Now, after a slow start, the McCain campaign shows us how counter-stories really work; in the process, they might be proving something thoroughly unpleasant about American politics.
McCain’s latest slogan, “country first,” implies that Obama puts something else (himself? his race?) ahead of the nation. McCain charges that Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” His “Troops” spot claims that Obama, while in Germany, “made time to go the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops—seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” Then there’s the “Celeb”spot, with its intercut images of Obama in Berlin, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears. Framing Science has put up a McCain ad suggesting that Obama is the anti Christ!
New York magazine’s John Heileman explains it like this:
"The strategy behind all this isn’t hard to discern: Drive up Obama’s negatives and render him unacceptable to pivotal voting blocs. Thus the depiction of him as too young, too feckless, and too pampered to be president . . . the portrayal of him as precious, self-infatuated, and effete [and] the emphasis on Obama’s rock-star persona, designed to engender envy and contempt among the swath of Middle America for which hipness is no virtue but a sign of pretension."
In portraying Obama as a self-centred, elitist meritocrat, the Republican campaign has seized on lingering concerns about him. This is much more about emotions and instincts than words and policies.
Steve and Cokie Roberts say that the election will be decided over how Americans answer the question, is Obama one of us?
"As Peter Hart, a Democrat who conducts the Wall Street Journal poll with Republican Neil Newhouse, puts it: "Voters want to answer a simple question: Is Barack Obama safe?" The answer to that question draws on more evidence than years served, jobs held and positions taken. Voters want to know about a candidate's character, judgment and temperament. They want to sense his scars and his seasoning. And they learn these things through narrative, the stories leaders tell about their lives and troubles.”
They also point out that:
". . . to many Americans, Obama is still a stranger, an exotic and mysterious stranger with an odd name, a dark face, a weird pastor, a cheeky wife and a brief past."
The right-wing pundit David Brooks says that American voters cannot “place” Obama in any familiar social context. He paints Obama as a man who has always “lived apart” from American society. His advice to the McCain campaign:
"In the short term they have to try to define him [Barack Obama] as someone who thinks he's above everyone else."
So, the McCain people are saying that Obama isn’t “one of us”. That’s a powerful frame in politics: “us”. Normal. Acceptable. Part of the “mainstream”. Having the correct values. Patriotic. Like me. Not like “them” who are none of these things. And, yes, white. The notion of “us” can’t be separated from race.
David Gergen a spin doctor who has worked for Republican and Democrat presidents, from Nixon to Clinton, says:
"There has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream, other, 'he's not one of us,'
"I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it, but it's the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this ad, 'The One,' that's code for, 'he's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.' "
Last week, Democratic strategists were worried that Obama didn’t have a big enough lead over McCain. Now, they are worried that the election is a dead heat. (Jafapete has more details)
Obama urgently needs to take back control of his narrative. Part of the answer lies in re-telling his personal story, just like Bill Clinton, the “boy from hope”, did in 1992. Obama would do well to emulate Clinton’s mix of economic populism and embracing change.
But Obama has undermined his own story too. In the words of Dana Milbank, he has seemed more like a presumptuous nominee than a presumptive nominee over recent weeks. Obama connects best when he promises change and a fresh start and looks and sounds like both. New narratives on the economy and energy would help to show what change would mean.