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Obama and the politics of distraction

by Raphael Sonenshein

June 1, 2008 | 12:02 pm

'Distraction' image courtesy mocoloco.com

Democrats have trouble winning presidential elections.  One reason is that they have difficulty keeping the campaign focused on their issues.  Polls show that this year especially the issues favor the Democrats, with the big ones, the Iraq war and the economy deeply in the Democrats’ favor.

But campaigns are not stately debates about issues.  They are also battles over what the debate will be about.  The politics of distraction can be very powerful, and Democrats have struggled with it for years.  Consider how John Edwards found his campaign derailed because he had an expensive haircut.  John Kerry had to deal with false attacks on his war record.

Right now, the biggest distraction for Obama is Hillary Clinton’s quixotic campaign.  Even though she has no chance to win the nomination, she keeps going (at least for a few more days).  Media coverage of the fairly ridiculous case for Florida and Michigan being seated at the Democratic convention distracted from Obama’s attack on John McCain for flubbing how many troops we have in Iraq.

Of course, the biggest distraction for Obama has been the Rev. Wright controversy.  And since this is a real issue, he has had to deal directly with it at some length.  While he has dealt fairly effectively with the story, and this week quit the church, this distraction may always be there as a kind of low-level illness.  But there will be more, and the Republicans are artful at working the media to keep them alive.  A good example is the misstatement Obama made about his uncle liberating a Nazi death camp.  He had the wrong camp, and corrected it.  It made headlines.

In order to keep the distractions from messing up your campaign, you have to speak loudly, clearly, and firmly.  You have to say things that are more interesting than your haircut, or the latest distraction.  And you have to say them over and over again.  You can’t get caught up in the distractions.  Deal with them, and move on quickly. So far, Obama is showing some skill at this, as he has directed his attacks at McCain, and not at Clinton.  That’s a way of saying, without saying, that the nomination race has been over for a while.  He turned McCain’s distraction of challenging him to go to Iraq into an attack on McCain’s lack of knowledge about Iraq despite his several trips there.

I expect a cascade of distractions from here on.  They are like marbles on the floor, or nails in the roadway.  They will keep coming.  If one doesn’t work, another one will come up.  They will come by viral email.  They will come on radio talk shows.  They will be presented on the evening news.  Some will be true, if pointless.  Some will be plainly false.

Obama’s road to the White House is not paved with thoughtful debates, although there will be some.  It’s paved with marbles and nails.  His task will be to keep our eyes on the road.

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