The Contours of the Campaign to Come

The fight for the Democratic nomination isn't over yet, but the direction the other side thinks things are going can be gleaned from the salvos being lobbed at the Democrats. Go to the Web site of the Republican National Committee, or any of the more virulent conservative blogs, and you'll see that most of the attacks are being aimed at Barack Obama. The contours of the coming campaign are taking shape, and as usual, it's not pretty.

Listen to the McCain campaign, and you'll hear that it intends only to engage in a debate about "issues," one that will elevate the discourse and offer voters an opportunity to make a reasoned, considered decision about the future of their country. If so, it would certainly be a reversal of every campaign in recent times. The pattern we've gotten used to is that the Democrat argues that he has a superior set of 10-point plans, and urges the electorate to peruse them, while the Republican points to the Democrat and says, "That guy is a liberal elitist who hates you, hates God, and hates America."

Not in so many words, of course. But what Republicans have understood is that campaigns are about identity, not issues. And the identity they're trying to paste on Barack Obama comes down to two words: The Other.

Consider the smears of Obama that have slithered around the Internet and over the airwaves in recent months: He's a secret Muslim. He attended a fundamentalist madrassah as a child in Indonesia. He's tight with Louis Farrakhan. He takes advice from a cabal of Israel-hating anti-Semites. He doesn't put his hand over his heart when he says the Pledge of Allegiance. He took his oath of office on the Koran, not the Bible. He doesn't wear an American-flag pin. (The last is the only one of these that is actually true, ridiculous though it may be.)

And most of all, his middle name is Hussein, two syllables of menace revealing him, conservatives hope voters will conclude, as everything those voters are not—not white, not Christian, not a foe of terrorism, not American. So the shameless crew who has built its careers on stoking hatred and resentment, the Coulters and Limbaughs and Hannitys, will say again and again: Barack Hussein Obama, Barack Hussein Obama, Barack Hussein Obama. Add it to the lies about who he is, where he's been, and where he places his hand, and you get strands entwining together to form a complete picture. It's one that strikes into the primitive corners of voters' brains, where the roots of tribal attachment lie and fear and hate govern action.

And it's gaining steam. Some right-wing talk-radio hosts, for instance, will simply state that Obama is a Muslim. "And what about Muslim—the Muslim connection to Obama?" Michael Savage asked not long ago. "Barack Hussein Obama. Father Muslim, grandfather Muslim. Nothing wrong with that. But we, the American people, being at war with radical Islam have a—have a need to know just exactly what kind of Muslim he was exposed to, what kind of Muslim he is, what kind of Muslim teachings he's—he's friendly to. We have a right to know if he's a so-called friendly Muslim or one who aspires to more radical teachings." According to Talkers magazine, Savage's daily fountain of bile is heard by 8 million listeners.

It isn't enough, you see, to reject the Democrat; he must be feared and despised. But unlike previous nominees, Obama will be cast not as the cowardly, effeminate traitor, standing weakly aside as our enemies gather strength, sapping our collective manhood. No, Obama will be the barbarian from outside, the foreigner pounding on the walls of our homeland, half-crazed with bloodlust and ready to do us in.

Above all, the message will be: He's not one of us. He's one of them. He worships a strange god, his name comes from an alien tongue, and he harbors a secret agenda of doom. Should he become president, they will say, the gates will be breached and the foreign horde will swarm over us. Elect him, they will say, and all will be lost.

And they'll be counting on help from a media establishment that finds the whole thing just fascinating. Consider Mark Halperin, former political director of ABC News, currently employed by Time magazine, the very embodiment of the D.C. insider media establishment. On his blog on the Time site, Halperin recently offered 16 "Things McCain Can Do to Try to Beat Obama That Clinton Cannot," including "Make an issue of Obama's acknowledged drug use," "Allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama," "Play dirty without alienating his party," and "Emphasize Barack Hussein Obama's unusual name and exotic background through a Manchurian Candidate prism." Good advice! Don't hold your breath for Halperin's condemnation when it's followed.

The Obama campaign has been so skillful at so many aspects of campaigning that one can't help but assume that it has war-gamed these kinds of attacks, and their potential responses, in extensive detail. Obama's chief political adviser, David Axelrod, has been down this road before. As The Nation's Christopher Hayes noted in an excellent profile last year, "ever since working on the re-election campaign of Chicago's Harold Washington in 1987, Axelrod has developed something of a novel niche for a political consultant: helping black politicians convince white voters to support them."

A presidential campaign, of course, is a challenge of a higher order, and none of Axelrod's previous clients had to deal with people alleging that they might be sympathetic to terrorists. But there are already people saying that since the Republican nominee will be John McCain, we won't see that kind of ugliness. McCain, as his acolytes in the national media never tire of telling us, is a man of almost superhuman character and integrity, who would never stoop to the kind of ugly campaign tactics we've gotten so used to.

McCain did have the good sense last week to distance himself from the odious buffoonery of talk-radio host Bill Cunningham (who likes to refer to Obama as "Barack Mohammed Hussein Obama") after Cunningham brought his knuckle-dragging medicine show to a McCain rally. We can't know what McCain's true feelings are, but the most electorally advantageous posture for him is to be seen to be taking the high road, so as not to alienate voters who might find this kind of politics distasteful, but to continue to reap the benefit of those attacks launched on his behalf. After all, every candidate claims to be campaigning with the greatest propriety (how many times have we heard, "I'm not questioning my opponent's patriotism, I'm questioning his judgment?"). George H.W. Bush's campaign didn't air the infamous "Willie Horton ad"—it was an independent group whose message was just a slightly uglier version of what the Bush campaign was doing. His son didn't actually call John Kerry a traitor; he just allowed others to do it on his behalf and talked about how Kerry's election would lead to more terrorist attacks.

So don't be surprised when the McCain campaign starts talking about how its candidate is one of us, so in tune with the concerns of heartland folk, so very American in every way. It will find ways for its message to sing harmoniously with the venom and lies coming from its allies, maintaining plausible deniability all the way.

I could be wrong about what the McCain campaign will do, of course. But if I'm not, no one can say we didn't see it coming.

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