The candidate is receiving punches, but is he throwing enough of his own?
By Steve Charing
I’ve always believed that politics is a war, especially now in the modern era where public opinion is expressed and manipulated instantly over the Internet. Mainstream media fuels any acrimony and relishes causing mischief and strife; the results of such an effort provide excellent fodder for writers. bloggers and talking heads.
Politics is a grimy business, and despite what "focus groups" say, negative campaigning generally works: it beats down the opposition. Taking the high road exclusively by a candidate usually leads him or her to the exit ramp.
Senator Barack Obama and his campaign ought to keep that thought in mind.
Obama should draw on the lessons of John Kerry’s failed presidential bid. The Massachusetts Senator had received the Silver Star among other medals during the Vietnam War. But in 2004 he was successfully painted by the Rove machine and "swift- boaters" as cowardly, treasonous, weak and unpatriotic.
Ironically, George W. Bush—a draft dodger who avoided military action to serve (and not completely at that) with the soft "Champagne Unit" of the Texas and Louisiana National Guard—was portrayed as a steadfast Commander-in-Chief who would keep America safe from terrorists. Nevermind that 9/11 occurred on his watch.
Kerry addressed the swift-boating, but way too late. He was already "defined" by the Republican fear and smear operation. Exit ramp for Kerry.
Sen. Obama has been under fire (not the sniper fire Hillary lied about) for a lot of stuff recently: his ex-pastor’s anti-American rhetoric, his meager association with a member of the 60’s radical group Weather Underground, and some verbal gaffes like the "bitter" brouhaha.
Unfortunately for him, the fire launched at Sen. Obama has not been returned with the same ferocity in which it was received. While his campaign shoots back rather effectively, the man himself opts for that dastardly high road.
The political calculus suggests that his rising above the fray will attract independent voters. That could be true. Obama prides himself as a different kind of politician—one that refuses to get drawn into the negative barrages he has faced and will be facing—so he doesn’t want to muck it up.
That clean strategy has been the rationale for his campaign and has unquestionably attracted thousands of new, young voters because of it. But many Obama supporters want to see a demonstration of his ability to strike back, to show some fight lest he be framed as weak. This could be a reason why Obama doesn’t seem to appeal to white blue-collar workers.
Obama had a golden opportunity to show some moxy during the much-criticized ABC debate in Philadelphia. While the moderators and Hillary Clinton spent the first 45 minutes pummeling Obama on the controversial events and comments he made since the previous debate six weeks ago, he appeared too tame in his responses.
He squandered the chance to lash into Sen. Clinton’s Bosnia fabrication. In the manner in which she kept repeating, "It goes to this larger set of concerns about how we are going to run against John McCain," he could have offered the following: "The voters and the American people want a president they can trust. When a candidate states on at least three occasions that bullets were fired upon her only to say later that she misspoke when the story was debunked, that goes to trust."
Instead, Obama saw this as part of the overall "distractions" of a political campaign. He let Sen. Clinton off the hook. He took the high road—to the consternation of a lot of his supporters.
The pitfall here is that Sen. John McCain and his GOP attack machine will not take the high road. Obama’s associations with questionable characters, his accused lack of patriotism, the remarks made by his wife Michelle, his liberal record, and the "elitist" label will be raised during the general election.
There will also be subtle attacks and innuendoes on his race and comments perpetuating the myth he’s a Muslim by right-wing blogs and conservative radio. And they will question his ability and judgement to be Commander-in-Chief in light of his position to end the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy.
If Sen. McCain personally does not make these pronouncements count on his surrogates, the slimy 527’s, and talk show blowhards to use the Net and the airwaves to discredit and defame Obama.
Now is the time Obama should practice the tactics he must use to endure the general election assaults. Since the extended primaries are cutting into the timeframe Obama will need to effectively battle in the general election, he must aim more at McCain to soften him up. He needs to shoot back instantly when attacked. Self-restraint, though admirable and probably more suited to his personality, will not serve him well in the bare knuckles general election.
Perhaps his campaign is seeing the light. David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, told Newsweek that the Illinois senator wouldn’t let himself be "swift-boated" like John Kerry in 2004. "He's not going to sit there and sing ‘Kumbaya’ as the missiles are raining in," Axelrod said. "I don't think people should mistake civility for a willingness to deal with the challenges to come."
Recent history points to the risks. Good men like Al Gore and John Kerry allowed themselves to be caricatured by their opposition because they tried to rise above the dirt. In politics, you have to get dirty and fight dirty to win. To do that, you need to throw some back and don’t simply dismiss the smears as "politics as usual." The good guys took the blows, pulled their punches and lost.
Indeed, Obama will have to take the gloves off sooner than later—he began that process during the final days leading to the Pennsylvania primary. It may be uncomfortable for him to do so, but I hope he knows the dangers of taking the high road and where it will lead him.