Swift Boating Obama?
He cites a report by The Politico‘s Jonathan Martin that, “A YouTube video mash-up that attacks Barack Obama on issues relating to his patriotism that has rocketed around the Internet in recent days was created in part by a prominent conservative talk radio producer.”
Here’s the video in question:
It’s no wonder this has gone viral. It’s brilliant polemic, contrasting Obama’s “Don’t tell me words don’t matter” mantra with his own words and those of his wife and pastor. That Wright said some things that Malcolm X said about “chickens coming home to roost” strikes me as lame but it will no doubt resonate with some.
A reader emails to ask whether I think this also “poisons the well,” as I asserted many on the left were doing by trying to claim those who don’t buy Obama’s explanation are racists or idiots. Of course.
The difference is that I started with the presumption that the bloggers in question were trying to have an honest dialog about the matter, whereas I presume political operatives are simply trying to score points. If the former is one’s goal, insulting the motives of those one is trying to persuade is counterproductive. If winning is the only thing that matters, going negative works.
Although I’m decidedly not an Obama backer, I reject the implicit claims in the video. I’ve written previously about the silliness of the charge that Obama isn’t a patriot because he won’t wear a flag pin on his lapel and ad nauseam about why Wright’s words don’t reflect Obama’s judgment. I even more-or-less defended Michelle Obama’s comments about never having been proud of America. But I think most political attacks are opportunistic, out of context, and unfair.
Does the video play on the fears that some whites have about angry black men? Sure. Mostly, though, it seeks to undermine Obama’s portrait of himself as mainstream. It’s more than a little unfair but that’s the nature of these mashups. It’s no different than the various ads of one candidate morphing into an unpopular politician that we’ve seen over the years. And it’s frankly much tamer than the infamous 1964 ad that implied Barry Goldwater would get us annihilated in a nuclear war or the 2000 NAACP ad featuring the daughter of James Byrd stating that “when Governor George W. Bush refused to support hate-crime legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again.” Goodness, I’m not sure it’s even as insidious as the “3 a.m.” ad that the Clinton campaign ran to such good effect last month.
Sullivan and Marc Ambinder also cite a Lanny Davis piece in yesterday’s HuffPo, which both declares that “there isn’t a shred in Senator Obama’s being that shares these hateful or bigoted feelings” but asks,
1. If a white minister preached sermons to his congregation and had used the “N” word and used rhetoric and words similar to members of the KKK, would you support a Democratic presidential candidate who decided to continue to be a member of that congregation?
2. Would you support that candidate if, after knowing of or hearing those sermons, he or she still appointed that minister to serve on his or her “Religious Advisory Committee” of his or her presidential campaign?
These questions strike me as disingenuous because the analogy doesn’t quite fit. Jeremiah Wright is a conspiracy theorist who uses racially charged rhetoric; he doesn’t advocate murdering white people. Again, though, this pales in comparison with other charges that have flown around in heated primary campaigns.
Would I like to see campaigns waged on a higher plane than this? You bet. But it’s not going to happen. My colleague Dave Schuler frequently argues that we’re a post-literate society and that we hope in vain for a return to the days when politicians spoke in paragraphs and political discourse was conducted through things like the Federalist Papers or the hours-long Lincoln-Douglas debates. People are used to consuming information in sound bytes and, increasingly, through visual media like video. That’s the world we live in.
As lamentable as these developments are, however, we cheapen the debate when we refer to every negative attack as “Swift-Boating.” That term got its derogatory connotation because of some of the outlandish and demonstrably false claims that were flung about by that group (along with many true ones) to see what would stick. That’s a scorched earth approach that we should all condemn. But politics ain’t beanbag, either. Bad analogies are the least of our worries.
I might add that the Obama campaign has benefited from at least three other viral videos. The “Hillary 1984” video was very powerful in knocking down the original frontrunner. The “Obama Girl” video was vapid but got a lot of attention for demonstrating Obama’s appeal to young voters. The “Yes We Can” video was an internet sensation which spawned numerous imitators, including a “McCain 10,000 Years” video which itself went viral. So, now, another vapid video is working against him. That’s politics.