Posted by: mutantpoodle | April 18, 2008

Right-wing ju-jitsu

[Thanks – I think – to Talking Points Memo for putting together a debate atrocities greatest hits.]

Among the things that has me slack-jawed with wonder these days is how Barack Obama becomes an elitist and George Bush ever was just a regular guy.

The cynic in me might argue that the dumber a politician assumes most Americans are, the more likely the media is to say you’re a (wo)man of the people, because, after all, you fit the traditional media’s (elitist) image of what all us unwashed rubes concern ourselves with. (I must carve out the Charlie Gibson exception – Gibson seems convinced that unemployed steelworkers’ largest concern is how their portfolios will handle a proposed increase in the capital gains tax.)

Then there’s the possibility that Obama, having climbed into the elite on merit, is the elite version of nouveau-riche. That it’s ok to be elite, but only if it was thrust upon you by the unfortunate circumstances of birth – those who have just made it are just a bit too pushy and smug about their eliteness.

I just think it’s the genius of the right-wing attack machine. When confronted with an opponent’s strength, either destroy the strength, or turn it into a weakness. The first is Karl Rove’s famous technique, and nowhere did it succeed more than in 2004, when John Kerry – a decorated war hero, for crying out loud – was portrayed as a traitorous coward. (Kerry, of course, played right along by saying things like “I was for it before I was against it”, cementing his image as a wishy-washy wimp.) The second is the fallback – so if you have an opponent who is principled and uncompromising, they become rigid and stubborn. If they build consensus and acceptable compromise, they are unprincipled and weak.

With Obama, the non-threatening African-American candidate who could not, in any way, be turned into Willie Horton, Reverend Wright was the right’s stab at the first technique. Make Obama into a scary black man, and he would, indeed, be toast. But then he gave that extraordinary speech in Philadelphia, where he (a) didn’t throw Wright under the bus, revealing strength of character and loyalty, and (b) talked to Americans as if they were adults, revealing that he is certifiably insane brave enough to confront difficult issues head on. And so, failing at method one, method two came into play.

The San Francisco bitter comment was the opening, but that, I think, was mere convenience. Something else would have been ginned up to make the same point. Because (and the racial dynamics here are incredibly charged), Obama’s success is due, in part, to his being a “safe”, post-racial candidate. A lot of that is due to the opportunities he got and the cultures into which he was immersed in high school, college (he graduated from Columbia but started at Occidental College in Los Angeles), and then Harvard Law School. None of this can be spun into fire-breathing radicalism – in fact, it’s all part of his mainstream credentials. So the very thing Obama needs to get him over one electability hurdle becomes something else – evidence that he thinks he’s better than you.

I have to say, I have no idea if Barack Obama thinks he’s better than me. I don’t get that sense – the opposite, in fact – but he could be spectacularly good at hiding it. Frankly, I don’t care what he thinks – I want him to actually be better than me. (I’d note, as someone who went to an “elite” university, that the experience can be quite humbling, because you are surrounded by people who are easily as smart as you, or smarter, and who will think of things you don’t and approach problems from a vastly different perspective – and I see evidence of that in Obama’s comfort with people with disparate viewpoints.) Frankly, the problem with thinking you’re better than other people, in any context, is that it demonstrates that the only kind of intelligence or credentials that you value are those that are similar to yours.

So here we are, just over a day past ABC’s train wreck of a debate, where the smug, multi-millionaire co-hosts took an opportunity to have a revealing discussion about, oh, I don’t know, say, the issues that actually matters to voters in a Democratic primary and tossed those aside in favor of revealing questions about how much Jeremiah Wright, a man who gave up his student deferment to fight as a Marine in Vietnam, really loves his country, or whether he loves it more or less than his spiritual charge, Barack Obama. Or what it means that Obama served on an anti-poverty board with someone who was a part of a radical anti-war group when Obama was a child.

Come November, there will be very few issues on which the Democratic candidate for President (who will be Barack Obama, by the way) and John McCain will agree. Their differences will cover the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment, choice, judges – damned near everything.

The right’s best hope is that Americans – who agree with Obama on most issues – are more worried that he might be looking down on them than that he’s looking out for their best interests. Wednesday night, we saw their enablers in all their glory.

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