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Why Swift-Boating Obama Won't Work

With the publication (and quick rise to the top of the bestseller lists) of The Obama Nation, a nasty anti-Obama screed penned by Jerome R. Corsi, the same bird who co-authored the 2004 anti-Kerry book, Unfit to Command, Democrats are quite naturally worried that the "swift-boating" of John Kerry is about to be replicated. Kerry himself seems to share this concern; his PAC has just launched an anti-smear website devoted to defending Obama and other Democrats from "swift-boating," citing his own experience as a cautionary tale.

This is all perfectly understandable, and obviously, no one should have any illusions about the willingness and ability of GOP-allied operatives to pull off Big Smears. Corsi's 2004 book was indeed the immediate precursor to the Swift Boat ads, and featured some of the same Kerry-hating personalities. And both phenomena fed directly into the frenzy of attacks on Kerry's credibility and defense views at the Republican National Convention.

But there are reasons to think that the past won't be repeated.

As Byron York of National Review pointed out today, Corsi's 2004 book got attention in no small part because his co-author, John O'Neill, and most of the people "speaking" in the book via interviews, had actually served on Swift Boats in Vietnam. Corsi's anti-Obama book has none of that ostensible credibility or news value; it's just a collection of attacks on Obama by a thuggish right-wing hack, no different from what you'd hear on a right-wing talk show.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Swift Boat smears were perfectly aimed at the soft strategic underbelly of the Kerry campaign. They occurred immediately after a Democratic Convention that placed enormous emphasis on Kerry's Vietnam War record as his preeminent credential for the presidency, without, unfortunately, presenting his record of Vietnam War protest (a big part of the Swift Boat attacks) in the right context as the other side of the same patriotic coin that led him to volunteer to fight in the war in the first place. The "revelations" in the Swift Boat assault were effective not just because Kerry didn't challenge them aggressively enough, but because his campaign didn't prepare for them in advance in how the candidate was presented to the public.

For all the talk about Obama's "charisma" and "story," he actually may be less vulnerable than Kerry was to attacks on his "personal narrative." As a new Pew survey today illustrates, Obama's credibility as a candidate is heavily based on the popularity of his policy positions. McCain is the candidate who is dangerously dependent on "character" and "biography" as a credential.

Finally, of course, there is zero chance that anti-Obama smears will go unchallenged. The Obama campaign decided a long time ago to abandon the once-prevelant belief that responding to smears gives them too much attention. And the fact that most attacks on Obama's "story" inevitably go over the line into thinly disguised racism is a problem for the smear artists as well, as is evidenced by all the disengenuous whining from the McCain camp about Obama's willingness to play "the race card." Racist appeals are far more effective when they are subtle and implicit, not over-the-top. The fact that the whole political world is aware that race is a factor in this election means it won't be as easy to deploy racial weapons under the radar screen.

So: I just don't think this sort of crap is going to work for Republicans this time around. It doesn't mean they won't try it, but Democrats should skillfully fight back instead of panicking.

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I agree that ulitmately these ugly, mean-spirited, juvenile and bigoted* attacks are more likely to damage McCain than Obama, and will even go so far as to predict that long before November we'll be talking about how McCain and his supporters Swift Boated themselves.

2008 is not 2004, and Obama is not Kerry. One reason - perhaps the primary one - that the Swift Boat attacks damaged Kerry is that they were a much bigger part of the campaign because there was relatively little there there. This is particularly true compared to this year's campaign - it's already safe to predict that if Obama loses, the post mortems won't point to a single smear that doomed him (unless it turns out that he's the father of Rielle's baby - I assume Mickey Kaus is on the case so we'll find out soon enough, or better yet, on October 30th). In addition, people looking for substantive reasons to vote for Obama (or against him) will find plenty, in stark contrast to 2004 where the main substantive issue was that one guy was Bush and the other wasn't. Non-Bushness was a sufficient reason for me, the other members of Kerry Haters For Kerry (motto - "vote for him before you vote against him") and a huge number of people to vote for him, but Bushness got even more votes.

That's not to say that the smears are irrelevant, or that they will be easy to deal with. But, the biggest difficulty in dealing with the smears won't be refuting them, it will be refuting them without giving them wider circulation than they'd have otherwise, without seeming oversensitive or thin-skinned, and without giving McCain an opening to say that Obama's playing the race card. Also, the best response to any smear or pack of smears won't be something Obama says, but rather what decent, fair-minded people say to themselves when they hear the smears. And the best way to get people to say to themselves "this attack is ugly, mean-spirited, juvenile and bigoted" is for Obama to state clearly and forthrightly who he is, what he stands for, and what he'll do if given the keys to the White House.

That's what he's been doing, of course, and while the results have been too slow in coming for many commentators who wonder why Obama hasn't already sewn up 80% of the electorate, the game is barely underway. If Obama is able to present a consistent message that undermines the smears before they're made, and if McCain continues to flail about desperately looking for any grounds for attack, no matter how baseless, and continues to change policy positions based on which way he thinks the wind is blowing (or what he thinks will play well with the ugly, etc. "Base"), Obama will be getting his mail at 1600 Penn. Ave. come January.

*When I say "bigoted" I'm not referring to bigotry against black folks, because that would be playing the race card, and would overlook the fact that conservatives are the best friends African-Americans have ever had (at least according to conservatives). Instead, I mean bigotry against the liberal "Other." Such bigotry is morally and intellectually wrong (and indeed explains a lot about why the conservative movement has sunk so low), but since it does not include nearly as much lynching and injustice and oppression as bigotry against black folks did (and to a lesser extent, still does), the charge is not as freighted, and can therefore be made in polite company.

A lot of Democrats I've talked to are really worried about what the Republicans are going to uncork before the election. But I haven't felt any sense of panic about the Swiftboat-style attacks from the Obama campaign, which is heartening. Each McCain attack (notably the pathetic "celebrity" ads) has been met with a strong and sometimes stinging response, and while voters may not have digested all the policy nuances of each clash, I think they're registering that Obama isn't going to flinch. He's managed to continue projecting a seriousness about policy, an avoidance of character-driven negativity, and a willingness to fight back when necessary.

I think, too, that the Republicans might have been overly optimistic about the Swiftboating possibilities of this race. Given all the excitement about Obama, I think they thought a few hits on his character would induce the kind of Obama-fatigue stories that the media sometimes embraces at a certain point in the campaign. But although there has been a sort of hero glow about the campaign, I think his style of speaking has helped to dissipated that so that hero-worship couldn't take root (at least, not as a media or campaign meme. No hero-worship, no sudden fall from grace based on sudden "revelations."

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