Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Obama's fight: Taking on the lies and smears of McCain, Palin, and the GOP machine

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Ever think you're living in some Matrix-like bizarro world -- you know, sort of like Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine? Ever think up is down, left is right, and so on and so forth?

Well, that's how it feels with McCain-Palin surging out of the RNC, drawing even with Obama-Biden in the polls, and basically dominating the political landscape of late. Some things just don't make any sense. How is it possible, in 2008, with all that has happened over the past seven-plus years, for this to be happening? To the say the least, it's rather worrying -- but I'll leave futher reflection for another time.

On a related note, that's how it feels doing something I rarely if ever do here in the blogosphere (or in real life, for that matter), namely, praising Joe Klein and Richard Cohen, two of the more pernicious GOP-enabling members of the middle-of-the-road commentariat. And yet, regarding the latter, that is just what I am about to do...

In his latest WaPo column, Cohen begins with this gem:

Thank God for Sarah Palin. Without her jibes, her sarcasm, her exaggerations, her smug provincialism, her hypocrisy about family and government, her exploitation of mommyhood, and her personal attacks on Barack Obama, the Democratic base might never be consolidated. This much is certain: Obama could never do it.

Okay... Cohen's right, to a point. He's right about Palin. He's sort of right about how the Democratic base is consolidating. And he's sort of right, but less so, about Obama.

Let me address the last point here.

Cohen's concern is that Obama is, to quote the title of his column, "too cool to fight," that is, that Obama "seems to lack fight." Cohen's one piece of evidence is an interview Obama gave to George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. (Though HuffPo's Bob Ostertag makes basically a similar point in response to an interview Obama gave to Keith Olbermann yesterday: Obama "[came] off as the most scripted, cautious politician ever.") "What Obama does not understand is that he is being Swift-boated," Cohen contends, and, like Kerry in '04, he isn't fighting back.

To a point, Cohen is right. I do think Obama needs to fight back, and hard. A positive message isn't enough. He must augment his calls for change and his serious, complex, and detailed policy positions with a concerted effort not just to repel the GOP attacks, not just to defend himself, but to define McCain-Palin and thereby to control the narrative that, through the media, dominates the campaign and shifts public opinion. This is what Kerry didn't do in '04. It was tough enough running against an incumbent in a time of war and fearmongering. What made it so much tougher was that Kerry let the Republicans, from Bush on down, get away with it. In the end, Kerry's war record -- the truth -- didn't matter. What mattered was that he was what the Republicans said he was, namely, a flip-flopper

The Republicans are doing this to Obama now -- not so much McCain as Palin, the party, GOP operatives, the pro-Republican right-wing media machine (Rush et al.), and McCain's various surrogates, like Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

But it isn't enough to be right and it isn't enough to be above it all and it isn't enough to be the leader of a new and reformist democratic movement that will change the course of American history for the better. And it isn't enough because being those things doesn't get you elected, not against the Republicans, not even in a year when all signs are pointing in your favour, when the country is ready for change, when Democrats are poised to take advantage of a weakened Republican brand. And it isn't just because McCain remains popular despite his opportunism and hyper-Bush credentials and pathetic performance on the campaign trail, and because Palin has energized the base and, seemingly, McCain himself. No, McCain's popularity and Palin's celebrity are significant obstacles, but what should also be of great concern is Obama's own performance thus far, including his seeming unwillingness to fight.

And yet, Cohen overstates the case. Obama did extremely well on his trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Europe, and he certainly consolidated the Democratic base with an exceptionally good acceptance speech in Denver. Anything pre-Palin seems like a long time ago, but Obama-Biden and the Democrats looked extremely strong coming out of the DNC. And Obama does fight. He's a tough and seasoned political veteran. But he has to be careful. There is the racial component to consider, as Cohen admits. After all, he needs to avoid feeding into racist stereotypes of angry black men -- sad to say, but those stereotypes are out there, as is racism generally, and they could sink him. But it also wouldn't have looked good for Obama to come out swinging against Palin right away. He let the media take care of vetting her, of investigating her, and look what the media, finally doing their job, have turned up. Now he can begin to go after McCain-Palin without seeming excessively negative and vindictive -- now that the RNC is over, now that more and more of the truth about Palin is out there, now that the campaign has started in earnest.

I take Cohen's point, and I do think Obama is at times too cool for his own good, but there is the longer term to consider, and, in the long term, Obama's reluctance to jump down into the Republican gutter may prove to have been a sound political tactic.

Yes, Obama has to fight back -- to defend himself, to define McCain-Palin, to control the narrative -- and to do so with intensity and passion, much like he did with his acceptance speech, but there is more to him, and more to his campaign, than Cohen suggests.

Unless this whole bizarro matrix is messing me up. In which case, if Obama really does lack fight, that worrying over the latest poll numbers ought to shift into panic anytime now.

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