8 September 2008
Claiming to have learned the lessons of John Kerry’s failed presidential bid, the Obama campaign has vowed to respond quickly to Republican attacks. But if this is all they’ve learned, then the Democrats are likely to lose again. More than a good defense is needed. Democrats need to go on the offensive.
What’s required is nothing less than a political demolition campaign – one that defines and then assails the political character of the Republican Party and its candidates. Within this, key targets are those attributes of the “Red Team” that seem to be its strongest selling points. At the top of the list: Gov. Sarah Palin. Her inclusion on the Republican ticket has not only significantly boosted its appeal, but also represents McCain’s first executive decision. Both must be shredded.
Palin’s greatest vulnerability is not her inexperience, however. Nor is it her track record in Alaska. Instead, it’s the political character or "persona" that she’s gleefully showing to the world. This character needs to be “re-coded” by the Democrats as representative of all that’s wrong with Republican rule. (Such would be the rough equivalent of the Republicans’ taking down John Kerry as a war hero and their branding of Democrats as “elitists”.)
Unfortunately, there’s a real danger that Democrats will take a more passive approach, hoping that the Red Team will self-destruct. Or hoping that Palin’s threadbare and tawdry resume will “speak for itself”. Or hoping that some scandal in Alaska will sink her. Or hoping that Americans will be “shocked, shocked” to discover that Palin is as conservative (or more so) than George Bush. Problem is: nothing speaks for itself. What Democrats need to do is help Americans understand what to make of all this.
When Americans go to vote on 4 November they will not choose between the “real” Barack Obama and the “real” John McCain. They’ll choose between two political constructs or representations – two characters in a great political and moral drama. These characters embody political values. Values, in turn, are broadly perceived to be the spring from which policy flows. The three-part nexus is: Character, Values, Platform. A fair part of modern campaigning is a contest to define not just your own, but also the other team’s character. That contest will determine the choice that voters perceive on 4 November.
Targeting a “political character” is not the same as launching personal attacks. Instead, the target is the leadership image that the other side has put forward for public affirmation. It’s not the person, but the persona. And it must be hit hard and relentlessly as unworthy of affirmation. Among the things for Democrats to strike at are the idea that Republicans are “anti-elitist”, that McCain’s political temperament is sound and trustworthy, and that the nation needs a snarky “pit bull” in the number two position (or anywhere else, for that matter).
The necessary effort to convert Palin into a political liability might take a tack something like this:
Gov. Sarah Palin, and Senator McCain’s decision to put her forward for the vice presidency, neatly encapsulate all that’s wrong with the Republicans’ way of doing things. You can’t put a pretty face on what they’ve done to the country these past eight years. Our nation is in deep trouble at home and abroad. So what do they offer as a solution? A bucket full of bile and distortion. Characteristically: they refuse to face facts. They refuse to accept responsibility for their own failed policies. And they fail to offer any constructive alternatives. Instead, they blow smoke and try to shift blame. Palin’s is the politics of irresponsibility. And whining. What they’re offering now is the same old whine in a new bottle. Yes, it’s a new team – but they’re singing the same old song, full of spite and lacking in anything new or constructive. That’s the Republican play book. Well, after eight years, it’s been played out.
Gov. Palin likes to describe herself as a pitbull with lipstick. One that seems particularly eager to snap at her fellow Americans, I’d add. Is that what our nation needs right now? Is that the “big change” that McCain promises? Why, that’s no change at all. We’ve had eight years of Republican pitbulls running amuck – blundering at home, blundering abroad. Yapping and snapping. They’re rash and reckless and they don’t care enough about who they bite. They routinely turn on their masters – the American people. We don’t need to put lipstick on that. What’s called for is a muzzle.
Sarah Palin certainly has a great future – in talk radio, I’d say. She’s got what it takes for that. We should wish her Godspeed and send her on her way.
Of course, any serious effort to best the Republican Party also must refigure it as the Party of Lies, the party of smoke and mirrors. This should be as easy to argue as it is essential. They lied the nation into war. They claim to represent the “little guy” and “small town America,” while doing nothing for either. And now they cynically portray themselves as agents of change.
The final requirement may the hardest for Democratic politicians to manage: They need to find their anger. They need to tap into and channel the anger that so many Americans feel about the Republican shenanigans that have so badly damaged this land that we love. Democrats’ personal and professional relationships with Republicans – “good man” McCain and all that – are irrelevant. Palin’s presumed “intelligence” and political “skill” are irrelevant. All that matters is that the political persona of the Republican Party is an ugly thing. Assuming that Obama and Biden can see it, they need to call it.
Carl Conetta is a senior fellow of the Commonwealth Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He lives and works in the Washington DC area. (Affiliation for identification purposes only).
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The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.