Swift Boating Obama?

Andrew Sullivan has declared that the “Swift-Boating” of Barack Obama has begun, noting that both Republican operatives and Clinton supporters are piling on over the Jeremiah Wright scandal.

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.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2008, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    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. But I think most political attacks are opportunistic, out of context, and unfair.

    Sorry, James, but I can’t back you in this.
    The fact is, such arguemnts were never intended to singly paint him as unamerican. Other indications? well, his long and warm association with Wright is one. One simply does not engage in such an assocation without buying into it’s basic precepts. His worship on the altar of William Ayers another, and so on, down the line. Together, however, they paint a complete picture of the man, and clearly a damning one.

    And let’s be honest, here; Would anyone be definding a white guy being shown to have connections with any group as racist and unamerican as the ones Obama has been shown with?

  2. davod says:

    “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…”

    Pastor Wright’s sermons and Mrs. Obama’s words do give pause to Obama’s reasons for not wearing the flag. They show that Obama could well have had a reason for not wearing the flag.

    What did the Swift Boat veterans say that was proven wrong?j

  3. mike says:

    Obama is a very intelligent person. Deep down inside, I don’t think he is a racist or hates America. He knew what his pastor was saying. It served his purposes in Illnois but it no longer does. The problem is that he can’t distance himself from Wright; he thought Americans were dumb enough to not catch on; some bought into his explanations but most did not. The rest is just politics and spin. When you hitch your wagon to a guy like Wright, you are going to pay the price at some point.

  4. cian says:

    As the posts above show only too clearly, the republican party and supporters have found their stick and they will beat Obama’s presidential ambitions to death. The guy’s gone, and so are the hopes of many who saw in him a chance for real change.

    His speech was a good one in that it spoke a simple truth- lots of African American men and women have been so damaged by their experience of decades of appalling discrimination, that they cannot see how things have changed and that for the most part the wind is now blowing in their favor.

    For seven years I’ve watched some of our countries most senior republican politicians attending events hosted by some of the most hateful speakers imaginable, where gay people were called fagots and Satan’s children, and immigration described as an infestation.

    I doubt the anti-obama posters here cared much about this, and I imagine few of them believe Obama to be a racist. He’s a democrat is all, and brilliant enough to win in November, so..

    Grab the stick and maybe, just maybe, the disaster of the last seven years can be repeated all over again.

  5. Herb Ely says:

    For me, it was a good speech, laying out positions about racial conflict that need to be addressed. It did not pose or answer one question. In my experience, if a pastor had made these kind of inflammatory statements, someone in the church would have challenged him. Did Obama ever speak to the Rev. Wrigh? Did he ever object? Did any member of the congregation?

  6. mike says:

    cian,
    sorry, that doesn’t work – lumping me and others together as repubs or repub supporters because we call Obama out on something this important is too convenient. Even if you were correct, there is a difference between attending a church for 20 years and attending a speech in which someone bashes someone for their sexual orientation or disagreed with immigration. Who are these senior repubs, what speeches did they attend? I won’t vote for them either – oh wait, they aren’t running for President on a platform of “hope” or “change”. I support gay rights, but I don’t support racists.

  7. Bithead says:

    As the posts above show only too clearly, the republican party and supporters have found their stick and they will beat Obama’s presidential ambitions to death.

    Postulate a White guy, attenting a church that preached as racist a doctrine as that of Black ‘Liberation Theology’, (Say, some weird branch of the KKK) and tell me you’d support such a person for the highest office in the land.

  8. cian says:

    Mike,

    Apologies if I insulted you. It was not my intention (some of my best friends are republicans).

    I’ve been a member of the Catholic church for over 40 years and in that time I’ve heard some pretty nasty stuff on a regular basis, but I remain a member because along with the intolerance I have encountered I have also encountered deep wells of understanding, and often from the very same priest. And, of course I’ve challenged him, just as I’m sure Obama challenged Wright.

    Obama’s speech has failed to reach you. I’m not sure why. It seemed an honest effort to explain a complex relationship, one millions of Americans grapple with every day of every year. Some, like Pastor Wright, see only wrong and rail against it. Others, like Obama believe there is another way.

    While I am a supporter of Obama, I can understand why he might not appeal to others, a lack of experience being a big one, too liberal another. But he’s not what you want to believe he is. You know it, and in its heart, the country does too.

    But its a big stick, and in its swinging, more than his presidential run will be damaged.

  9. arky says:

    “Jeremiah Wright is a conspiracy theorist who uses racially charged rhetoric; he doesn’t advocate murdering white people.”

    “white minister preached sermons to his congregation and had used the “N” word and used rhetoric and words similar to members of the KKK, ”

    I don’t see that the second paragraph has to mean calling for advocating the murder of blacks.

    I think the analogy referenced holds together pretty well. I read it as something like: “Would you support a Democratic presidential candidate who decided to continue to be a member of a congregation that preaches the evils of black culture and counsels apartheid-like separation?

  10. mike says:

    Cian – no apologies needed

    I have read Obama’s speech (word for word) and understand it (I think) – the problem is I don’t buy it. I used to be an Obama supporter (someone who hasn’t spent the last 20-30 years of his life in DC was appealing) but no longer. An error in judgment of this magnitude is too much for a president. If he knew what his pastor was saying then, as a public figure/leader etc.., he had a duty to publicly disagree. – he never did, until he got caught.

  11. davod says:

    “His speech was a good one in that it spoke a simple truth- lots of African American men and women have been so damaged by their experience of decades of appalling discrimination, that they cannot see how things have changed and that for the most part the wind is now blowing in their favor.”

    Please stop with the dissembling: What Obama did was provide cover for all the race baiting hateful rhetoric that goes in in some churches. He justified what Wright was doing.

    How the heck do you think anyone will move on if they listen to the likes of Wright every Sunday?

  12. Walden says:

    This is a sincere post not a troll. Could someone please post a link(s) to the, “outlandish and demonstrably false claims” of the Swift Boaters referred to in the article above?

    Thank you

  13. Michael says:

    Apparently a McCain staffer has been suspended for pushing this video.

    Credit: http://tpmelectioncentral.talkingpointsmemo.com/2008/03/mccain_aide_actively_pushed_ra.php

  14. Cheryl Morris says:

    To me, these Davis’ questions are crucial. As a mother, I also wonder how the Obamas could take their children to learn their faith where such things were being said from the pulpit? How do they expect to change a nation when they take their own family to a church where the old anger of the past is being taught? In other words, what Obama proposes to do, is not being done in the church which he attends. Is this not inconsistent?

  15. Bandit says:

    I voted for Obama but his speech didn’t impress me at all. MLK had a dream – Obama’s got a million excuses. I don’t know what he believes but I do know he’s a pragmatist who understands he can’t get nominated or elected without the black and guilt belt vote – I agree that his speech impressed his supporters but I don’t believe it did anyhting to convert his detractors – whom he has a lot more of now.

  16. Margaret Larson says:

    If we really want to do something more than politics as usual–with all the damage that is caused by polarizing people through opportunistic, nasty attacks–then we have to stand up against those attacks, no matter whether it’s our candidate that gets skewered or the other guy’s candidate. If we can’t do that, we’re in serious trouble.

  17. anjin-san says:

    Considering the bile hurled from pulpits that have been embraced, and which continue to be embraced by the right… well if they really want to duke it out on this issue, I think that is a fight that will hurt the GOP more than Democrats.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Or is it just that this is scary black anger… as opposed to the nice, familiar invective we hear from some of the pastors that support McCain?

  19. mannning says:

    There is a distribution curve of extremism versus centralism, where by far the majority of citizens fall in the middle. Maybe a little left or right but not all that far from each other. On the mini-minority extremes, both left and right, however, we have dangerous mindsets that promote the most vile, permanent solutions to problems imaginable.

    Today, it seems that the left-center has succumbed to the little, loud, slovenly and angry crowd on the far left, which has denuded the center-left of most of its sensible people, perhaps by merely shutting them up. On the center-right, however, there are many sensible people still remaining that grandly balance their collective political views much more to the center-right.

    While the far left is completely out of control, the tiny far right is nicely contained and seldom seen in ugly riots and demonstrations such as we see every few days from the irresponsible and unmannerly left. In fact, it is difficult to cite the last large rightwing march, whereas the count on the left is relatively astronomical.

    The politics of victimhood, the desire for moral and sexual freedom to do as one wishes, the willingness to abort 50 million babies, the fear of possibly having to go to war, the dependence of leftists on government handouts, and buying votes with promises of still more government largess, the secularist attacks on Christianity, and the utter bias of their attitudes appears to be the order of the day.

    Trying to make valid arguments from this position of moral terpitude and failed citizenship is laughable.

  20. Our Paul says:

    Walden:
    Came in rather late, hope you are still looking for answers:

    A reasonable summary of the Swift Boat Veterans for truth can be found at FactCheck.org..

    A Google search on “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” will give you both sides of the story.