Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Negative Campaign Dance

McCain Says Obama Plays Race Card

The McCain campaign won July 31, and they carried the day by expertly reversing a current that had begun to flow against them.

Obama made these comments in Springfield, Missouri on Wednesday:

“So nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me,” Mr. Obama said in Springfield, Mo., echoing earlier remarks. “You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He’s risky. That’s essentially the argument they’re making."

As many have pointed out, it's not the first time in recent days that Obama has made similar remarks. But the McCain camp eagerly seized on them Thursday; McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, accused Obama of playing the "race card" from "the bottom of the deck." I'm not entirely sure how a card from the top of the race deck differs from a card at the bottom of the race deck, but that's a pointless digression.

Why did McCain and his staffers jump on this when they did? There could be a thousand reasons, but I think it was a clever attempt to shift the topic of conversation and push the newscycle into a territory Obama dreads.

I posted on this subject earlier, but before Thursday's "race card" controversy, the media had begun to focus intensely on the new tactics displayed by McCain's campaign. From McCain's brutal "rather lose a war" attack to a series of negative ads widely derided as immature and inaccurate, the McCain camp resembled an eight year old sitting in the cockpit of an F-16, desperately pushing buttons in an effort to make the damn thing go.

That's a complete exaggeration. The polls showed McCain very competitive nationally and gaining ground in several key battleground states.

Shut up. I like the mental image.

Anyway, even an old McCain hand like John Weaver was publicly shaking his head at the strategy McCain had adapted. Many seemed particularly offended at a McCain ad alleging that Obama flipped off the troops in Germany and sneaked away to snort coke off a German dominatrix's thigh-high boots. The narrative had become "John McCain is a mean dude."

But with one press release, Davis changed the discussion, such as it is. McCain is still on the attack, but his people managed to craft an attack based on the idea that the campaign was responding to an unfair strike from Obama.

Reading the Obama quote, it's hard to discern actually who he's referring to when he mentions "they." The campaign spin will probably be that he was talking about those nameless, shapeless forces who spread false rumors about Obama's religion, patriotism and personal history.

If he was referring specifically to the McCain campaign the picture gets muddier. I would argue that McCain certainly has been questioning Obama's patriotism and loyalty. He's denied it, to be sure, but as I've argued before, there are very few ways to read "he'd rather lose a war than an election," and none of them speak highly of Obama's love of country.

But McCain has consciously avoided overt racial attacks. Some have argued that his most recent ad, putting video of Obama with images of Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears, plays on the classic "black man with blond white women" racist dynamic. I think that's probably reading too far into the (thoroughly silly) commercial, but then again, maybe it's a completely accurate reading. I don't know.

What I do know is that Davis and the rest of McCain's campaign have succeeded in shifting the context of that ad and the others recently shown around the country. Check out this passage from the Times link above:

Mr. Davis’s comments came as the McCain campaign has adopted a far more aggressive, negative posture toward Mr. Obama in recent days, trying to define him as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency. But until this week, the McCain campaign had not invoked race.

Mr. Obama has been the victim of some racist and racially tinged attacks this year, particularly during the primaries.

Underground e-mail campaigns have spread the false rumor that he is Muslim and questioned his patriotism by falsely charging that he does not put his hand over his heart when the Pledge of Allegiance is recited. A button spotted outside the Texas Republican convention asked, “If Obama Is President ... Will We Still Call It the White House?”

But Mr. McCain has condemned racist campaigning and has denounced Republican groups that tried to make an issue of inflammatory statements made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and one of his own supporters who referred to Mr. Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama” at a McCain rally.

There's nothing wrong with that reporting. But see how the narrative has changed? We're no longer talking about McCain ridiculously placing blame for high gas prices on Obama, or his accusations of disloyalty or his "Obama hates the troops" spot. Now we're talking about a campaign where both sides are launching dubious attacks; sure, McCain is almost calling Obama a traitor, but Obama is unfairly calling McCain a racist. Look at those two. Tsk tsk. McCain's attacks get folded into a much larger story. They're lost in the shuffle and get banished from the front page.

There's little more dangerous in journalism than a moral equivalency; it afflicts reporting in the Middle East, and it's always been a problem for political reporters, most of whom are trying their hardest to write objectively. You can see what the reporters are doing in that passage above: acknowledge the false attacks launched at Obama, but defend McCain as playing no role in them.

The last four paragraphs of the story detail charges from both McCain's camp and the Hillary Clinton campaign that Obama's people have done this kind of thing before. Steve Schmidt, another high-ranking McCain aide, is quoted. So is Howard Wolfson, former Clinton communications director. So now the race card accusation is bi-partisan, lending credence to McCain's claims.

All in all, a fine bit of work from McCain's campaign. They ameliorated the criticism coming their way for the attack ads, and they did it without retreating one step from those ads.

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