I woke up from the usual political nightmares today to find an e-mail from a trusted confidant:
I’ve heard and thought more about McCain’s statement re number of houses, and I recommend that you avoid the subject on your blog.
I was thinking of the same. Nevertheless, yesterday’s article had been about how Obama needs to get on the attack with ads, and the housing attack was cited. I read on.
I am really sick of the current iteration of “Gotcha” Politics, especially as advanced by Talk Radio and Cable TV (including MSNBC). If you’re going to play that game, do it the way Tim Russert did: issue-driven, geared toward determining intellectual honesty.
Let’s please focus on substance….This is a critical time in world history, and I’m saddened by the baseness of American discourse.
A co-worker who’s got a good head on his shoulders said something similar about the house ad. Though I should note that he’s somewhat more disposed to the Republicans – and the confidant above is thoroughly a Democrat, albeit a frustrated one – he felt the ad was “humorous” and “petty.” He too said he cared about the issues.
Almost everybody I talk to does.
So, if this model holds true, shouldn’t candidates experience a climb in the polls when they focus not on their opponent, but on the issues?
Recently, John McCain has enjoyed a leap in his polling numbers. Over the past two months, Obama has gone from leading by 6.8 to 1.4! McCain’s favorable ratings have held mighty strong, while Obama’s plummeted an average of 10 points! And battleground states right and left – no pun intended – have been beginning to trend to McCain.
Therefore, given that everyone cares about the issues, and abhors negative, petty, humorous trash, McCain must be talking about the issues while Obama talks about trash.
Let’s review the ads they released over the past month and a half – the period of Obama’s preciptous decline – to see who is staying away from those poisonous “Gotcha” politics. We’ll do the survey week by week.
One Month Ago
Obama Ads: “Sand Dunes” (about McCain and his energy plan), “New Energy” (about his energy plan), “America’s Leadership” (about Obama’s record in the Senate fighting terrorism and partisanship; a Matt Funk Favorite), “Restore” (about Obama’s security policy, and denouncing a McCain ad against him as “misleading”)
McCain Ads: “Jobs for America” (about McCain bringing jobs for America), “Love” (about how McCain was a POW during the summer of love, and loves his country), “God’s Children” (about how hispanics are good Americans, even illegal immigrants), “Troop Funding” (lies about Obama’s record on troops and security; the “misleading” ad above), “Pump” (claims Obama is responsible for gas soaring because of his opposition to gas tax holiday)
Main Media Topic: Obama’s support is fragile (see Jesse Jackson’s nuts and related).
Three Weeks Ago
Obama Ads: “Old Politics” (claims McCain is misleading on “Pump” ad, above; outlines Obama’s energy plan), “Low Road” (about how McCain is being negative in his campaigning, just like the Bush campaign of ’00 and ’04)
McCain Ads: “Celeb” (compared Obama to Paris and Britney, saying he’s an empty celebrity), “The One” (denounces Obama as “messianic” and his followers as zealots)
Main Media Topic: Is Obama a vain celebrity?
Two Weeks Ago
Obama Ads: “Pocket” (notes McCain gets massive contributions from oil companies, gives them big tax breaks), “Low Road Express” (says McCain’s running a negative campaign), “Original” (shows the similarities between McCain and Bush’s record)
McCain Ads: “Broken” (says McCain has fought corruption in both parties), “Family” (claims Obama’s economic plan will ruin your family’s financial future), “Painful” (says Obama is a detached celebrity, while Americans go through tough times)
Main Media Topic: Why won’t Barack fight back?
One Week Ago
Obama Ads: “Fat Cat” (indicates how Obama does not take lobbyist or PAC money), “Book” (illustrates how Bush and McCain have nearly identical policies), “Fix the Economy” (shows how McCain says the economy is good, and how middle class Americans don’t)
McCain Ads: “Recipe”, “Fan Club”, “Taxman”, “Maybe”, “Millions” and “The One – Road to Denver” (all claiming Obama is an out of touch celebrity)
Main Media Topic: Why won’t Barack fight back, since he is losing support?
The data suggests a point contrary to my canny confidants’ – namely, that running negative ads about absolute crap is really, really effective in swaying voters.
McCain attacked right at one of Obama’s chief strengths – and the only one the media spends a lot of time discussing – his charisma. He turned the positive quality of being able to inspire hope and excitement in others into a negative to be feared.
The result has, as those poll numbers show, not been insubstantial. And so I have to respectfully disagree with my confidants on this one: It is talking about the issues that does not work. The media does not pay anywhere near as much attention to that as it does to the kind of feckless nonsense that “Celeb” and its spawn consist of.
Proof of this? Almost no one I talk to knows what Obama’s policies are. In the issue-oriented ads I noted above and in gatherings around the country, he’s been outlining his policies – especially his economic and energy policies. Few I talk to know what they are.
The media instead talks about how Obama is showing weakness by not going after McCain. As the ads above also show, Obama has attacked McCain – but he’s attacked him on the issues. That has nowhere near the resonance of crappy personal attacks, nor does it has their wonderful, toxic ancillary benefit of poisoning whatever the person says.
After “Celeb,” most fence-sitters will be disposed to not believing Obama, regardless of his issue stance. They will, by default, see him as unready, insubstantial and out of touch. This detracts from the power of his issue stances, and adds to McCain’s.
I wish things were different, my dear confidants. But with the lead Op-Ed pieces this Friday being, “Yes We Can Turns To Oops, We May Not,” “Why McCain Is Rising,” “Why Obama Has To Get Mad To Win,” “The Mystery of Obama’s Problems” and “The End of the Fairy Tale,” the media is focusing on other than the issues.
In a perfect world, the media would devote all its time to weighing the empirical truth of each candidate’s statements. It would engage in follow-up, eschew rumor and radicalism, and extol good behavior. In our world, it doesn’t.
It craves ignorance, wanting to keep the audience always wondering, so they’ll stay aggravated and tuned in. It spurns follow-up when it’s off-message, fixates solely on rumor and radicalism, and denigrates good behavior as weak. It hates the kind of campaigns my confidants want, and it will deny the candidate who runs it a voice.
One might argue that Obama’s problem is that during the primary, he set the tone – “Change” – while Hillary was stuck on issues and negative attacks. Now, Obama has tried to address the people who say he’s an empty suit by talking policy, and McCain is setting the tone – “Negativity.”
The solution, then, would be to consistently ignore McCain and to find a positive, inspiring message again. That could be the case after the Democratic Convention, when the VP can be the attack dog and Obama can go back to giving rousing speeches about hope.
Yet two problems with this remain:
One, it doesn’t address the qualms of my confidant, who knows little of Obama’s issues and would just as soon vote McCain, since you know what you’re getting from him. Millions of Americans presumably feel the same.
And two, the media wants a fight. They demand a fight. And now that two months of criticizing Obama for not being aggressive has resulted in the insipid “House Gaffe,” they are sneering at him for being “just like any other politician” while slobbering all over the story of McCain’s senility.
Given these, it’s hard to argue that the Ad War is not best won the Simple Way, by drilling into the American people’s heads that while your candidate may not have great issue positions … at least he’s not the flip-flopping, elitist vanity plate the other guy is.
That is, of course, how the last two elections were won.