The McCain campaign has carelessly served a fat pitch down the middle, and if Barack Obama doesn’t hit it out of the park, perhaps he doesn’t deserve to win the election.
The pitch? John McCain, the hero of the Hanoi Hilton, has shown himself to be a wimp –” even, dare I say it?, a coward. McCain attempted to bail out of a scheduled debate, and he sequesters his running mate in various “undisclosed locations” out of reach of the media
Imagine what Karl Rove might do with an opportunity like this!
“But,” I hear you say, “Obama can’t call McCain a coward. Everyone is familiar with McCain’s heroic endurance during his seven years as a POW in North Vietnam.”
Right! And many were familiar with John Kerry’s heroism in Vietnam, until Rove and the “Swift Boat Veterans” went to work, and transformed Kerry, in the public mind, into some kind of phoney. At the same time, George Bush, who walked away from his military obligation during the Vietnam War, was successfully recast as a heroic "war President."
Similarly, in 2000, the Rovian campaign machine (with the able and enthusiastic assistance of the corporate media) successfully caricatured Al Gore, one of the most honest and honorable Senators, as a “serial liar.”
The Rove strategy: attack the opponent at his strength. And surely, John McCain’s oft-cited reputation as a heroic warrior-aviator is among his greatest political assets.
Yet McCain tried to back out of his agreement to meet his opponent in a debate, and only agreed to do so when it became clear that the political cost of a no-show would be exorbitant. At the same time, he and his managers are doing their utmost to hide Sarah Palin from the press and the public.
This is not the behavior of a bold, “straight-talking,” political warrior.
The Obama campaign machine should relentlessly pound in this message: Notwithstanding his manifest courage during his Vietnam ordeal, John McCain is now a quitter and a wimp.
Unlike the smears against Al Gore (“a serial liar”) and John Kerry (“a fake”), this attack against McCain is grounded in verifiable facts.
A second message should be that McCain is without moral or ideological grounding. He acts from his gut (and haven’t we had enough of that?), and he changes his positions the instant he senses a shift in public opinion. For example, “the fundamentals of the economy are sound,” then “we are in an economic crisis.” “Let’s postpone the debate,” then he shows up. He has a history of opposing government regulation, but now he’s for it. The list is long.
Following the debate, Keith Olbermann quoted Craig Shirley, a former advisor to John McCain: “The ‘steady hand in the storm’ argument looks now to more favor Obama, not McCain.”
Two attack themes against McCain: cowardly and rudderless. Two is plenty. As any competent Rovian would tell you, additional themes detract from the impact of these two.
Both accusation are true and supported by an abundance of evidence. The Obama campaign would be foolish and negligent not to use them.
McCain’s “Razzle-Dazzle” Strategy
Rick Davis, the McCain Campaign Chairman, famously remarked that "This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."
And so, not surprisingly, when public attention turns toward “issues” such as the collapsing economy, the unpopular war in Iraq, the McCainiacs pull what Chris Matthews calls a “razzle-dazzle play” to draw public attention away from those dastardly “issues.”
Those razzle-dazzle plays are familiar by now: the selection of Sarah Palin as the VP nominee, the delay of the GOP Convention by a day, McCain’s call for the firing of SEC Chairman Chris Cox, the “suspension” of his campaign, the proposal to delay the debate, the rush to Washington to “save” the bailout plan, etc.
On Rachel Maddow’s Show last Thursday, Chris Matthews thus explained the “razzle-dazzle strategy” in his inimitable way:
Matthews: “The reason John McCain is in trouble: every time [troublesome] conditions prevail, people reach for that default button and say, ‘we’re changing parties,’ and that’s when he pulls a razzle-dazzle.
The series of events you just described [listed above, EP] are all razzle-dazzle plays he called when he saw the voters going back to that default button….
Whenever you see the issue of the economy get stronger, [McCain] goes to a razzle-dazzle play. Anything to change the situation away from that default button, when people say “when one party fails, you try the other one.” That’s True North, politically. And every time he sees that he says, “shake the compass up. Don’t let the people see that. That arrow points to the Democrats.”
Maddow: [But McCain] gets style points for boldness. They call this “maverick behavior” that he is willing to do something that creates such a big splash. But is there a risk that he looks, not just bold, but desperate?
Matthews: How would you like eight years of razzle-dazzle. I don’t think people would like that. I think that people like predictability and pattern.
And Matthews is right. McCain’s “razzle-dazzle” vividly displays his second weakness, noted above: his erratic, impulsive, ungrounded, and rudderless behavior. If the Obama campaign focuses on these flaws in McCain’s temperament and judgment, and contrast these traits with the sort of calm steadiness and intelligence that Obama displayed in the first debate, they will have a devastatingly effective weapon in their arsenal.
Last week, Keith Olbermann expressed his fear that McCain’s razzle-dazzle just might work by keeping the Democrats off-balance, by directing public attention away from the essential issues, and then “running out the clock” all the way to November 4.
I believe that Olbermann is mistaken, thankfully, and for three compelling reasons:
1. Razzle-Dazzle distraction is an appropriate tactic for a candidate who is ahead but in imminent danger of losing his his lead. McCain is behind, and losing ground each day.
2. The tactic works if the mass media is fully cooperating with the scheme. Accordingly, it would have worked for the GOP in 2000 and 2004. As I will explain below, this time around, the GOP candidate has lost the solid support of a significant portion of the corporate media.
3. Razzle-dazzle might work for an incumbent candidate. But this is a “change election,” as both Obama and McCain insist. The public is looking for that “steady hand” at the till of the ship of state. Chris Matthews is right: the voters don’t want eight years of razzle-dazzle.
A GOP campaign of razzle-dazzle distractions should provoke a simple and compelling response from the Democrats: “Cut the crap, and get serious! We’ve got some urgent problems to deal with.” I suspect that the public has, at long last, had enough of the sort of trivia that cheapened the campaigns of 2000 (“sighs,” “earth tones,” “inventing the internet”) and 2004 (wind-surfing, the French look, Philly sandwiches). Notice how quickly the Rev. Wright, Pledge of Allegiance, and flag pin flaps came and went, causing little damage to the Obama candidacy.
About the Debate
There has been a super-abundance of commentary about last Friday’s debate, and so I don’t need to add to them. I will be brief.
Quite frankly, I thought that John McCain performances in his acceptance speech and in the debate, were rather effective. Not cogent (i.e. supported by evidence and valid logical inference), but effective (i.e., persuasive to a general audience). Though I was not moved an iota toward support of McCain’s candidacy, I suspected that he may have presented a strong case to a general audience.
But I am not a typical audience of political speeches and debates. I am more than typically sensitive to words, and less than typically sensitive to stagecraft and body-language. Thus, for example, I was totally unaware of the fact, noticed by many media observers, that McCain never made eye contact with Obama.
On Oxford Union debating points, Obama creamed McCain. Likewise on evidence and inference (cogency). But, as we have learned to our sorrow, these factors matter little to the American audience. It would have helped Obama a great deal if a buzzer or a klaxon horn had sounded every time a howling error or damnable lie was uttered, but alas, this was not part of the debate format.
Nonetheless, the instant polls indicate that a significant portion of the viewing public responded favorably to Obama’s composure and competence, and negatively to McCain’s impatience and disdain. Thus I was pleased, if somewhat surprised, that these polls awarded to the night to Obama.
‘Nuff said. I promised to be brief.
About the Media
The biggest surprise of the debate, and indeed of the entire campaign, has been the behavior of the corporate media. The portion of that media that I have watched and read has, for the most part and in balance, been “playing it straight.” (I exclude from this assessment, FOX news and right-wing talk radio, which are beyond redemption).
This is not to say that I have not disagreed vehemently with some “conservative” opinions that I have heard and read. However, they have been balanced with responsible “centrist” opinion, albeit, as always, opinions from the authentic left remain woefully under-represented.
All this in stark contrast with the campaigns of 2000 and 2004. This time, it appears that the Democratic candidates are being given an even break.
And this is why: as I suggested in my essay last week, the corporate powers-that-be, in particular the executives, board members and major stockholders of the five conglomerates that own and operate 80% of all the U.S. media, are horrified at what has become of Republican Party. The “foot soldiers” of the religious right, recruited to supply the GOP with the votes required for political power, have taken over the party and have installed an clueless, science averse, religious fanatic potentially a 72-year old heartbeat away from the Presidency of the United States.
In addition, the Republican presidential candidate is a self-confessed ignoramus concerning matters economic.
All this at the moment when the U.S. economy is at the brink of collapse, and the country’s financial system is in urgent need of firm regulation in Washington and enlightened direction from the White House. It just may have dawned on a few well-placed "captains of industry and finance" that John McCain, and much worse Sarah Palin, are totally incapable of leading the economy of the United States out of the economic disaster brought on by eight years of the unregulated Bush-Cheney orgy of greed and corruption.
At such a time, a Harvard educated lawyer and a seasoned Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee might seem to be acceptable alternatives, even if they are Democrats.
And so, in this election the spin rooms are gone, and the smears against the Democratic candidates are muted. In the corporate media, it’s a different ball-game.
- The nightly programming of one of the three cable news networks (MSNBC) is decidedly liberal. In 2000 and 2004, Keith Olbermann was not a significant voice on cable, and Rachel Maddow was totally unknown.
- When Sarah Palin’s managers were allowed to select the ABC interviewer, Charles Gibson, liberal bloggers told us to expect a cream-puff interview. Instead, Gibson behaved like a responsible journalist, asking direct and relevant questions that proved to be damaging to Palin.
- Likewise, Palin’s interview with Katie Couric.
- In 2000 Frank Luntz, a GOP operative, conducted a post-debate “focus group” that was deliberately set up to savage Al Gore., which it did quite successfully. The “flash polls” immediately after the debates awarded the contests to Gore. Polls taken after the post-debate spins favored Bush.. (Likewise in 2004 with the Bush-Kerry debates). This time, Luntz played it straight, as his focus group concluded that Obama had won the debate. And astonishingly, the focus group was on FOX news!
- ABC’s post-debate analysis, with Dianne Sawyer, George Stephanopolous, and Charles Gibson, and later appearances by George Will and Thomas Friedman, was fair and professional. There were no partisan “spin-doctors.” Will’s assessment: “A mild leg-up for Obama.” And Friedman: Obama’s performance was “extremely cogent, and got through to voters.”
I did not see the post-debate analyses on CBS and NBC. Perhaps some readers who did might add some insights.
The American corporate media remains a disgrace. It has come a long, long, way from the glory days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. But in this election the media has shown noteworthy improvement over its performance in 2000 and 2004.
It is just possible that the corporate establishment that owns and operates the mass media is sufficiently sobered by the prospect of a McCain presidency and a Palin theocracy, that it has decided to give the Democratic candidates an even break this time. Or perhaps not.
We will likely find out in the coming month, and most immediately in the Biden/Palin debate next Thursday.