Wednesday, August 6, 2008
In a lot of ways, Barack Obama has his hands tied in responding to John McCain's attack ads for reasons that have to do with each candidate's intended audience. And the suggested responses to McCain's attacks being pushed by Democrats and progressives illustrate why. Take the question of "Obama the elitist." Pointing out that John McCain comes from a privileged background and wears expensive Italian loafers ignores the lesson learned from the 2000 election, namely that no matter how big his trust fund, how many Ivy League schools he's attended, or how many free passes he's gotten because of his name, a tough-talking Republican can still pass himself off as "regular guy" more easily than a Democrat committed to policies that actually benefit "regular guys."
An effective counterattack, on the other hand, would be to point out that McCain's loafers are more than likely paid for by his wife's money. Same goes for the GOP ridicule of tire inflation as an energy conservation measure. Obama is right to point out that the measure is effective and recognized by efficiency experts, but that's a message directed at his own audience. To effectively counter McCain's message among McCain's audience (and the echo chamber), Obama would point out that any man who's ever taken his family on a road trip knows the importance of inflating the tires properly, not only for fuel efficiency but also for safety. He would then add that in the McCain household, not only is Cindy in charge of paying the bills, she's apparently in charge of car maintenance, too.
This kind of response rings true to anyone who has ever played the dozens, played pickup basketball, or hung out in a schoolyard, and one imagines that Barack Obama is no stranger to the three. In Josh Marshall's lexicography, it would be a "bitch slap" targeted at McCain's audience, effectively emasculating McCain in the tradition of the dozens: "I called your boy a punk and he couldn't do anything about it."
Trouble is, this kind of blatant misogyny is unpalatable to Obama's progressive audience. And to be clear, I'm not advocating it. I've actually sent a couple unanswered emails to Josh Marshall over the years, taking him to task for his "bitch slap" label. But so long as Democrats and progressives do not have a clear majority coalition whereby they can maintain message discipline and still win elections, they will be at a disadvantage on this playing field, and whining about it only reinforces the image problem.
Obama might end up being the candidate who establishes that majority coalition by sticking to the high road. But part of me wishes Democrats would offer him a "no holds barred waiver," just long enough to get McCain to stick to the issues. You can take the kid out of Brooklyn, I guess, but you can't take the Brooklyn out of the kid.