In my previous post on Obama I focused on how he compares to Clinton, and the question of his experience (on that point, I recently found another post from Hilzoy that delves further into his record, and will leave you scratching your head at the “Obama has no substance” meme). What I didn’t get into was the question of his ability to withstand the vicious character assaults that we know will come in the general election campaign. Clinton has hammered away at this point – that she has been on the receiving end of all kinds of character assassination attempts, and has survived, and that Obama just isn’t ready for it.
Glenn Greenwald has been following this for the past couple of weeks, and has made some key observations:
Over the last week, we learned that: (a) Obama is a closet socialist as evidenced by the Che Guevara picture a volunteer posted on a campaign office wall; (b) Obama’s wife, Michelle, is both self-absorbed and subversive, as she secretly hates the U.S. and will only believe it’s a good country if her husband becomes President; (c) Obama is a thief and a plagiarist; and,
(d) in one of the most repulsive screeds in memory, courtesy of National Review‘s Lisa Schiffren, former Dan Quayle aide, the fact that Obama’s parents are a mixed-race couple strongly suggests they were probably Communists, because who else, besides Communists, would marry outside of their own race? …
So the question isn’t whether Obama will be relentlessly pelted by the sprawling appendages of the Right-wing edifice and its media allies with the most grotesque, bottom-feeding, substance-free, personality-based attacks. Of course he will be — ones as ugly as, if not uglier than, anything we’ve seen yet…
The real question is whether Obama, as he did this week, will be able to render these attacks impotent, even cause them to backfire, because they and their propagators will appear to be so ugly and small and irrelevant in light of the type of candidate he is, the rhetoric he produces, the vision to which he aspires. I have no idea whether Obama’s transcendent charisma or the historically demonstrated efficacy of low-life right-wing attacks will be more potent — I think it’s a much more difficult challenge than many Obama supporters (by virtue of understandable desire, rather than objective assessment) have convinced themselves it will be — but there probably aren’t very many priorities more important than cleansing our political process of this type of dirt and petty distraction.
What our political establishment relies on more than anything else is keeping Americans distracted away from what they are really doing and focused instead on how Mike Dukakis looks in a helmet and whether he’d want to murder his wife’s rapist; on blue dresses and penile spots; on the inspiration for Love Story and who invented the Internet; on how John Kerry looks in windsurfing tights, on how manly George Bush’s brush-clearing is, and whether Nancy Pelosi’s scarf-wearing means she loves the Terrorists. That’s how our Beltway culture remains indescribably broken and corrupt without much protest or backlash.
Rendering irrelevant these sorts of stupid, malicious, small-minded distractions could produce real substantive value…
This, to me, is one of the most appealing aspects of Obama. While cheap character attacks have always had their place in politics, they have sunk to new lows over the past 15 years or so. I see the Clinton campaign accepting that landscape as a given, and that this Fall we would see a general election campaign that would plumb the depths of the sewers like never before if Clinton were the nominee. I’m not suggesting Obama will be treated more gently – I’m suggesting that he has the capacity to expose those tactics for what they are – to make them backfire on their perpetrators – in a way that Clinton does not.
Since Greenwald wrote the above piece, not even a week ago, we’ve already seen more absurd attacks thrown at Obama, and another example of his capacity to respond effectively:
…nothing was more predictable than watching the “Obamas-are-unpatriotic-subversives” slur travel in the blink of an eye from the Jack Kingstons, Fox News adolescent McCarthyites, and Bill Kristols of the world to AP, MSNBC, and CNN….
Far more notable is Barack Obama’s response to these depressingly familiar attacks. In response, he’s not scurrying around slapping flags all over himself or belting out the National Anthem, nor is he apologizing for not wearing lapels, nor is he defensively trying to prove that — just like his Republican accusers — he, too, is a patriot, honestly. He’s not on the defensive at all. Instead, he’s swatting away these slurs with the dismissive contempt they deserve, and then eagerly and aggressively engaging the debate on offense because he’s confident, rather than insecure, about his position:
About not wearing an American flag lapel pin, Obama said Republicans have no lock on patriotism.
“A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans’ benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary?
“That is a debate I am very happy to have. We’ll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism.”
Ever since 2002 — at least — most national Democrats have quivered with fear the moment Republicans utter words like “patriotism” and “national security.” Traumatized by the 2002 mid-term elections, George Bush’s 70% approval ratings, and the media’s lock-step adoration of the Commander-in-Chief, to this day they become frozen the moment such attacks are even suggested and desperately and defensively try to comply with whatever demands are made of them. Like many trauma victims, they can never break free of the terror from their past, and still live perpetually in 2002, whereby George Bush’s invocation of the words “patriotism” and “terrorism” can send them into spasms of fear and submission.
Perhaps (in part) because he wasn’t in Washington in 2002, Obama’s response here is the opposite of all of that. He’s not the slightest bit defensive. To the contrary, he went out of his way to raise numerous examples of why it is the flag-waving Republicans whose “patriotism” ought to be in doubt, if anyone’s should be. Without having to do so, Obama even went and raised the issue which Republicans currently think is their big, bad weapon — warrantless spying on Americans — and used it against them, to argue that spying on Americans is a profound violation of core American political principles, a far more substantive test of “patriotism” than what pretty accessories one wears with one’s clothes.
I don’t see a compelling argument that Clinton would be more adroit at dealing with these kinds of attacks. If anything, I think she would be a weaker general election candidate. Anonymous Liberal has a good summary of the arguments in Obama’s favor:
1) In every contest that’s been held so far, Obama has done much better than Clinton among independent and Republican voters, a strong indication that he has more cross-over appeal.
2) Obama has MUCH better favorable/unfavorable ratings than Clinton.
3) Democratic members of Congress from red states and red districts are overwhelmingly choosing to endorse Obama over Clinton and are arguing that he will do better than Clinton in their states/districts.
4) Obama is a fresh-face who many Americans have not yet formed an opinion of and are willing to give a chance. By contrast, virtually every American has long ago formed an opinion of Hillary Clinton and–whether fair or not–for many that opinion is negative. Many otherwise persuadable folk will simply tune her out. If you doubt this, ask any disgruntled Republican you know whether he/she would ever consider voting for Hillary. Ask the same about Obama. Notice the different reaction.
5) Obama is–by leaps and bounds–a better orator and a more charismatic and likable figure than Clinton. Close you eyes and imagine them each delivering their keynote address at the Democratic Convention. Who do you imagine would be better able to inspire the electorate and win new converts to the progressive cause?
6) Obama has done much better than Clinton at attracting new people into the political process. Which candidate do you think will do a better job increasing Democratic turnout in November?
7) Obama matches up much better against John McCain than Hillary does. McCain is beloved by the media. Clinton is despised. But the media likes Obama and would root for his historical candidacy to succeed. Furthermore, Obama provides a much better contrast with McCain on foreign policy. If Clinton is the nominee, it will be 2004 all over again with Clinton constantly being accused of flip-floppery on the war and being forced to explain her initial vote for it. If Obama is the nominee, he can present a much clearer and more consistent critique of the war and McCain’s foreign policy generally. Obama’s youth and vitality will also contrast well with McCain’s age.
A point I would add is the skill and competency of Obama’s campaign compared to Clinton’s. In Nevada and South Carolina he had to build his own organizations from scratch to compete with Clinton’s early dominance of the party machinery, and he did so quite successfully. In general he has run a tight ship – few gaffes, little turnover in staff, and good strategy. In contrast, Clinton led with a glass jaw “inevitability” strategy (an approach where it’s hard to make a convincing second pitch when you turn out not be inevitable), picked the wrong people to run her campaign (that’s according to none other than Leon Panetta – Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff), and according to The Economist, her campaign has been plagued by infighting:
Mrs Clinton’s campaign has been riven by faction-fights between the “white boys” who are close to her husband and “the Hillary girls” who are close to her. It has also been hobbled by the reluctance of her advisers to bring the boss bad news. Mrs Solis Doyle’s departure was reportedly precipitated by her failure to tell Mrs Clinton that her campaign was running out of money. Mrs Clinton, it seems, had to lend the campaign $5m of her own cash.
Surprisingly, her team has had trouble with the basic mechanics of the campaign, from not being aware of the delegate rules in Texas until it was too late to adjust their strategy accordingly to not even filing a full slate of delegates in Pennsylvania, which could cause complications for her if she wins in Pennsylvania. While running a campaign is not the same as running the executive branch, running a large, complex national campaign is a test of essential managerial skill.
So far I’ve seen Obama be successful beyond the party base in a way that Clinton hasn’t. I’ve seen him respond forcefully and persuasively to the attacks that have been launched against him. And I’ve seen him run a primary campaign that’s superior to Clinton’s in several key aspects. For Clinton to turn things around, she’ll have to accomplish at least two of the following three tasks: 1. have really big wins in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, 2. get a majority of the superdelegates, and 3. manage to get the Florida and Michigan delegations seated at the convention, on terms favorable to her. The prospects for at least two of these to go her way are growing increasingly dim by the day, as Obama has closed the gap in the Ohio and Texas polls, he’s catching up in superdelegates, and it’s anybody’s guess at this stage what will happen with the Florida and Michigan delegations.