Thursday, March 20, 2008

How to Beat Barack Obama

The Republican game plan to defeat Barack Obama boils down to two strategies: instill fear and loathing in the electorate, and send other people out to do their dirty work.

Republicans say they’ll try, first and foremost, to paint Obama as dangerously inexperienced — a characterization of him that Clinton’s own polling has found to resonate with many voters, and an attack that Clinton has already been using. Republicans say they’ll also portray Obama as unacceptably liberal, using his record as a state and U.S. senator.

But there can be little doubt party operatives will also pick up on — and let the Republican noise machine make controversies out of — things like Wright’s comments, which can raise uncomfortable questions about race or patriotism in voters’ minds. Judging by past campaigns, the party will look for ways to benefit from the dirty work of unaffiliated operators while keeping its hands officially clean of it.

Neither tactic is a surprise. The Republicans, saddled with a candidate not even the hard core of their base can barely tolerate and who is plastered cheek by jowl to the most unpopular president in living memory, can’t run on anything positive or offer any new insight on how four more years of Bush administration policies on the economy, education, and health care will be an improvement over the last eight years of incompetence, ineptitude, antipathy, and just basic fucking up. So all they can do is attack, blame, and put together racist and fear-mongering videos for YouTube. The Democrats might as well be running against a junior high school street gang.

Let’s take the “inexperienced” line.

The GOP will hammer away at Obama for his short tenure in the Senate, reminding voters that only four years ago he was in the Illinois Legislature while McCain was in his 21st year in Congress.

And yet in those 25 years, John McCain still managed to fall for the Bush administration’s falsehoods about the war, even to the point that he echoed Dick Cheney’s line about Americans being greeted with flowers and candy, and even with all those years of inside knowledge, he doesn’t even know who the major players are in the Global War on Terrorism. It makes you wonder what all that “experience” has taught him other than to call into question his judgment about war and our place in the world, as well as his plans for the future. Senator Obama rightly points out that it isn’t just experience that matters; it’s what you do with it, and so far John McCain has made pretty much the same choices as the man he wants to replace.

The GOP will also use the fear factor; fear of the unknown. Who really is Barack Obama and what does he stand for? He’s an unknown quantity.

Republican strategists think voters don’t yet have a clear image in their minds of who Obama is — and they’re eager to help draw the picture for them. Only 19 percent of voters the RNC polled in January said they were “very familiar” with Obama’s positions on issues.

“He does very well in an auditorium with 15,000 screaming liberal sycophants,” Wadhams declared, “but whenever he’s interviewed on a tough subject or following a defeat by Senator Clinton in some primary or caucus, I don’t think he does very well.”

Those “liberal sycophants” are another key part of the Republican plan.

For example, the American public will hear a lot about how National Journal ranked Obama the most liberal member of the Senate in its annual survey published this year, an assessment of voting records that is hard to refute without sounding wonky. Obama’s Illinois Senate record might draw even more fire. The Barack Obama depicted in the Republican playbook voted for tax hike after tax hike, was staunchly pro-choice on abortion (even on votes that seem to have been engineered by the opposition to be politically damaging), didn’t take a position on votes to toughen drug penalties and pushed to require undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

That Barack Obama barely registers in the public consciousness now — Clinton can’t use those issues against him in the primaries because many Democrats might not object to them. But GOP strategists can’t wait to tell all the independents and Republicans who have been voting for Obama this year how he is, well, basically another John Kerry. Or maybe Michael Dukakis. Take your pick.

This should be the place where liberals finally grow a pair and take a stand. It is time to defend liberal views and policies and remove the stigma that the Republicans have so successfully attached to it. Just as the gay community has proudly taken back the word “queer” and worn it as a badge of honor, it is time for liberals to echo John F. Kennedy or even the fictional Matthew Santos from The West Wing:

Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things; every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, “Liberal,” as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won’t work, Senator. Because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor.

Do we really have to point out all the things conservatives have achieved just in the last eight years, and do we have to really work to show what all their screaming about lowering taxes and limiting the scope and intrusion of government has brought us? Towering deficits, a housing market in the crapper thanks to unregulated and corrupt lending practices, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina, warrantless wiretapping and domestic surveillance, the shredding of the Constitution over due process of law, the replacement of science with medieval mythology and superstition, the demonization and marginalization of the gay and lesbian community by continuing to deny them the basic right of legal protection under the same laws as straight people, systematic misogyny by continuing to oppose reproductive choice and access to it, and the continued assault on the environment by relaxing the Clean Water Act and calling global warming a paranoid conspiracy. This is the record of conservatism, and yet John McCain is proud to call himself a conservative and do everything he can to prove his bona fides to a skeptical lunatic fringe. So be it; let him wear that as his badge of honor. Let him bear the responsibility that goes with it as well and not blame someone else when all that he and the conservatives claim they stand for comes crashing down around them.

Last, but certainly not least, the Republicans will make sure that the American electorate knows that Barack Obama is black. Of course they won’t come right out and say it lest they be accused of blatant racism. So what they will do is use all the code words and dog whistles that they have short of climbing to the top of the bell tower (vide Blazing Saddles: “The sheriff’s a ni-[CLANG]”); they will leave it to their “independent” surrogates to put on the white hoods, speak fearfully about “urban culture,” and run the tapes of Rev. Jeremiah Wright over and over again.

Republicans’ best chance to counter Obama’s appeal to voters may come when gifts like Wright’s incendiary rhetoric surface. Following a report on “Good Morning America” about Wright’s past sermons, the reverend’s comments became a fixture on Rush Limbaugh’s show and on “Hannity & Colmes.” Polling already shows Wright’s most inflammatory remarks offend a lot of voters. Just imagine if Wright showed up again in an ad on television in October. “Those film clips are pretty devastating,” Wadhams said with some relish. And Limbaugh, naturally, has already gone ballistic. “No country wants a president who is a member of a church with this kind of radicalism as its mainstream,” he fumed on Monday.

Obama acknowledged, again, in his speech on race on Tuesday how close the two men have been for two decades; there’s no question that Wright has been influential enough in Obama’s life to merit some scrutiny. And talking about Wright means Republicans don’t have to talk about race directly. Instead, they can just remind voters — over and over again — that Obama’s minister sometimes strays onto radical rhetorical ground. If doing that makes people less comfortable with electing the first black president, so be it.

“Instead of distancing himself and moving past this moment, he sort of owns it now,” Republican strategist Kevin Madden argued after Obama’s speech. (Madden worked for Mitt Romney’s campaign, which went through equally thorny contortions over religion.) “Barack Obama, before all this, was at a point where his appeal transcended race. He was somebody that voters — white and black both — looked at as a candidate not viewed through the prism of white or black. [Now] he has become that.”

No political party ever lost an election by underestimating the fear and loathing of the electorate, and the Republicans have proven themselves more than capable of that ability even when they have a woefully inadequate candidate running on their ticket. That doesn’t matter; they know that it is much easier to get people to vote against someone else than it is to gin up half-hearted support for their own man.

Now that Barack Obama has spoken and appealed to the better angels of our human nature to get Americans to understand where he comes from and what forms him, it is time for him to welcome the attackers and turn them back on themselves and make them accountable: “Okay, you’ve brought out all the garbage and we’ve heard it all before. Now what are you going to do to clean up the mess you’ve made?” If he can’t do that, then that is how the Republicans will beat him.