Friday, September 19, 2008
Smears for Fears
I wouldn't be breaking any new ground or divulging any closely guarded campaign secrets by pointing out that when it comes to conservative politics these days, simplicity sells. In fact, it's the only thing that sells.
John McCain and Sarah Palin know this -- which is why they're Jedi masters when it comes to stripping down each and every argument to its barest essential. They know that their audience doesn't want to be bothered with any of that thinking stuff; that's for Ivy League liberal pussies. So their rhetoric instead aims not for the head but for the gut. They figure, correctly, that they'll get a lot more mileage out of eliciting an instinctive, reactive feeling from voters than they will an equal amount of thoughtful consideration.
This is why, while Barack Obama is describing in detail what's wrong with the economy and what he plans to do about it, John McCain is howling about firing the head of the SEC (which a president can't technically do anyway). See, McCain knows: small words; simple statements; short soundbites -- that's what his audience wants. That's the mark of someone who's decisive. It's not that anything more substantive would necessarily confuse them, it would just bore them and might possibly lead to more questions later. And questions are bad. As far as the conservative base is concerned, if the basics of an argument aren't pointed enough that they can be distilled onto a bumper-sticker -- Country First! Drill Now! Bomb Iran! -- the argument itself is worthless.
Sarah Palin understands this as well, which is why for most of her political career -- a career that apparently validates her "Sarah Barracuda" nickname -- she's waived any in-depth discussion of policy in favor of populist gamesmanship aimed at endearing herself to voters. Not only does she, like McCain, know how well this works -- she knows just how satisfying it can be to her own personal ambition.
But now the McCain campaign, Johnny and Sarah, have launched an ad that makes the simplest and most obvious declaration of all -- a flat-out bald-faced accusation about Barack Obama that can easily be boiled down to a Neanderthal-friendly two words.
Of course they can't come right out and say these two words, so instead, they slip the clever insinuation in under the radar, twisting it into a painfully obvious subtext until it becomes something they don't have to explicitly say.
Take a look.
Time's Karen Tumulty hits it on the head:
"This is hardly subtle: Sinister images of two black men, followed by one of a vulnerable-looking elderly white woman.
Let me stipulate: Obama's Fannie Mae connections are completely fair game. But this ad doesn't even mention a far more significant tie--that of Jim Johnson, the former Fannie Mae chairman who had to resign as head of Obama's vice presidential search team after it was revealed he got a sweetheart deal on a mortgage from Countrywide Financial. Instead, it relies on a fleeting and tenuous reference in a Washington Post Style section story to suggest that Obama's principal economic adviser is former Fannie Mae Chairman Frank Raines. Why? One reason might be that Johnson is white; Raines is black. And the image of the victim doesn't seem accidental either, given the fact that older white women are a key swing constituency in this election."
What's also worth mentioning is that the Jim Johnson connection, while arguably much ado about nothing, is factual -- whereas the Frank Raines "controversy" is not; Raines isn't an advisor to Obama in any capacity -- economic or otherwise.
But, as Tumulty remarks later in her column, that's not really the point of the ad anyway.
No, the point is to remind NASCAR America about one thing when it comes to Obama:
I'd say that this is the final deplorable act -- the weapon of last resort -- in a desperate campaign, but that's just too fucking easy.
The important thing to keep in mind though is this: It's exactly the kind of strategy that's worked before (see Willie Horton circa 1988) because it goes for that gut punch in the hope of wringing immediate emotion out of voters -- particularly, the emotion that's most powerful and most useful in terms of exploitation come election time: Fear.
McCain wants voters to be afraid not of what Obama could mean for the country but of Obama himself, and the easiest way to achieve that goal is to goad them into believing that he's different.
Come to think of it, that would make a perfect bumper sticker too:
"He's not one of us."