It worked before; will it work again?
That’s the question politics-watchers are asking this week after a team of Karl Rove’s disciples now handling John McCain’s campaign launched a frontal attack against Barack Obama – not so much against Obama’s positions and ideas as against his personality.
Portraying Obama, in a barrage of ads, as a mindless celebrity, comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and then, in a concerted effort, urging conservative journalists and talk show hosts to ridicule Obama as arrogant, aloof and self-centered, well, that has Rove’s fingerprints all over it. It’s the classic Rovian tactic employed on behalf of President Bush in 2004: Attack your opponent’s strength.
Then it was John Kerry’s status as a Vietnam War hero; now it’s Obama’s mass popularity around the world. Turning Obama’s recent visit to the Middle East and Europe from triumph to ridicule is a brilliant step if you can pull it off.
On Wednesday, Fox News and other outlets repeatedly showed Obama looking pleased with himself in front of adoring crowds of Europeans. Again and again it showed him hobnobbing with French President Nicholas Sarkozy. “Who does he think he is?” thundered commentator Sean Hannity.
“We are proud of that commercial,” McCain said in defense of what’s now referred to as the “celeb” advertisement.
Then on Thursday, each side accused the other of race-baiting. McCain’s campaign said Obama played the “race card” in reaction to the celeb ad by telling audiences that Republicans were trying to spread fear based on his (Obama’s) background. Conservative commentators also jumped on a supposed association between Obama and the rapper Ludacris, who wrote a song praising the Illinois senator. Put it all together and you get another Rove-style message aimed at reminding white swing voters: Obama is not like you; he’s black and he’s arrogant.
Having a president who is “like you” may have little or nothing to do with solving the nation’s serious problems. But it’s an effective diversion, something Republicans need this year considering the bad economy, high gas prices and an unpopular war.
Appearing on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” author Bill Bishop said Americans like to hold up a mirror and vote for candidates like themselves. His book, “The Big Sort,” chronicles Americans’ recent tendency to separate themselves geographically by lifestyle and by politics.
As for Obama, his answers to the new line of personal criticism seem a bit like challenger Ronald Reagan’s dismissive remark to President Jimmy Carter in a 1980 debate: “There you go again.” He tries to explain it away by addressing the motives of the attacks, not the contents of them.
Here’s the full context of Obama’s remark, supplied in the New York Times: “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. 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.”
Fox News offered the most complete explanation from McCain. “I’m very disappointed and race will not have any role in my campaign, nor is there any place for it,” the candidate said. “I’m disappointed that he’s used it. It’s very clear what his comments imply. … He’s run negative ads on me continuously and I might point out for the record that he was the first. I think it was an ad that points out the differences between our two plans of action that we have for America.”
A good takeoff point on this week’s dust-up is Jim Rutenberg’s story in Thursday’s Times. He said that the Republican National Committee has begun a website called “Audacity Watch,” a spoof on Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope.” McCain has also mocked Obama for an “audacity of hopelessness” on Iraq.
A Times editorial, “Low Road Express,” suggested that the once high-minded McCain has “wholeheartedly adopted Mr. Rove’s low-minded and uncivil playbook.” Commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Dallas Morning News also criticized McCain’s new approach.
Rove is facing scrutiny from other fronts as well. The House Judiciary Committee this week voted along party lines to cite the former top presidential aide for contempt of Congress for failing to testify about allegations of political corruption in the Justice Department.
The polls, meanwhile, show McCain gaining ground in important states. In Florida, Obama’s lead has been trimmed from four points to two, according to the Quinnipiac University Institute, which is focusing on several key states. In Ohio, Obama is ahead by two points, down from a six-point lead in June. And in Pennsylvania, his lead is seven, down from 12 points in June.
Steve Berg, a former Washington, D.C., bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.