Jonathan Martin over at Politico posts a Michael Dukakis campaign commercial from 1988 that could, almost word-for-word, be running with Barack Obama in it today.
Granted, the country right now is a lot closer to 1992 than it is 1988. But the similarities in message and style between this commercial– by a candidate who lost the election by 315 electoral votes– and the Obama campaign up to this point are borderline terrifying. I think it’s pretty clear by now that whining about your opponent’s negative campaigning is not an effective political strategy in a presidential race. I call this the complain-and-explain strategy. It might work in the Democratic primary– where the party has a history of being victimized by negative campaigning and thus is naturally repelled by those tactics– but in the general it’s a loser.
Americans don’t want a president who gets hit and cries about it, we want a president who hits back. Americans didn’t want diplomacy after 9/11, we didn’t want a government report about which agency was at fault, we wanted to blow some bad guys up. George Bush got reelected in 2004 at least in part because he reacted to 9/11 not by complaining about the CIA’s failures and explaining why it would never happen again, but by hitting back (with a disturbing number of Americans unconcerned that he hit the wrong people). John Kerry lost in 2004 in part because he reacted to the Swiftboat attacks– after two weeks of doing nothing– by complaining about the negative tactics and explaining why the attacks were false.
This Obama campaign ad titled “Honor” pretty much falls directly into the complain-and-explain category.
“A lot of people think John McCain is being mean to us. Even some bloggers said so. We’re not necessarily going to do anything about it, but we’d like you the voter to punish John McCain by not voting for him. Thank you sincerely for acting on our behalf.”
I guarantee you that’s the message most voters get, if only subconciously, when they watch that ad.
No, here’s how Barack Obama should have responded to John McCain accusing him of supporting “sex education for kindergartners”:
“Today, John McCain sided with sexual predators on the issue of protecting our children. Apparently, John McCain wants our children to be defenseless and uneducated, in order to make it that much easier for pedophiles and perverts to abuse the innocent. Considering the fact that John McCain also supported George Bush’s veto of the children’s health insurance bill, leaving millions of American kids without medical care, it’s clear that he is completely unconcerned with the health and safety of your children.”
Period. Double the ad buy, run it over and over on cable television, and get every Democratic surrogate on the planet in front of a reporter to say, “John McCain sided with sexual predators. John McCain doesn’t care about the health and safety of your children.” John McCain slaps you in the face with his ads, you punch him in the mouth with yours. Like Joe Biden’s mama said, go bloody some noses. You want John McCain to get back to the issues? Make it crystal clear to him that the Karl Rove/Swiftboating arena is a losing battlefield.
This Obama campaign ad titled “Still” is much more effective. The message is clear and simple: John McCain is a cranky old man who doesn’t know how to check his e-mail. It’s clear, it’s concise, and it’s just snarky enough to make the news. But already some faint-hearted bloggers are complaining that the ad is too mean to McCain, that it’s “beneath the Obama campaign.” Other blogggers are falling for the McCain campaign’s defense that he doesn’t know how to use a computer because he was a POW (Right, just like he owns nine houses, cheated on his first wife, and stole a cookie from the cookie jar because he was a POW). Please explain to me why it is over the line, in a race to elect the leader of the most powerful and technologically advanced society in human history, to state factually that your opponent– by his own admission(!)– doesn’t even know how to check e-mail, doesn’t understand the Internet. If anything, the ad is too cute, too light, as if the Obama campaign didn’t want to it to seem too mean-spirited so they threw in some quirky music and a disco ball. But at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Look, I think Barack Obama is a remarkably decent human being and will make a fantastic president, but you have to win first. It’s not that I think he won’t win, I’m just not interested in the outcome being close or even remotely up for argument. This is the game, it is what it is, and you have to play it. You have to be tougher than the other guy. You have to be the aggressor. I spent Sunday watching football, and I don’t recall seeing a single NFL player stop in the middle of a play to argue that the rules were unfair. But I did see Braylon Edwards get hit in the mouth and lose. Presidential candidates don’t have to lie, cheat, and steal, but save the high road nose-holding for the White House.
Let’s face the unpleasant truth: Democrats have nominated a black man named Barack Hussein Obama for this election, so his electoral ceiling is only so high. Chuck Todd stated yesterday on Meet the Press that undecideds in the last weekend are likely to break 70-30 for McCain based on race alone. Which means that if you’re never going to get above 50 percent support in the Gallup tracker, you have to start bringing the other guy down a few notches. But somehow Democrats want to tie Obama’s hands further behind his back by shunning any kind of campaigning that is negative (aka effective) or even just mean. It’s okay to link John McCain to George Bush and lobbyists, but it’s not okay to link John McCain to Depends? (Here’s a hint: Everyone’s tired of George Bush and no one cares about lobbyists.)
It’s like every four years, the Democrats agree to a chess game, but decide that it would be beneath them to ever move the queen. They’d rather use complain-and-explain to try to shame the Republicans into not moving their queen. Ask Michael Dukakis how that works out.