July 31, 2008 | 6:05 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
Well, about as predictably as the sun rises in the morning, Part II of the McCain camp's race card strategy kicked in this morning.
In response to their latest ad, Obama made an oblique statement about how McCain wants people to be afraid of Obama because he's not like those other presidents on our money. Right away the McCain campaign shot back that Obama is "playing the race card." Gee, think they were ready with that no matter what Obama said?
Now they'll try to sell that narrative to the campaign media, hoping that tonight's talk shows will have the graphic, "Is Obama Playing the Race Card?"
Republicans have an overwhelming interest in getting race into the campaign, and the Democrats have an overwhelming opposite interest. Without race, Republicans would be an also-ran political party. With race, they have been dominating presidential elections since 1968.
So if you're looking for a perpetrator with a motive, it's probably not the Democrats, especially a black Democrat. The trick for Republicans is to get race into the campaign, and make it look as if Obama did it. Remember the kid in elementary school who hit you under the table, and when you jumped, the teacher got mad because you made noise? Well, that's how it works.
Republicans have an edge in presidential campaigning because they understand how the campaign media work, and they have an instinct for how most white voters think about race. Campaigns are such vague and subjective events that there is a constant need for a story line to build a media narrative. They make sure to provide one on a regular basis. Is Barack Obama presumptuous? Is Barack Obama an elitist? Is Barack Obama playing the race card? Just keep them coming.
White voters have complicated views on race. There are many varieties of white voters, some quite a bit more liberal on race, and some quite a bit more conservative. Not surprisingly, white voters do not like to be accused of racism and many do not like to see other whites accused of racism. You can do something that blacks will immediately pick up as having racial overtones, but it may look very innocent to most whites. So if you can get a black candidate angry, and get him or her to accuse somebody of racism, you'll immediately hear how that white person "doesn't have a racist bone in his body." And white voters are left wondering what the black person's so angry about.
McCain has had little success getting Obama angry. Obama hasn't accused anybody of racism. So they had to grab the tiny opening in Obama's comment about not looking like people on the American currency. If Obama can keep his self-discipline, and not get into a debate over race, the Republicans will have to up the ante. If they are not careful, they may behave in a way that causes a backlash among many white voters who are more aware of overt racial appeals than the more subtle and even subliminal approaches.
So far, the McCain ads have been so clumsy, that they haven't been devastating. Right now, an ad that shows adoring crowds surrounding Obama and using that to attack him reminds of the famous Yogi Berra comment:
"Nobody goes to that restaurant any more. It's too crowded."
But they will get better.
What we don't know about Obama yet is if he is really able to transcend the fatal flaw of most Democratic presidential campaigns, nicely captured in an op-ed column by Jonathan Chait
in this morning's Los Angeles Times.
If you spend all your time defining yourself, noted Chait, you will lose. You must define your opponent.
And the only way to do that is to attack on the issues.
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July 30, 2008 | 7:56 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
I've got race on my mind today. Here we have the possibility of the first African-American president in history, and it's only a matter of time before the racial attacks kick in.
The McCain campaign is struggling on the issues, and it's only going to get worse as the public gets clued in to where McCain stands on social security, abortion, and other issues.
The "tough guys" in Karl Rove's circle have been brought in to recraft the message. At the end of the day, it'll be patriotism and race, the two standards in the Republican playbook.
I'm observing some straws in the wind, and I'll tell you what I see, in no particular order.
- John McCain just recently reversed course in order to support a voter measure in Arizona to ban affirmative action. That will allow him to move to the right on this issue. Obama will be asked again and again, "Now that you are the presidential nominee, do we still need affirmative action?" It would have been harder to do that if McCain had not been willing to abandon his own position on the issue.
- Fox News some weeks ago "inadvertently" ran a screen crawl under Michelle Obama's picture referring to her as his "baby momma." This is slang for a woman who has a man's child without being married to him. Fairly sickening, wouldn't you say? This little slur sets up the next one...
- Just yesterday, the McCain campaign aired a "funny" ad showing Obama as a celebrity, with a quick shot of two young white women, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Linking a black male candidate with young white women is a staple of the playbook, and the "call me" ad used against Harold Ford, Jr. in Tennessee several years ago showed the way. It doesn't work if everybody knows Obama has a solid, happy relationship with his wife and daughters. Keep attacking Michelle, though, and the Obama campaign will feel nervous about getting her out there.
- The continuing Republican push, accepted without question by the campaign media, that Obama is "presumptuous" by acting too presidential fits in the frame of the young black man getting ahead of himself. (Don't forget that only a couple of weeks ago, the supposed problem with Obama was that he was not presidential enough. Whatever...)
I think the Republicans are feeling their way right now to find a comfortable niche to exploit race. They know that African Americans are registering to vote in large numbers, and don't want to overtly push that trend even farther. They don't want to alienate moderate white voters. They are, I think, moving toward a sort of cultural slur that suggests that Obama is a slick black man, who thinks he is "better than us" because he's so well educated and articulate. They were, I think, hoping that he would be an angry black man who hates whites, but the problem is that Obama is genial, thoughtful, and coalition-oriented. And given McCain's anger management problem, that is hardly a place worth going.
Things like this are awfully hard to counter. For one thing, much of the appeal is subliminal. If a black candidate complains about race, he or she elevates race as an issue, and in the bargain looks like a complainer. Or looks angry. None of the moves are obvious enough to comprise "teachable moments" about racism.
It may seem
counter-intuitive, but a light-hearted response to these racialized
things may actually be the best and most effective response, because it
takes the sting out of them.
A black candidate is not without resources in this battle.
One is that many white voters will not respond to these appeals. Jewish voters, for instance, have long stood out for their support of black mayoral candidates when other whites were responding to racial appeals.
But the real defense is a good offense on the issues. In a time of economic turmoil, if Obama can really dig down and offer a compelling economic message to working Americans, he may well be able to counter the undertow of old racial attitudes. It sounds old-fashioned, but a real debate on the issues will be the best medicine for this race stuff. Not a high toned, elevated policy debate, but a down-to-earth, here's-how-I'm-going-to-make-your-life-better case that Democrats have failed to make election after election.
This time, they have no choice.
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July 24, 2008 | 2:40 am
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
Be careful what you wish for. John McCain practically dared Barack Obama to go to Iraq, and he did, with a vengeance. He has been on a world tour, going to three key areas Iraq and Afghanistan, where US troops are fighting; to Europe, location of America’s principal allies; and the Middle East, where America has a fundamental commitment to Israel and to regional peace.
By most accounts, the trip has been a huge success. Obama has seemed presidential, and has been treated as a world leader in world capitals. Media coverage has been very positive and extensive, and he has not made any serious mistakes that could undermine his foreign policy credentials.
In particular, he seems to have navigated the Israel/Palestinian/Jordan scene successfully. Of all the American voters watching this trip, nobody is more attentive than Jewish voters. Obama made all the right visits, struck the right chords (no peace agreement just to have a peace of paper), and smartly met with the right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the current government. He pushed the envelope a bit by going to Ramallah.
The most significant portion of the trip was the interchange with Iraq’s leadership. When Maliki endorsed Obama’s plan for a timed withdrawal from Iraq it placed McCain in a dreadful position. It’s impossible to argue for staying longer than the Iraqis want us to stay, unless our presence is actually an occupation. Even worse for McCain, President Bush undercut him by moving toward Obama’s position, leaning toward a “time horizon” for withdrawal.
Now McCain, who has built his campaign on unwavering support for the Bush policy of an open-ended commitment in Iraq, finds himself to the right of both Bush and Obama. The lesson? Even a president of your own party will put his own legacy ahead of you, no matter how loyal you have been. The good news for Americans? We are probably closer to ending the war in Iraq today than we were a month ago.
This world tour reminds me of the bus tour that Bill Clinton and Al Gore, along with their wives, took right after the 1992 Democratic convention. A young, untested ticket running against an older Republican in a bad economic climate lit a spark by getting out into the streets of America. Obama’s world tour works in a different way, by potentially elevating his standing from the new young candidate to the potential commander-in-chief.
It probably won’t show up in the polls right away, but Obama may have helped close the “gravitas” gap with McCain. If he does, McCain’s position becomes serious. On domestic matters, it’s a Democratic wipeout. I’d watch Jewish voters very carefully in the next few weeks. They are “canaries in the mine” when it comes to Democrats and foreign policy. Convince Jews, and you’ll win the foreign policy argument with everybody else.
And no matter how great the trip, Obama is going to have to work right through to November to close that sale.
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July 14, 2008 | 5:45 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
This Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the 2008 campaign that I feel bound to comment upon. It was in the right hand column, front page, prime location. It was a perfect example of something called framing. The title: "Obama, McCain agree on many once-divisive issues
." Subtitle: "Their similar stances on immigration, nuclear weapons, global warming and stem-cell research are evidence of a centrist shift in the political landscape."
An interesting thesis. The only problem is that it is flat wrong in almost all respects.
Yet the frame is well suited for the frame being offered by McCain's campaign. In fact, the central explanation for what the article portends to find is "McCain's record of defying the GOP party line." This assertion, which is totally irrelevant to the campaign of 2008, leads to a source saying that McCain would definitely not represent the third Bush term. (To balance it off, the same source says this centrist argument means that Obama is not as liberal as he is accused of being.)
A frame is a way of presenting something as if it were in a picture frame. Framing makes a political event into a story. Facts that fit the frame stay in, and those that don't get shoved out or reshaped. In a year that Republican ideas are in the toilet with public opinion, McCain's hope has to be to frame the issues as basically consensual. The frame of a centrist American political system with everybody crowding toward the middle is very popular with pundits, even though the evidence for its existence is very weak.
In order to make this frame apply to a race in which Obama and McCain disagree on almost everything, the reporters have to cut, squeeze, add, and in general fix up the facts to fit the frame. So on Iraq, global warming, Russia, immigration, and wiretapping, they make the case work for the frame in spite of the evidence to the contrary.
- On Iraq, the story states that the candidates have moved closer because McCain, who once talked about a 100 year war, now claims to be ready to get out by 2013, and Obama says he will listen to the military on how to get out in 16 months. Neither candidate has changed their basic view: Obama wants to end the war as soon as possible, and McCain wants to stay until "victory" is achieved. A huge difference.
- Both favor a cap and trade system on global warming. But McCain has indicated that his system would be voluntary, which makes no sense, since there is nothing to trade in that case. This is a big difference.
- Both favor stepped up negotiations with Russia? Are you kidding? McCain has talked about tossing Russia out of the G-8 group. This is a major difference.
- On eavesdropping there is indeed some shifting, by Obama, who backed the FISA bill. But he still opposes telecom immunity, which McCain supports. That's basically the major issue.
- And on immigration, they are said to be "converging." Huh? McCain now says he would have voted against his own legislation on immigration.
The problem with the story is that McCain is not Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is a genuine and consistent moderate Republican. If Obama were running against Arnold, the frame would not be terribly far off, except on some economic issues. (And I think a genuine Republican moderate would be extremely difficult to beat, even in a bad year for Republicans.)
McCain's campaign depends on convincing people that he is like Arnold, even while adopting actual policies to please his conservative base. The perfect frame for McCain would be to be free to adjust his policies to fit right wingers while still being described as a maverick for things he said years ago and that bear no relevance to the current race.
And that, folks, is framing in a nutshell.
Look for iit.
Columnist Marty Kaplan has his own take on the Times
and owner Sam Zell
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July 3, 2008 | 3:39 pm
Posted by Raphael J. Sonenshein
As John McCain finishes his tour of Colombia and Mexico, Barack Obama is making plans for a trip to Israel, Iraq, France, England, and Jordan. Smart for Obama, not so smart for McCain.
Obama needs to be seen as credible on the world stage, and McCain needs to be seen as somebody who knows the price of gas in Toledo.
Republicans are quite worried about Obama’s upcoming trip, and have been telling reporters that they are not very happy about McCain’s. McCain had already been to the countries Obama will visit, and this was a more modest one. Nothing particularly bad happened on McCain’s foreign tour, and there was even some good news when the government of Columbia managed to rescue some hostages with a quite brilliant intelligence coup. McCain was well treated by government leaders, which is not particularly surprising, but not particularly newsworthy either. When traveling abroad, McCain can hardly put distance between himself and the unpopular President Bush. Perhaps it was just that McCain is frustrated by the campaign and uninterested in domestic issues, and hoping that foreign policy expertise will be the entire ball of wax for the election. McCain is acting like a president near the end of his term, going abroad because it’s more comfortable than getting darts thrown at you at home.
When asked about the trip, his campaign aide said it had been McCain’s idea and “the campaign was fine with it.” In my experience, that’s a new one.
Meanwhile, Obama is laying plans for his grand tour. Unlike McCain, he is likely to get a big popular reception overseas. His every utterance, though, will be watched closely to see if he makes a mistake. Jewish voters will be very interested to see how it works out in Israel.
In any case, Obama can use a change in the story line right now. His switch on the FISA vote from opposition to support was a real disappointment to many of his most devoted supporters. His initial reaction to the Wes Clark dustup with John McCain, rejecting Clark’s comments, seemed wimpy to many Democrats. There is a worry in the party that he may be “playing not to lose” with excessive caution rather than “playing to win” and being more aggressive.
On the domestic side, though, Obama’s travels to red states are perking up Democrats, especially in those states. He visited North Dakota and Montana, buoyed by a poll in the latter red state showing him leading McCain. Meanwhile, McCain is visiting states to raise money (New York, California, etc) but not places where he is likely to win. So even on the domestic travel front, Obama is besting McCain.
Where McCain is hurting Obama is in the daily back-and-forth of the campaign. So far, this is turning out to be one of Obama’s weaknesses, and McCain’s strength. The years that McCain invested in winning the favor of political reporters (the barbeques, the intimate chats on the bus, the cultivation of their friendship) has paid off handsomely.
In addition to being a big referendum, a campaign is also the sum total of a bunch of days that each candidate tries to win. The McCain people are being out-spent and out-organized. But they are out-messaging Obama. Obama’s team is unaccountably on the defensive, looking to fight back against charges instead of pressing their advantage. Republicans are jumping on every Obama mistake, and even creating ones that don’t exist (such as the mythical special deal Obama did not actually receive on his home loan).
Meanwhile, the Obama people are spending precious little time making McCain pay for his mistakes or inconsistencies. If they’re not careful, they will find themselves in the position of all candidates who try to run out the clock and to rely on organization and money instead of message.
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