Friday, July 11, 2008

Obama and Self-Swiftboating

Lawrence Lessig has a point.

All signs point to an Obama victory this fall. If the signs are wrong, it will be because of events last month. These events constitute a so-far-unnamed phenomenon in Presidential campaigning -- what we could call "self-Swiftboating." To understand "self-Swiftboating," you've got to first understand "Swiftboating."

Some use the term "Swiftboating" to refer to harsh, even vicious attacks on an opponent. I use the term in a more restrictive sense: "Swiftboating" is (1) attacking the strongest bits of a candidate's character, with (2) false or misleading allegations. That was what Kerry suffered -- attacking his courage as a soldier, the characteristic that distinguished him most from Bush, with misleading (at least) allegations by some who knew him when he served.

Self-Swiftboating is to Swiftboat yourself: For a campaign to do something that has the effect of undermining its own candidate's strongest characteristic, with actions that are (at best) misleading. The Obama campaign has now self-Swiftboated candidate Obama.

(1) An attack on a core characteristic: There are at least two views about what makes Obama so compelling. One that he happens to have the mix of positions on policy questions that best matches the public's. The other that he is perceived by the public as "different," and hence (given the public hates politicians so) someone the public can like, or more significantly, get enthusiastic about.

I'm strongly in the second camp. It seems to me nothing more than consultant-think to imagine people choosing a President with a checklist of issues, finding the one to vote for the way they pick a place to vacation. It seems to me nothing less than obvious that people are passionate about Obama because he strikes them as a different kind of candidate -- one that stands for his beliefs, that speaks clearly and directly, that can be trusted to stick by his beliefs, that says what he believes regardless. Such a creature, in most people's minds, is "not a politician." Such a creature (i.e., "not a politician") is what people want in a President.

Democrats never seem to get this. The last two campaigns were lost (in my view) because the campaign was working overtime to bob and weave to match the program of the candidate to the pollsters' latest work. That the shifts would signal that the candidate was nothing different just didn't seem to compute. Better, for example, to have people believe the candidate (Kerry) was against gay marriage than to worry that most would see the position as a political ploy.

Republicans, on the other hand, seem obsessed with this. It was the defining feature of the success of Reagan that he made it appear as if he did what he believed, not what the polls said. It was the part Bush v2 mimicked best. It is the clear dream of the McCain campaign to do the same. "You may not like what I say, but at least you know where I stand" is the signal virtue in a GOP campaign. It is the signal blindness of a Democratic campaign.

I am not saying that Republicans are consistent and Democrats not. I am saying something very different: that Republicans believe appearing consistent/principled/different is the key to victory, where as Democrats (apparently) do not.

Well put. It's something that surprises the hell out of me: that Dems would be so attached to the "we'll just shift along the (supposed) electoral spectrum until we hit the magic point" that they manage to completely screw themselves up, with no real help required from the Republicans.

Maybe they just listen to the media too much. All those pundits who are saying "oh, those stupid lefties, they don't realize that you need to shift" are going to savage him for it come October.

Maybe they listen to the consultant class too much. All those consultants who look at polls and nothing else still have too much power, because they don't realize that a party and a candidate needs to have lines that they will not cross, and that those lines are what make you look "principled."

Maybe they listen to Republicans too much. It still fascinates me that Karl Rove is being hauled out as a political analyst, as if he's doesn't have a horse in this race. The Republicans are more than willing to attack them for both shifting and for not shifting enough, because as long as they keep doing that, they'll keep the public's eyes away from their own candidates' faults.

Whatever it is, Lessig's right: if they lose, it'll be because of this nonsense, and because Obama supporters' yells of "well, come on, he's still just a politician" are the dumbest goddamned thing that's been said about an American presidential candidate since "uniter, not divider."

No comments:

Post a Comment