Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Laugh It Off?

As you might expect from a person smart enough to see through the smokescreen, Dan Larison believes that Obama has a viable campaign tactic in laughing off attacks:
This is very much like the overheated response to “Celeb” or “The One”–rather than simply laughing off these ads and articles as ridiculous, Obama’s supporters and many media figures seem to be deadly serious about stressing the cunning, super-secret deployment of racial messages in both. Whether it is Perlstein hallucinating Nazi propaganda film homages or Gergen detecting racist tropes or Noah discerning skinniness as the latest one of these tropes, the responses have managed to make the various targets of their criticism seem sane, well-balanced and serious by comparison.
Yet one of the reasons campaigns don't laugh off these attacks can be seen in the history of the Swift Boat Liars campaign against John Kerry. Kerry attempted the Larison approach, "mock them for their stupidity, and stop investing them with the importance that their creators want you to give them", and by the time he recognized the failure of his tactics it was too late to stamp out the lies.

Obama seems intent on staying above the fray, with statements like "John McCain is an honorable man who is running an increasingly dishonorable campaign". But history tells us, dishonorable campaigns work. That's why McCain is running one, and why he now has a nominal lead in the polls. If they're unrebutted, they grow legs. That's what happened with the Swift Boat nonsense, to the point that a lot of people who were more than smart enough to "know better" were defending the attacks. And for people so passively receptive to smears and innendo as to believe that Obama's comment about not looking like past presidents was racist?Larison wrote,
What I find even more remarkable is the idea that anyone could interpret Obama’s comment as being racist. It is now “racist” to hint that others are going to use a candidate’s race against him? Does that make any sense? Do 53% of likely voters really think Obama making an obvious reference to his race (one so obvious that you have to think your audience morons to deny it) is racist? If so, can we officially declare that the word has no more meaning, or at least that for the most part it is trotted out whenever we want to refer to something as Very Bad? Obama’s remark may be many things, but of all the words I can think of to describe it racist is not among them.
What hope should anybody have that those voters will see through McCain's smokescreen?

If I were running ads, I would pull some examples of McCain deploring negative campaigning in the past, contrast them with his current smear tactics, and lament that McCain's sense of honor seems to have disappeared. Perhaps that's the next step after "he's an honorable man who is running a dishonorable campaign" - it could become, "I used to think he was a man of honor, but actions speak louder than words".

I don't actually have a problem with "attack ads" as such - a lot of fair comparison ads get called "attack ads". I don't see accurate ads that boil down to, "My position is X, my opponent's position is Y, and my position is better" as a bad thing, even if unflattering pictures are presented of the opposing candidate as ominous music plays. I don't think the public would be served by a sushine and lollipops campaign of positive ads that elide any differences between the candidates - we saw in 2000 how a popular conception of, "there are no real differences between the candidates," coupled with media ennui, can lead to huge numbers of voters actually buying into that nonsense.

You know what? The biggest audience for the harshest critics of the current round of McCain ads is Obama's supporters. Check the blogs - to the extent that they're commenting, McCain's supporters appear to be uniformly gloating about them. They're unaffected by the criticism. To the extent that there has been a shift, it has been in the perception of some pundits who are pretty much taking Obama's line - they can't believe that the great and honorable McCain is behaving like this. (Maybe it's mind control.)

Obama's probably correct, to keep his official pronouncements in sync with the punditocracy's views. Letting them decide when this is, in fact, McCain's "real voice" rather than the work of a doppleganger. To get ahead of them would likely result in their turning on him. But no, pretending to laugh at bad jokes doesn't make them go away. It's more likely to trigger a response of, "It's not funny unless there's some truth behind it, and even you think it's a joke." When a smear campaign is launched, its authors are deserving of scorn, and although I see it as largely ineffectual I have no problem with the target's supporters initiating what amounts to a grassroots expression of scorn. At the same time, smear campaigns usually don't get legs without the active cooperation (and sometimes collaboration) of the mainstream media. So for criticism pointed in that direction, at all levels of the campaign, I say "(cautiously) turn up the heat."

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