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Oct 07 2008

Brace yourself

Breaking news: Barack Obama is black.

It is quite remarkable how little salience that fact has had in the race so far considering that if he wins, the election of the first non-white president of the United States is an event of major historic significance. While his ethnicity is a complex one, he cannot escape (and has in fact wisely embraced) the shorthand description of being black. For his campaign to have insisted on accuracy would have been to draw attention to trivial questions of race and ethnicity that are at best distractions and at worst would make race too important an issue.

When Obama speaks in a debate or gives speeches or is interviewed, the fact that he is black is not the most prominent impression he makes, at least for me. It is just an incidental item that registers in the background, like that he is tall or slim. Obama is on his way to becoming the Tiger Woods of politics. Just as the latter is no longer ‘the black golfer’, Barack Obama has almost, but not quite, reached the stage of not being ‘the black presidential candidate’. That is quite an achievement.

But the next month will see if he has made the complete transition to Tigerness. We are now entering the last stages of the presidential campaign, something I have been long dreading. With the McCain candidacy declining steadily in the polls and on a direct path to losing despite the Hail Marys thrown by them (selecting Sarah Palin and ‘suspending’ his campaign because of the financial crisis), you can expect them to now do desperate things.

By this I mean going well beyond the standard negative campaigning tactics of distorting your opponent’s record, taking their statements out of context, impugning motives, and focusing on style in order to give misleading impressions. Those things have always been part of politics.

No, I expect them to go nuclear, throwing everything at Obama to make him into the stereotype of the dangerous black man, to seek to change his image from that of a Tiger Woods to more of a Dennis Rodman, to transform him in the eyes of white people from someone whom you would welcome into your home to the kind of person you cross the street to avoid.

The McCain camp has already telegraphed their disgusting strategy and Sarah Palin has started the process:

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday accused Democrat Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists” because of his association with a former 1960s radical, stepping up the campaign’s effort to portray Obama as unacceptable to American voters.
. . .
Falling behind Obama in polls, the Republican campaign plans to make attacks on Obama’s character a centerpiece of candidate John McCain’s message in the final weeks of the presidential race.
. . .
Palin’s remark about Obama “palling around with terrorists” comes as e-mails circulate on the Internet with suggestions that the Democratic candidate is secretly a radical, foreign-born Muslim with designs against the U.S. — even though Obama is a native of Hawaii, a Christian and has no connections to Muslim extremists.

McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis (himself now under a cloud because of revelations of his lobbying links to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) spelled out how such character assassinations are done.

The premise of any smear campaign rests on a central truth of politics: Most of us will vote for a candidate we like and respect, even if we don’t agree with him on every issue. But if you can cripple a voter’s basic trust in a candidate, you can probably turn his vote. The idea is to find some piece of personal information that is tawdry enough to raise doubts, repelling a candidate’s natural supporters.
. . .
It’s not necessary, however, for a smear to be true to be effective. The most effective smears are based on a kernel of truth and applied in a way that exploits a candidate’s political weakness.

(Thanks to BarbinMD for the link.)

Ironically, when Davis wrote the above, he was accusing those in favor of George W. Bush of using those very same dirty tactics against McCain in the 2000 Republican primary campaign when Bush was losing to McCain. Bush went on to win. Since McCain has now hired many of those very same Bush operatives to run his 2008 campaign, we should not be surprised to see a reprise of those tactics, now used by McCain against Obama.

One important factor in a successful smear campaign is the ability to create an ‘echo chamber’ for these slurs, to get it widely circulated in the media. The current financial crisis has been getting banner headlines and has been used to scare people into voting for this huge bailout. Given that financial issues are using up so much media airtime, it may be harder to get traction for this strategy. I suspect that people are more likely to be swayed by extraneous things when there are no major issues gripping their attention.

So will the McCain-Palin attempt at raising so-called character issues at such a time work? Or will it be seen as fiddling while Rome burns?

Frankly, I am not a good judge of whether raising extraneous issues will succeed. I don’t have a good feel for the pulse of the people. I really should get out more.

While I am very cynical of the way the government serves mainly the interests of the rich and powerful and influential, I am usually more hopeful about the good nature and good sense of people in general over the long term. Each election time I think that people will not be swayed by trivialities and will vote on the basis of what truly will affect their lives. And while most are like that, unfortunately there do seem to be some people who can be swayed by such appeals to their fears and intolerance.

Whether those numbers will be enough to sway the outcome of this election is something I cannot gauge.

Tomorrow: More on racial politics

POST SCRIPT: And now, live, the vice presidential debate!

Saturday Night Live had its by now obligatory Sarah Palin parody with Tina Fey, with the bonus of Queen Latifah playing moderator Gwen Ifill.

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1 comment

  1. 1
    Dan K

    Obama should raise a smear campaign on McCain’s inability to be president because of his birth. My dad was born on a military base in Okinawa and my grandparents were told when he was born, “Well, he can’t be president.” I hope that doesn’t mean when McCain gets elected it slips directly to Palin!

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