Death by a Thousand Republican Jokes
Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 3:59 pm
Sen. John McCain finally found a salient line of attack against Sen. Barack Obama’s remarkably resilient public profile. Throughout the campaign, calling Obama a defeatist, elitist or troop-hater has not been so effective. Calling him a joke, however, may be lethal.
Today The Daou Report, a site run by Peter Daou, a sharp strategist who worked for the presidential campaigns of Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, provides a must-read analysis of how McCain’s greatest summer achievement was to pinpoint Obama’s "mockability":
Ridicule is the GOP’s most reliable weapon. The political assault on Al Gore, Howard Dean, John Kerry and other Democratic leaders has centered on the right’s capacity to turn them into objects of ridicule. Right-wing talk radio is premised on the lampooning of liberals. [Obama had] deftly avoided becoming the target of right-wing derision. Like Hillary Clinton, he is disliked – and feared – by many on the right, but less often mocked or dismissed. Which is what makes Obama a dangerous foe to Republicans and Clinton a formidable nemesis.
After experimenting with a range of misleading attacks, McCain found his mark with the ads diminishing Obama as an overconfident, under-qualified, lightweight celebrity joke. The comedic gloss is vital, because it helps McCain sidestep responsibility for the nasty themes at work.
Overconfident treads close to "uppity," for example, an old dog-whistle knock against black Americans. Under-qualified is just hard to substantiate; Obama has sterling credentials as an attorney and a range of experience outside Washington, which voters tend to value more than decades of Senate committee hearings. When pressed on these issues, however, McCain and his surrogates say they’re just joshing around. "Lighten up!," they say. But The Daou Report editors argue this is serious business:
McCain’s barrage had its intended effect and that there is now an acceptable way to ridicule Obama… the right-wing attack machine has been effective in the past because it serves a singular purpose: diminishing opponents through mockery and marginalization… Think of how Coulter, Hannity, Limbaugh and their cohorts operate – it’s all about the laughter, the joking, the snide remarks, the scoffing. It’s about cutting someone down to size, making them look meek and meager…
Democratic/progressive attacks generally run the gamut from negative character association (X is just like Y) to policy contrasts (we can handle the economy better than X) to one-off hits and ‘Macaca moments’ (X flubbed the name of a country) to impugning the attacker (look how nasty my opponent is). These can be effective, particularly the latter, but they are qualitatively different from the right-wing machine’s diminishment of an opponent’s character.
That’s something Democrats don’t do as well. It’s less about negative frames, contrasts, rapid response and all the other mainstays of political strategy and more about making your opponent the butt of a joke.
Republican and Democratic campaigns test themes incessantly, both positive and negative – it’s why pollsters are always in demand. But the GOP has a functional template that Democrats lack, the political equivalent of schoolyard taunting, which they return to time and again. The right-wing machine’s amplification of those attacks is second nature, which is why the likes of a ‘Celeb’ ad catches fire.
Parrying destructive jokes is Obama’s challenge, of course. Yet the press still underestimates how these destructive jokes work. The New Yorker cartoon kerfuffle exposed this dynamic, as many thoughtful media types downplayed the impact of a little liberal "joke," while Obama sympathizers immediately identified the potential damage. Few people found the smear-riddled cartoon — or McCain’s ads — to actually be laugh-out-loud funny. Republican operatives, however, got the last laugh.
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