Monday, August 04, 2008

Summer press war against Obama

I was willing to think that Tom Brokaw might be a big improvement over Timmy Russert at the helm of Meet the Press, based on Brokaw's first couple of shows. But he's settled in to a conventional press "gotcha" approach, concentrating on the horse-race like good Establishment journalists are expected to do.

On the 08/03/08 program, Brokaw had Joe Lieberman and John Kerry on as the respective surrogates for the McCain and Obama campaigns. The choice of surrogates is notable in itself. Lieberman as the allegedly "bipartisan" spokesperson for the Great American, War Hero and Maverick McCain, and the previous Democratic Presidential candidate and still nominal head of the Party as the Obama spokesman.

Kerry, I'm sorry to say, was defensive and generally uninspiring. Lieberman, on the other hand, was so animated and assertive it's hard to believe it's the same man who let Dick Cheney steamroller him in the Vice Presidential debate in 2000. Kerry made the complaint that the Republicans hope to get in response to an ad like the Britney-Paris-Obama (Obama and the two famously sexy white women):

No. What he was saying is they're trying to scare you. They're trying to scare the American people. And, believe me, I'm an expert on how they do that. They are engaged in character assassination, even John McCain's partner in a number of initiatives in the Senate, Russ Feingold, said yesterday, "They've decided they can't win on the issues, so now they're going to try to destroy his character." And that is exactly what this ad is calculated to do.
Couldn't he have managed to get in a reference to the racial subtext of that ad? Apparently not.

Following Brokaw's lead, Kerry complained that McCain wasn't living up to those high Maverick standards that the press corps idolizes him for. And, Lord forbid that he would defend Wes Clark. When Brokaw put up the famous statement that Bob Schieffer got out of him, Kerry couldn't manage to refer to the press misconduct in their sensationalist, crassly pro-McCain reporting on that non-event. Instead, he said:

Yeah, I, I don't agree. I don't agree with Wes Clark's comment. I think it was entirely inappropriate. I have nothing but enormous respect for John McCain's service. I had the privilege of standing with John McCain in the, in the cell in Hanoi when we visited there together, when we worked on the issue of Vietnam together. It was an emotional moment. I, I have awe for John McCain's experience as a prisoner of war, and he, and he does understand duty and service. But ...
So, McCain's is putting his POW story front-and-center of his campaign. But, Lordy, Lordy, we nice Democrats can't possibly be expected to take that on directly. No, we must reject, rebuke, repudiate, disown and generally scold any prominent Democrats who try to demystify that pitch, and instead praise the boundless heroism of St. McCain to high heaven. Digby spoofed this silly practice the other day in a footnote to her post Keeping It Unreal 08/02/08.

Note: No one should construe this as a criticism of McCain's heroic service in Vietnam or infer that he isn't entirely color blind and above any kind of racial bias. Neither should this be seen as any kind of attack on him for his age or an accusation that he isn't always a straight talker of unwavering principles. He has a heroic and unimpeachable character and I would never imply otherwise.
Obama will lose this election if the Dems can't put forward and more aggressive, unapologetic posture than this. Kerry was even happy to let McCain's faithful cheerleader Lieberman pose as "bipartisan":

MR. BROKAW: People who are, people who are, people who are looking in on this who don't pay a lot of attention to politics may find it hard to believe that you sit on the same side of the aisle...

SEN. KERRY: Yeah, also we're, also we're friends.

MR. BROKAW: ...and that you're in the caucus. Is he, is he going to, is he going to be welcome at the Democratic caucus?

SEN. KERRY: Absolutely. This...

MR. BROKAW: Next year...


MR. BROKAW: If there's a Senator--if there's a President Obama?

SEN. KERRY: I think he's going to want to be part of the stronger Democratic majority. I'm confident of that.

MR. BROKAW: Incidentally, can we show you a Joe Lieberman Web site that he may not be welcoming?


MR. BROKAW: There's a Web site out there in which they say, "Get rid of Joe. Lieberman must go." More than 50,000 signatures have been signed so far. Do you think you're going to be comfortable next year in the Democratic caucus as a self-described Independent/Democrat?

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Well, look, I, I've crossed party lines to support John McCain because this is not an ordinary time in our history, it's not an ordinary election, and I just felt, more than following the party line, I had to go with the guy that I thought would best serve this country, and that's John McCain.
I'm sorry to say it. But John Kerry sounds like he doesn't much care whether Obama wins, or whether the Democrats can get critical policies like withdrawing from Iraq and establishing universal health care coverage enacted.

Also, on the topic of McCain's Obama-and-the-white-girls ad, I wanted to point out that Sara Robinson caught one of the "dog-whistle" messages in that ad that didn't occur to me: for hardcore Christianists, it presents Scary Black Obama as the Antichrist. (The Second Coming of Barack Obama Our Future blog 08/01/08)

Meanwhile, over at the quality TV of the PBS Newshour (Shields and Brooks Mull Campaign Rhetoric, Senate Indictment), Big Pundits David Brooks (the conservative) and Mark Shields (the liberal) discussed the horse race, as well. Conservative Brooks washed his hands of the naughtiness of McCain's Obama-and-the-white-girls ad:

Well, it's not the campaign a lot of us were hoping for, especially a lot of us who, you know, admired John McCain a great deal.

I wouldn't say the last week has been the McCain campaign we were hoping for. And that includes John Weaver, a longtime friend and former adviser to McCain. And so it hasn't been an elevated Teddy Roosevelt-style campaign.

The question on my mind is, is it an effective campaign? The fact of the matter is this is Obama's election to lose. The country wants a change. Obama is a change. If people feel comfortable with Barack Obama, then he will win the election. (my emphasis)
This is a favorite press theme, "this is Obama's election to lose." It happens to fit very well into the Republican theme that Obama is "presumptuous" in supposedly thinking he's a shoo-in for the President (oh, and a megalomaniac cult leader, too). It's conventional political wisdom that each campaign should try to make the other side "the issue" in a campaign. Our press corps is willing to help their adored Maverick frame things that way.

One of the weird variations on this is to say that Obama should be further ahead in the polls. As Brooks put it, "Why is Barack Obama not 15 points ahead the way the Democratic Party is 15 points ahead?"

In other words, the fact that Obama is ahead in the polls is Good For The Republicans, as so much seems to be in the accepted scripts of our broken press corps. That's also a variation on the press theme after the Scalia Five overruled the voters and appointed George Bush President in 2001, which said that Gore should have been farther ahead (even though he won both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote - if the Scalia Five hadn't stepped in as they did). And, you see, that would have made the election theft more difficult. So it was Gore's fault that the Republican Supreme Court overruled the voters.

Of course, Shields was there to present the "liberal" case. Actually, he did a half-decent job on the race issue:

MARK SHIELDS: I was out for three days this week. I challenge any of my colleagues, any citizen to talk to people about this race.

The misinformation about this race is so terrifying. And, I mean, I'm talking about not mean people, not bad people, not uninformed people. I mean, the Internet has done a job of savaging Obama.

JIM LEHRER: That's where they're getting the information?

MARK SHIELDS: That's where they're getting the information. And add to that, at the Texas State Republican Convention, a sanctioned vendor there, sanctioned by the party, was selling pins that said, "If Obama is president, will we still call it 'the White House'?"

Now, did he raise the race issue? The race issue is with him every day of his life. When you see his picture, the race issue is there.

The gender issue was there with Hillary Clinton. And when Hillary Clinton stood up, I mean, it didn't take a nuclear physicist to say, "That's a woman. She's running for president."

This is an African-American man. He's running for president. That is there; that is a reality of this campaign. Barack Obama didn't raise it.
Like I said, half decent. But then he proceeded to promote the press/McCain line that the Republicans' race-related attacks are meant to facilitate. It's partly an appeal to say, "don't vote for a black guy". But in addition, it's to get white voters to approach it as, "he's black, and that makes him different, and is he really one of the good black people?" And "liberal" Shields is on board with that latter part, as he furrows his brows with deep concern:

MARK SHIELDS: I think there are doubts about him [Obama]. I mean, I think the questions are going to be about Obama. And the race [issues] is the wild card. I don't know; I honestly don't know.

I mean, the charge yesterday that Obama had introduced and played the race card was so over-the-top by the McCain campaign. I mean, it was truly - it boggled the mind. And it went beyond any concept of rationality.

But I do think that there are doubts about Obama, about essentially his background and his values. It is not the American story. It's a great American story, but it's not the traditional American story from which presidential campaigns, candidates have come.

It's not Bill Clinton in Hope, Arkansas. It's not Dwight Eisenhower in Abilene, Kansas. It's not even John Kennedy in Hyannis Port.

I mean, this - it's Indonesia. It's a Kenyan father. And there's a question, Jim, that voters really have. And it's, are his - given his background, are his values my values? Can I feel comfortable with him and confident with him?

And I think that's what his campaign is about. And that's what the McCain campaign is about is sabotaging that. (my emphasis)
In other words, Shields the "liberal" agrees with the McCain campaign that Obama is the issue in this campaign. And that Obama's a very scary guy because he's not a regular Amurcan like that white guy from Arkansas, or that nice Old Man Bush - whose father's bank was shut down for doing business with so many German Nazis - though, funny thing, that paternal heritage was never a press concern about Old Man Bush. For that matter, Joe Kennedy's pre-Second World War isolationism wasn't really an issue during Kennedy's Presidential campaign, either. But Obama had a Kenyan father. Obama hardly knew him, but so what? Who knows what kind of strange influences may come from that Kenyan blood? And, yes, this is what passes for "liberalism" on the PBS Newshour's "quality" TV.

The McCain campaign's whine about Obama "playing the race card" is really a version of the stock conservative up-is-down thinking on race. In that view, racism has nothing to do with institutions, but is rather a matter of personal attitude and character. And minorities complaining about racism is an insult against the personal character of the whites being criticized. Thus, is the mean old white guy McCain who is the victim of racism in this thing, you see? Or, to put it another way, racism is really a problem of minorities complaining about white people.

Yes, it makes your head hurt to try to work through the weird thinking. So it's not surprising that our press corps isn't keen to sort it out. In this article, Mark Barabak does what Establishment journalists considered their duty, i.e., approaching the issue as a this-side-said, the-other-side-says matter: Obama, McCain find race issue isn't easily discarded Los Angeles Times. He writes:

Both candidates stand to gain - and lose - from the testy back-and-forth, underscoring just how incendiary, and complex, racial politics remain more than 200 years after vexing the first set of American politicians.

"It is not to Barack Obama's advantage to make this a big issue," said Dan T. Carter, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, who has written extensively about race and politics. At the same time, McCain cannot afford to be seen as exploiting racial tensions for political gain, Carter said: "It is simply not acceptable to the majority of people, including many of those who may be sympathetic."

That may explain why the candidates acted the way they did: Obama ignoring McCain and leaving his initial response to aides - who quickly shifted the subject to the economy and foreign policy - and McCain portraying himself as the victim of a rhetorical mugging.
And, of course, he assures us, "Whoever picked the fight, neither side has clean hands." This side says, the other side says: reporter's duty done. At least according to today's press standards. And the gist of his article is, yes, this race thing is very complicated, and both sides are to blame, and anyway, what the heck, Obama's black so race is really the only issues that matters. Yes, he concludes his article this way:

As this week's back-and-forth suggests, the politics of race have become so combustible, so freighted after more than two centuries of history and hard feelings, that the obvious can be easily overlooked. Take the gist of Obama's remarks. "Everybody knows it's true," said Carter, who grew up in the segregated South. "One of Obama's big problems is that he's black and he does have a funny name."

Ever since Obama declared his candidacy, the question overhanging this election is whether America is ready to elect its first black president. It's a simple and straightforward question.

But when race enters the political arena, nothing is simple or straightforward. (my emphasis)
The last two paragraphs together are so goofy you have to wonder how an editor let it by. It's a simple and straightforward matter, except that by the next paragraph it's not simple and straightforward.

Or maybe the editor added the last sentence to murk up the obvious meaning of the previous one: "Ever since Obama declared his candidacy, the question overhanging this election is whether America is ready to elect its first black president. It's a simple and straightforward question."

No, it's not about the disastrous Iraq War, the credit crisis, global climate change, oil prices, or any of that dull stuff. No, Barabak (and the McCain campaign?) see that the election is "simple and straightforward" to report: Are you really gonna vote for that black guy?

In other words, our so-called press corps is still obsessed with the race issue, as they have been ever since Obama became a clearly competitive candidate in the Democratic primaries.

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