Political Deformity

A Handshake of Carbon Monoxide

Is Obama Fighting Back?

There’s an article up over at The American Prospect arguing that yes, Barack Obama actually is playing hardball this campaign season–so nail-biting liberals should relax. The article’s author, Tim Fernholz, points out that Obama hasn’t acted like Kerry 2.0–that is, he hasn’t taken it in the tuchus from low-down, dirty smearers like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (or, in this case, the low-down, dirty McCain campaign).

This is actually true. The Obama campaign has done a pretty good job of juggling the two primary reactions that you need to play up when an opponent starts playing dirty–and make no mistake, the McCain campaign is playing dirty, suggesting that Obama wants to pervert children and “destroy” Palin as a person. The two responses are (1) righteous indignation and (2) aggressive retaliation.

The Obama camp actually does #1 really well: it turns unapologetic outrage into great political momentum, something Kerry couldn’t do in 2004. Sure, Kerry decried the dirty pool of the Swiftboaters and such, but his campaign never packed the punch you need to turn outrage into momentum, because it never really took the initiative to frame the campaign debate. From day one, Kerry ran as the guy who wasn’t Bush (this is true: one of Kerry’s top campaign advisors talked with me at a bag lunch during an internship back then, and explicitly said that the Kerry campaign strategy was “to be the alternative to Bush.”) In doing so, he limited his ability to turn outrage into something more, something tied into his campaign narrative.

But Obama and Biden, these guys are running on something more. They don’t just want to not be Bush, they are insisting that this country be understood, governed, and engaged with in a much different way than it has been over the past eight years. Thus when the GOP tries to slap them around, they don’t just refute the specific claims, like Kerry did, but they use these instances as representative examples, symptomatic of Republican corruption, selfishness, and failure.

Consider Biden’s recent condemnation of Republicans’ unwillingness to talk about issues and their obsession with character assasination.

This is powerful stuff–why? Because it’s not personal outrage, it’s political outrage–it’s anger that’s entirely consistent with the message of the Obama-Biden campaign. The same is true for Obama’s admirable tendency to say “enough is enough” when the Republicans or the media get too keen on dragging political discourse into the gutter, as he did recently over the “lipstick on a pig” fiasco:

I don’t know about you, but in so far as outrage can be productive, I think the Obama-Biden ticket is all over it.

This outrage, of course, doubles as retaliation: it doesn’t ignore attacks, or cower before them, but it questions their premise. It steps outside of them; it shines the light of perspective on them. That’s not necessarily tit for tat, but it is a form of retaliation.

That’s not to say that the Obama campaign doesn’t engage in old fashion flamewars, of course. At the DNC, Obama said that McCain doesn’t get it and Biden said that being a “good soldier” isn’t the same as being a good president. And Obama’s recent use of images like a lipsticked pig or a dead fish wrapped in paper–both used as metaphors for McCain’s campaign–suggests that he’s getting more comfortable with saying outright that the McCain-Palint ticket is just plain rotten. Indeed, as Fernholz notes, the now-infamous McCain attack ad painting Obama as a borderline sex predator was actually a response to an earlier Obama ad that took McCain’s education and economic record right on the nose:

Yes, the Republicans have some momentum, but they’ve only had it for a short time. I know that Democrats around the country are suffering from a collective political PTSD, with traumatic flashbacks to 2000 and 2004; but panic doesn’t help anything. And, as I’ve tried to point out a bit here, there’s no need to panic, at least not yet: the Obama-Biden campaign doesn’t seem likely to lay down and die any time soon.


September 11, 2008 - Posted by | Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain | , , , , , ,

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