It was just about four years ago that the Swift Boat campaign kicked into high gear and knocked the Kerry campaign back on its heels. Kerry’s failure to deal with the attack quickly and decisively probably cost him the election. Here it is, four years later, and pretty much the same team of GOP attack dogs are pulling the same set of tricks.
The day kicked off with a front-page NY Times story talking about the new McCain campaign ad juxtaposing images of Barack Obama with those of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The ad struck some observers as an underhanded subliminal attack, and reminded a lot of Democrats of how the GOP took down Harold Ford, the black Tennessee senatorial candidate in 2006, with suggestive ads featuring a white woman talking about meeting the black candidate at “a Playboy party” and concluding with her cooing, “Harold — call me!”
The McCain team says The Britney-‘n’-Paris ad is innocent: all they’re trying to say is that Obama has become too much of a celebrity, and we need someone with more substance. To which one can only say: C’mon! Whatever you think of Obama, the “airhead” charge seems bizarre and so remote from reality as to be laughable. But then it all starts to make sense when you remember that rule number one in the Karl Rove playbook is, attack your opponent where he’s strongest. Running against a genuine war hero? Smear his heroism. Running against a gifted orator and charismatic leader? Call him a fluffball.
I don’t think it can work this time, but my optimism has been cruelly disappointed in the past. And if you followed the other big campaign narrative of the last couple of days, you might get a little pessimistic, too. A Dana Milbank piece in Wednesday’s Washington Post delivered a new angle of attack on Obama: Somehow, Milbank seems to think, there is something wrong with the way Obama is projecting confidence, traveling the world, talking to leaders in politics and finance, and being protected (like all presidential candidates) by the Secret Service. Why, he has even begun doing some transition planning (a move that a recent bipartisan op-ed piece suggested is essential for national security). The candidate should not be doing these things! He is guilty of acting prematurely presidential!
It’s a pathetic, damned-either-way kind of complaint. When a presidential candidate acts un-presidential, the pundits are all over him for it — and well they should be. Now we have a guy who has some genuinely presidential characteristics, and, what — he’s supposed to keep the leadership, the dignity, and, yes, the power that comes with leading in the polls all cloaked till after Election Day?
The Milbank piece was built around a statement that Obama had purportedly made at a meeting with members of Congress:
“This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for,” adding: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”
This statement turned out, upon further investigation, to be a third-hand, out-of-context misquote. What the candidate actual said was that he wished he could take credit for the big crowds and the excitement, but that “it’s not about me, it’s about America.” In other words, he wasn’t saying, egotistically, “I am a symbol”; he was saying, self-deprecatingly, “I’m just a symbol.”
None of this stopped Milbank’s misquote from sparking a cable-news feeding frenzy (you can watch a hilarious summary of it in this TPM video). The agenda item of the day was to call Obama “arrogant,” “messianic,” “presumptuous” — or, in the words of Fred Barnes, who made the “uppity Negro” undertones a little too overt for comfort, “too big for his britches.”
This kind of chattering-class duncery is laughable — until it coalesces into conventional wisdom and starts affecting the polls. The Obama campaign responded to the McCain celebrity attack quickly, with an effective counterpunch spot. The next two to three weeks will be critical in determining whether the Swift Boat technique will once again sway an election.
It’s a different year, with different issues, and Obama is a far more adroit candidate than Kerry. Still, when the slime begins to pile up like this, the floor starts to get awfully sticky.
Here’s the great TPM compilation video: