Friday, August 01, 2008

The Race Card

Barack Obama goofed. Here's what he said:

John McCain right now, he's spending an awful lot of time talking about me. You notice that? I haven’t seen an ad yet where he talks about what he’s gonna do. And the reason is because those folks know they don’t have any good answers, they know they’ve had their turn over the last eight years and made a mess of things. They know that you’re not real happy with them.

And so the only way they figure they’re going to win this election is if they make you scared of me. So what they’re saying is, "Well, we know we’re not very good but you can’t risk electing Obama. You know, he’s new, he’s... doesn’t look like the other presidents on the currency, you know, he’s got a, he’s got a funny name."

I mean, that’s basically the argument -- he’s too risky.

The reason that's a goof is because Obama accuses McCain of literally using race as a factor in the campaign. McCain uses race, but symbolically.

That was the purpose of the "Celebrity" ad [see it in the post, "For McCain is an Honorable Man", below], which used images of Obama with two white women of questionable virtue, who had no connection to him or his campaign at all.

A similar ad was used against a black senatorial candidate, Harold Ford, Jr., in the 2006 Tennessee election -- the so-called "Call Me" ad -- and it was highly successful. A buxom, white woman actress pretended to be talking to Ford, breathing "Call me," raising, implicitly, the racial/sexual taboo of black men with white women. Undecided voters who saw the ad broke 2-1 for Ford's opponent. Ford lost the election. This was not an obscure event; it was widely discussed in political circles.

And the lesson was not lost on the McCain campaign, which for a couple of months had been trying to uphold his press-supported image of an honorable man of principle.

But the trouble with being an honorable man of principle who is also a Republican is that you're going to lose, and McCain's campaign was foundering big time. So they brought in Steve Schmidt, a Karl Rove catechumen, to take over leadership of the campaign. And things immediately went into the sewer. When all you're interested in is winning, regardless of the damage, negative works.

Thus, the "Celebrity" ad. How do you run an ad showing a black man with white women, without being too obvious? After all, Obama is not (unlike Harold Ford) a playboy, and he's married to an attractive black woman. The "celebrity" theme did the trick. They got plausible deniability and got to send their message to the conscious or unconscious minds that were susceptible to it. Message sent. Message received.

You might be interested in this short article from Newsday, which explores the question of whether Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are the most obvious choices to illustrate "celebrity". Thanks to Talking Points Memo for that link.

The most beautiful thing about the ad (if you happen to be Satan) is the plausible deniability part. People can see the ad and say, "That's not about race, it's about celebrity!" And they'd be half right, which for most people is enough. And people who don't want to think the ad is an appeal to racism have their out. And you get articles like this one, from ABC's Jake Tapper, who's been around long enough to know better.

So McCain played the race card. And, as he said at the end, "I'm John McCain, and I approved this message."

Then how did Obama goof? By suggesting that McCain had literally called attention to Obama's race. It is true that McCain did not attack Obama for his funny name or his skin color. And no matter how you twist the meaning of Obama's comments, that's what he was alleging. McCain shouldn't have been allowed to get away with it, but that's what surrogates are for. It's too late now.

Score one for McCain. And two for Karl Rove.

The sooner Obama can get the discussion off this, the better.

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