this does not make the system socialist.

Socialism is NOT about government spending, it’s about the way in which the economy functions. If goods are allocated and prices set primarily by markets, then you have a market economy.   Go to a local shopping mall and it’s clear markets dominate.   Government involvement in fundamental economic activity is rare, and usually involves things like health regulations (e.g., the market is pretty bad at protecting people from unsafe products or dangerous foodstuffs), the environment, and other areas where the market is not considered able to achieve the public good.

One can argue for or against the level and type of regulation on some market activities.  Should food have labels disclosing its nutritional content?  Many believe that regulation helps the market function better, because it increases consumer information, and one of the reasons free markets don’t work on their own is that information is not only imperfect, but often pretty bad.  It’s not just that people don’t take the work to know, but on many factors they can’t know, the information isn’t out there.   The level and sort of regulation is a political issue.  But regulations are not socialist, they simply set ground rules for how markets operate.

But, of course, this is an election year, and the McCain campaign is losing.  They also see that they are not outside striking distance, if they can only find a way to move the polls a few points.  At this point, it’s too late to make a positive case for McCain and Palin.  Palin has dragged the ticket, and news within the GOP is a story of division and disagreement.  Therefore, there is only one strategy possible: go negative hard.

The robo-calls make claims like “Obama has a domestic terrorist as an associate” or follow scripts so bad that people working at telemarketers (in states that don’t allow recorded calls) making these calls often walk off the job.  Also, many sabotage the calls by talking in a way that is hardly understandable and clearly without enthusiasm.   In states where recorded versions are allowed, they sound nasty and scary.  Almost everyone says they don’t like these calls, but they are used because the goal is not to create a message where someone says “gee, that call is right, I’ll vote McCain.”  Rather, they want to plant a seed of doubt in peoples’ mind that might push them away from Obama once they get in the voting booth.

Nothing is off limits.  A 2001 interview about the civil rights movement is twisted to make it sound like Obama wanted the Supreme Court to “redistribute the wealth.”  That’s absurd, the McCain camp knows it, but the lawyer speak Obama used in that interview can be framed in a way that McCain can interpret it as he wants.   A quip about “spread the wealth” gets grabbed to create the narrative that Obama wants to “redistribute” to “spread the wealth” and is thus “socialist.”

All of this is trash.  It’s dishonest.  It ties into subthemes of race and questions about how “American” Obama really is.  It competes with viral e-mails accusing Obama of ties to Hamas and other radical groups.  But that’s American politics these days.  Whether Obama wins or loses, the McCain campaign will be remembered as one of the most nasty and negative of all campaigns in recent history.  That is a bit unfair, in that Obama has vastly outspent McCain, meaning he could mix a positive and negative message.  But McCain’s recent robo-calls and scare ads slip into the gutter.  And it may work.

I tend to think, though, McCain may end up doing the GOP more harm than good.  Not only does negative campaigning usually not work unless combined with a strong positive message, but given the distrust Americans have in the Republican ability to run the economy, charging “socialism” may not sound so bad to a lot of people.  The Cold War is in the distant past, and the idea that there are “communists” out there wanting to take over the country is a fear from an earlier age.  That was a mid-20th century fear, one that doesn’t resonate well today.  Also, the time to effectively define an opponent is early in the campaign; it’s a bit late to change a lot of minds.

But we really don’t know.    For the next six days we’ll see a steady assault on Obama with one goal: ignite fear that Obama is a risky choice.   It could backfire on McCain by looking his campaign look desperate and shrill.  It could win enough votes to get McCain to 270 electoral votes.  It will be a very ugly week.  If Obama wins as expected, he will have to work quickly to convince those who oppose him and believe the attacks that they have nothing to fear from an Obama administration.  If McCain wins, he’ll have to work hard for reconciliation because Democrats and Obama supporters will have a hard time forgiving such tactics and, to be blunt, campaign dishonesty.   In each case, the next President will face severe challenges.  Not only will he have to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan and the world’s financial crisis, but also with the fallout from an historic, but intensely emotional, campaign.

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  1. #1 by helenl on October 29, 2008 - 04:30

    Wow. How I wish I’d written something this clear.

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