Everybody Calm Down! Obama <em>Is</em> Hitting Back

There's a picture being sent around e-mail lists and posted on blogs that many a Democrat ought to bear in mind -- and no, it's not another anonymous smear. It's a picture of an assertive Sen. Barack Obama with a LOL-style caption promising, "I GOT THIS!"

Of course, few political observers are quite that confident. In light of Sen. John McCain's post-convention bounce in the polls and the media obsession with Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Democrats are starting to panic prematurely. Now they're armchair-quarterbacking Obama's campaign: He should attack! He should attack creatively! Why isn't he more populist/more personal/more disciplined? Obama-supporting friends outside of the realm of political journalism are now asking me to allay their fears.

This is what I tell them: Quit the hand-wringing, Democrats, and don't believe the hype. Barack Obama is a lot of things, but he isn't John Kerry and he's not Al Gore. Obama's campaign has been the most disciplined and aggressive Democratic effort of the last eight years. If he loses, it won't be because he didn't hit back.

Even the Prospect staff is not immune to the paranoia about a return to 2004; each poll jump sends my colleague Adam Serwer into inspired anxiety. Just yesterday, founding co-editor Bob Kuttner wrote that Obama's campaign isn't doing enough to go after McCain on issues. As an example, he cited the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, suggesting that Obama base a major policy speech or advertisement around explaining that these entities, wrongly privatized, were at the root of the unnecessary sub-prime mortgage crisis and that this crisis exemplifies why conservatism is a failed ideology and liberalism a better one. All true, as far as the economic analysis goes. But a campaign commercial? It took an entire article -- a good one at that -- for Kuttner to explain that in these pages.

Instead, Obama is making a simple case, one that he has been making for a while now: John McCain is George W. Bush. Each of his recent ads reflects this message. And look at his stump speeches and the remarks of his running mate, Joe Biden. Obama has carefully cultivated his campaign themes of change and reform since 2007, with specific examples of what that change would be, while forcefully demonstrating that John McCain represents more of the same. If Obama switched tactics now, no doubt the same folks criticizing him for his lack of reaction would criticize him for his lack of message discipline.

At the Republican National Convention, McCain adopted Obama's rhetoric and has promised that he and Palin would be the true agents of change, though he declines to specify exactly which Bush-era policies he would change. Ironically, a common castigation of Obama is that he isn't setting the narrative of the race -- that the debate isn't on his terms. But it should be clear by now that this isn't true: The race is about change and who can bring it to Washington. Obama's campaign is betting that its message will be the one that resonates with voters, and McCain's will be seen for what it is: pure rhetoric. Maybe that's a bad bet, but nonetheless Obama's story has set the frame, and McCain is the one who's had to work within it. Obama should not get nasty because that undermines the entire narrative of his candidacy.

The McCain campaign's stream of personal attacks against Obama, and its emphasis that Palin has been victimized by the media, has the day-to-day news cycle focused on foolish back-and-forths instead of the issues. Make no mistake: This is part of the McCain team's strategy. Rick Davis, a senior McCain aide, explicitly said that they don't want the election to be about the issues; they want it to be about personality. It's a cynical ploy, but it's one that Democrats see working against Obama's message. Liberals and reporters alike recognize that low-information voters are likely to hear accusations louder than rebuttals, or simply assume that both candidates are slinging the same kind of mud.

Obama has responded, however, with vigor, straightforwardly denouncing the attacks and turning the conversation back to the issues important to Americans. Following yesterday's laughably false accusation from the McCain campaign that Obama called Palin a "pig," he accused McCain of not taking the issues -- or the country -- seriously, and his spokespeople turned the charge around on McCain. When McCain falsely accused Obama of supporting sex-ed for kindergarteners, Obama's campaign rightly questioned McCain's honor. When they mocked his work as a community organizer, he laughed off the accusation and asked who, exactly, the Republicans were working for. When Sarah Palin attacked the Constitution, he said in no uncertain terms that she was attacking the fabric of this country. Each time the McCain campaign comes out with a negative, misleading advertisement, Obama publicly sets the record straight, often within hours. Remember how long it took John Kerry to respond to the Swift Boat accusations? And Obama does more than simply correct the lies -- he calls out McCain for his dirty tactics.

Is it enough? Liberal blogger Steve Benen observes that only thing Obama hasn't done so far is fight fire with fire and use the same dishonest tactics as McCain. For instance, Benen suggests, they could argue that McCain wants to cut U.S. military aid to Israel, since that aid is an earmark and McCain claims he wants to eliminate them. Of course, Obama knows that McCain doesn't actually want to cut aid to Israel. But McCain also knew that Obama doesn't want to give sex tips to kindergarteners. Others argue that Obama needs to attack McCain's character. The Obama campaign has gone so far as to call McCain and Palin liars and flip-floppers and to call their attacks dishonorable -- which they are. But some Democrats would have Obama mount a character attack against McCain for abandoning his first wife and family, for instance.

Obama won't do that, though, because his message is change, and because he has more integrity than McCain does. This is not "naïve" and "idiotic," as Terence Samuel at The Root calls Obama's response to the "lipstick affair" -- it is part of a larger strategy. Obama has shown as well as anyone that he is a rough-and-tumble politician who doesn't shy from a fight. But his campaign has made central his commitment to changing the way we do politics. That doesn't mean he's a wimp, but it does mean he can't buy into the Bush-Rove politics that McCain now espouses. Obama remembers, to recall the old adage, it's not worth wrestling a pig: You get dirty, and the pig likes it.

Samuel argues that Obama needs to get down in the mud, but doesn't offer even a single example of an attack that would work -- one that would tar McCain's reputation without sullying Obama's. This is a great example of my favorite kind of liberal armchair-quarterbacking: "We need to hit back harder … but not by saying something I can't print here." As Samuel waxes rhapsodic over Palin insulting Obama, he forgets that just two weeks ago John Kerry and Joe Biden were going after McCain at the convention. This is part of the problem. Even liberal journalists who should know better spend more time giving nonsensical advice to the Obama campaign rather than looking at McCain's shortcomings.

It's not that it's wrong to criticize a campaign, or that some criticisms don't ring true. The Obama campaign and its surrogates need to stop saying that McCain is such a great man before they tear him apart. (Joe Biden, for one, has already gotten the message.) They could be doing a better job sending out rapid responders on the state level, but it's clear they're not in a bubble. They understand the concerns of their supporters. Still, they are on the offensive -- that sex-education smear by McCain was actually a response to an Obama attack ad that ran that morning. The Obama campaign, day-in and day-out, is extraordinarily disciplined about delivering its message.

Obama is essentially tied in the polls with McCain, even as the Republican senator experiences his convention bounce. These numbers will change with events, especially with the debates, and as the sheen wears off Palin. (A reminder: She has been known nationally for less than two weeks.) Obama has invested in a much larger field operation than McCain. The press seems to be developing a spine, if these comments criticizing the media's "outrageous" cowering before the McCain campaign from conventional wisdom apparatchik Mark Halperin are any indication.

But it certainly doesn't help to have Democrats wringing their hands and complaining about problems Obama doesn't have. Enthusiasm is the big indicator in an election that will ride on turnout, and Democrats have every reason to be enthusiastic.

Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton's spokesperson during the primary campaign, has made this point on his new blog. During the primary race, many counted Obama out, didn't understand his campaign's strategy, didn't think he could keep himself in the race. Clinton adopted Obama's change rhetoric and attacked him the same way McCain has -- on experience and for his eloquence. But Obama and his team hewed to their strategy and pulled out the win. The senator from Illinois is known as a closer, and there is plenty of time left. Keep the faith.

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