Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Going Negative

Now and again you'll hear people lamenting the nasty turn the race between McCain and Obama has taken lately. Of course, the only reason anybody thinks the race has taken a turn is because Obama has elected to go negative, attacking McCain over the latter's inability to recall exactly how many houses he owns; McCain's ads referring to Obama as merely a celebrity candidate were an example of the new era of positive politics I suppose. Now usually, I'm one of those people who expresses grumpy irritation with completely substance free politics, and I'm usually one of the first to call out other Democrats for silly, ineffective (and frequently hypocritcal) attacks. Of course the key word there is ineffective. The reason Obama's ads targeting McCain's gaffe are effective is because it paints a picture of McCain as a man who is wealthy enough to not be able to remember off the top of his head how many houses he owns, a figure that is usually around one or two for the vast majority of the rest of us. Does he live in them all? Of course not; most are investment properties. But do you or I know anybody who owns multiple investment properties, let alone so many they can't remember how many they have? No, and the attack works because McCain and his allies have consistently tried to portray Obama as the out-of-touch elitist; Obama's response turns the attack back around at McCain and forces him to deal with a weakness his own attack creates, his wealth. And both Paul Krugman and Frank Rich, liberal pundits who I believe actually know what they're talking about, think that more attacks like these are the way to go. Here's Krugman:

In an ideal world, politicians would be judged by their actions, not by their wealth or lack thereof. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born to wealth, but that didn’t stop him from doing more for working Americans than any president before or since. Conversely, Joseph Biden’s hardscrabble life story, though inspiring, didn’t stop him from supporting the odious 2005 bankruptcy bill.

But in the world we actually live in, pro-corporate, inequality-increasing Republicans argue that you should vote for them because they’re regular guys you’d like to have a beer with, while Democrats who want to raise taxes on top earners, expand health care and raise the minimum wage are snooty elitists.

And in that world, stripping away the regular-guy facade — pointing out that everything Rush Limbaugh said about Mr. Kerry applies equally to Mr. McCain, that Mr. McCain lives in a material world few Americans can imagine — is only fair. Yes, Mr. Obama vacations in Hawaii — and Cindy McCain says that “In Arizona, the only way to get around the state is by small private plane.”

And here's Rich:

The argument against Obama’s “going negative” is that it undermines his message of “transcendent politics” and will make him look like an “angry black man.” But pacifistic politics is an oxymoron, and Obama is constitutionally incapable of coming off angrier than McCain. A few more fisticuffs from the former law professor (and many more from his running mate and other surrogates) can only help make him look less skinny (metaphorically if not literally). Obama should go after McCain’s supposedly biggest asset — experience — much as McCain went after Obama’s crowd-drawing celebrity.

It is, after all, not mere happenstance that so many conservative pundits — Rich Lowry, Peggy Noonan, Ramesh Ponnuru — have, to McCain’s irritation, proposed that he “patriotically” declare in advance that he will selflessly serve only a single term. Whatever their lofty stated reasons for promoting this stunt, their underlying message is clear: They recognize in their heart of hearts that the shelf life of McCain’s experience has already reached its expiration date.

Is a man who is just discovering the Internet qualified to lead a restoration of America’s economic and educational infrastructures? Is the leader of a virtually all-white political party America’s best salesman and moral avatar in the age of globalization? Does a bellicose Vietnam veteran who rushed to hitch his star to the self-immolating overreaches of Ahmad Chalabi, Pervez Musharraf and Mikheil Saakashvili have the judgment to keep America safe?

Now, "going negative" doesn't simply mean throwing in an ad whatever attack you can dredge up. Because McCain's base is chock full of people who are deathly afraid of angry black men and Muslims, McCain's surrogates can references Obama's secret Muslim boyhood or Wright or Ayers or Rezko, et al, and those attacks will work to some degree. Obama, on the other hand, is not free to insinuate that McCain was brainwashed as a POW (like Bush's surrogates did against him in 2000) because most voters likely to vote for Obama will not respond to these attacks, and many of them will be turned off by them. But those who think that negative campaigning of any kind turns off voters (I'm lookin' at you David Brooks) are just being silly. Negative attacks aimed squarely at McCain's weaknesses, such as his wealth, or his disconnect from the average voter, or his "robust" military policy, or his connections to various crooks and felons, are effective because they inform the average voter about McCain. The attacks may be exaggerated or somewhat disingenuous, but this is politics after all it's hardly unfair when McCain's surrogates lambast Obama as a Muslim/Black nationalist/elitist. Anyway the lesson is, going negative works, and I hope to see plenty more of it between now and November.

No comments: