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.