Who’s Smearing Whom?

Who\'s Smearing Whom?James Kirchich, recent nominee for an Yglesias Award for fairness, says that, while the Obama campaign is setting itself up to believe that “The only obstacle between Barack Obama and the presidency is the mountain of smears that will no doubt come his way,” the truth of the matter is that most of the smears are coming from his side.

Thus far, no one with any serious affiliation to John McCain’s campaign has resorted to the alleged “scare” tactics in which Republicans — and, apparently, only Republicans — have been perfecting since Richard Nixon was first elected. On the contrary, if the past few months have showed us anything, it’s that the Obama campaign is the one dealing in crude smears.

There have been only two incidents in which people officially associated with McCain have done anything approaching what Thomas and Wolfe predicted those dastardly, conniving Republicans would inevitably do. In February, a conservative talk radio host speaking at a McCain rally made reference to “Barack Hussein Obama.” McCain immediately condemned the statement, leading the embittered and embarrassed professional yacker to complain that McCain “threw me under the bus.” The only other smear-worthy episode occurred in March, when the McCain campaign suspended a low-level aide who provided a link on his Twitter account to a video featuring the rants of Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Heavy stuff, to be sure.

Contrast the absence of smears from the McCain camp with some of the outlandish remarks made by high-ranking Obama supporters. In April, West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV said that because McCain “was a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet,” and “was long gone when they hit,” the Arizona senator who spent five and a half years in a Vietcong tiger cage having his arms repeatedly broken didn’t really understand the carnage of war. “What happened when [the missiles] get to the ground?” Rockefeller asked a crowd at an Obama rally. “He doesn’t know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues.” That the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller would impugn the wartime experience of John McCain is especially rich, given that the only “battle” Rockefeller has seen is when he hunts wild game at his 80-acre ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyo. g in crude smears.

He gives other examples, many of which detailed yesterday in “Democrats Attacking McCain’s Military Record: Is A Pattern Emerging?

Greg Sargent, meanwhile, asserts that,

The truth is that there’s zero evidence that there’s any coordination going on or that the Obama campaign wants this conversation to be taking place. Not that this matters: The McCain campaign is very determinedly pointing to anything it can — Webb’s comments included — to drive the message that Obama is demeaning McCain’s military service.

Not to resort to the undergraduate paper standby of “they both have good points and bad points,” the argument seems rather silly.  Professionally run campaigns make a concerted effort to maintain plausible deniability, ensuring that the candidate and senior campaign staff can disavow any negative attacks that get judged as beyond the pale while nonetheless benefitting from their effects.

Do I think there’s a concerted effort on the part of Democrats to call into question the degree to which John McCain’s military service makes him more qualified than Barack Obama to step in as commander-in-chief?  Of course.  Are some of the attacks over-the-top?  Yup.  Have they reached the worst levels of the Swift Boat attacks against John Kerry in 2004?  Not yet.

Is there a smear campaign to undermine public confidence in Barack Obama’s patriotism and that of his wife?  To say that he’s a Muslim and might be terrorist-friendly?  Yup.  Were they promulgated by Republicans?  No, by Hillary Clinton supporters, actually.  Will Republicans pick up the ball?  Probably.

The “Who’s smearing more?” game is silly at this point since McCain has been the presumptive Republican nominee for months and has thus been the object of Democratic attacks for much longer.  By contrast, there hasn’t been much need for the GOP to smear Obama, since Clintonistas like  Larry Johnson were more than happy to do it.   I’m pretty sure McCain won’t touch any of that nonsense.  Pro-Republican or Pro-McCain or Anti-Obama 527s, though, are another story.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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:

    Not to resort to the undergraduate paper standby of “they both have good points and bad points,” the argument seems rather silly. Professionally run campaigns make a concerted effort to maintain plausible deniability, ensuring that the candidate and senior campaign staff can disavow any negative attacks that get judged as beyond the pale while nonetheless benefitting from their effects.

    Well, exactly. As I said at my own place this morning;

    Obama’s campaign has been nothing if not disciplined and well orginized, in nearly ever detail. They know full well what is at stake here, and how hard they ahve to work to gain the office. Given that, it’s hard to imagine that the pattern as I mentioned yesterday is anything but part of the plan… particularly when it has occurred so often in this campaign.

    The “Who’s smearing more?” game is silly at this point since McCain has been the presumptive Republican nominee for months and has thus been the object of Democratic attacks for much longer. By contrast, there hasn’t been much need for the GOP to smear Obama, since Clintonistas like Larry Johnson were more than happy to do it.

    Exactly so. I would submit that this has been the pattern in previous campaigns, as well. Willie Horton for example, was actually brought up by Al Gore. Etc, etc.

  2. Michael says:

    How well does

    There have been only two incidents in which people officially associated with McCain have done anything approaching what Thomas and Wolfe predicted

    compare with

    some of the outlandish remarks made by high-ranking Obama supporters

    ?

    That’s like saying only a couple Ford employees are smearing Chevy, but look at all the Chevy owners smearing Ford!

  3. just me says:

    You can’t have a poitical campaign without somebody smearing somebody. The key is knowing how and when to smear so that the actual politician doesn’t get caught with the mud in his hands.

    I think the problem for Obama is that the point of plausible deniabiity has run its course and there is a nice collection of bodies under the bus.

    McCain’s attacks haven’t really started yet. Give it a few more months and there will be dirty hands everywhere. Of course McCain isn’t running on “Hope, change and nice guy=new tenor in Washington” so the mud on Obama tarnishes him a little more than it does McCain.

  4. Hal says:

    Bithead, get your facts straight (yea, it’s like a tiger to lose its stripes, I know). Yes, Al Gore was the first person to mention the Massachusetts furlough program in the 1988 presidential campaign. During a debate at the Felt Forum sponsored by the New York Daily News, Gore took issue with the furlough program. However, he did not specifically mention the Horton incident or even mention Horton’s name.

    It was the Republicans that first brought up Willie Horton and ran with it all the way to the goal line.

    So, how, pray tell does your theory even work. This is a matter of public record. Again, I’d ask you for any evidence backing up your obviously false claim, but we both know that ain’t gonna happen.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    Before whitewashing the present smearing by the left on the basis of hypothetical smearing in the future by some 527s, consider this.

    16 of the top 25 527s are on the left (2 are ‘neutral’ and 7 are on the right), including 4 of the top 5. The two top liberal 527s have raised as much money as all the conservative 527s in the top 25 combined.

    Add Obama’s pledge breaking decision to go for the big bucks indicates the current smearers will be the ones with the money to buy the biggest loudspeakers to broadcast their smears.

  6. Bithead says:

    Yes, Al Gore was the first person to mention the Massachusetts furlough program in the 1988 presidential campaign

    Period.
    Full stop.

  7. Hal says:

    Bithead:

    Willie Horton for example, was actually brought up by Al Gore.

    Either you simply cannot read, or you’re just completely oblivious to actual facts.

    I’ll repeat it again and see if you’ll actually admit your error: Al Gore never brought up Willie Horton. He brought up the Massachusetts furlough program. Now, I know in Bithead land, these are actually the same things because, you know, it’s obvious that Willie Horton == the Massachusetts furlough program. But on the rest of the planet, the two are not identical.

    So which is it Bit? Oblivious? Or just unable to admit your simply wrong?

  8. Bithead says:

    I’ll repeat it again and see if you’ll actually admit your error: Al Gore never brought up Willie Horton

    OK, explain to us how getting the specifics of the matter out in the open makes things any different. In reality, that’s your complaint, here.

    We’ll wait.

  9. Hal says:

    Willie Horton qua Willie Horton is pretty much universally recognized as a smear campaign, run by republicans. It was a racially charged campaign focused on a particular prisoner who was furloughed – a classic smear.

    In contrast, the Massachusetts furlough program is a policy disagreement, which has no such racial overtones and isn’t anywhere near a smear campaign.

    Your entire comment is that it was “Al Gore who brought up Willie Horton”, which is demonstratively false. From this error, you derived that this was a pattern where by the democrats were the first to bring up the the smear only to have the republicans only too happy to follow suit. Which is clearly a bogus conclusion.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Al Gore never brought up Willie Horton. He brought up the Massachusetts furlough program.

    Aside from the fact that Horton was a scary-looking black man, and thus it’s somehow therefore racist to show his picture, I’ve never understood what was so wrong about using the story as a symbol of being soft on crime.

    It was somewhat unfair to blame Dukakis, who after all didn’t invent the program nor personally screen candidates for furlough, for Horton’s subsequent brutalities. But, hell, all sorts of “on his watch” crap is unfair and we consider that normal politics. And Dukakis wasn’t exactly without connection to the whole thing:

    Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts at the time of Horton’s release, and while he did not start the furlough program, he had supported it as a method of criminal rehabilitation. The State inmate furlough program was actually signed into law by liberal Republican Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1972. After the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that this right extended to first-degree murderers, the Massachusetts legislature quickly passed a bill prohibiting furloughs for such inmates. However, in 1976, Dukakis vetoed this bill.

    Wikipedia – Willie Horton

  11. James Joyner says:

    You were posting this as I was typing the above:

    Willie Horton qua Willie Horton is pretty much universally recognized as a smear campaign, run by republicans. It was a racially charged campaign focused on a particular prisoner who was furloughed – a classic smear.

    In contrast, the Massachusetts furlough program is a policy disagreement, which has no such racial overtones and isn’t anywhere near a smear campaign.

    That’s completely fair as an analytical point. The problem is that political campaigns aren’t social science, they’re means of making points in an effective manner. Using a specific case shows the heartwrenching consequences of the policy much better than dry statistics.

  12. Bithead says:

    Your entire comment is that it was “Al Gore who brought up Willie Horton”, which is demonstratively false.

    So, Hal; What incident was Gore talking about, then, hmmm? As James points out;

    Aside from the fact that Horton was a scary-looking black man, and thus it’s somehow therefore racist to show his picture, I’ve never understood what was so wrong about using the story as a symbol of being soft on crime.

    Simple, James, it was successful.

    Hal, you say:

    In contrast, the Massachusetts furlough program is a policy disagreement, which has no such racial overtones and isn’t anywhere near a smear campaign

    (Snicker) I must assume you’re dodging this purposfully, since nobody would dance around this issue so well by accident; Think, now; Given the overwhelmingly black and hispanic jail population, how to bring up specifics of the issue, without the left claiming it’s all about race?

    And let’s also recall the landslide nature of that particular election. A lot of Democrats voted for Bush that year. Remember? Are you really OK with calling those voters, racist?

    It was somewhat unfair to blame Dukakis, who after all didn’t invent the program nor personally screen candidates for furlough, for Horton’s subsequent brutalities. But, hell, all sorts of “on his watch” crap is unfair and we consider that normal politics. And Dukakis wasn’t exactly without connection to the whole thing

    He certainly had the power to stop it, being govenor. Sorry, James; it’s not unfair at all.

    Horton was not a policy issue. People don’t give a crap about governmental policy until it affects THEM. Apparently, a lot of folks decided that their government letting Willie Hortons out of jail was a very personal issue.

    Interestingly, that argument is flaring just now here in WNY.

  13. Hal says:

    I’ve never understood what was so wrong about using the story as a symbol of being soft on crime.

    Well, aside from the scary looking black man, the history of race relations and the well known and quantified bigotry wrt scary looking black men, sure.

    In a perfect world, many things are possible. However, to claim that a scary looking black man has no serious and obvious racial overtones is simply ignoring reality. Clearly, even in 2000, Karl Rove knew that smearing McCain with rumors of a black child out of wedlock worked and worked extremely well for Bush.

  14. Bithead says:

    Well, aside from the scary looking black man, the history of race relations and the well known and quantified bigotry wrt scary looking black men, sure.

    LOL. So, what you’re saying, (Given that so many Democrats voted for Bush on the basis of the Horton issue, because they’re all racists) is that Obama stands no chance at all, even among Dmeocrats?

    That IS the logical conclusion to that line of non-thought, Hal.

    You’re welcome.

  15. just me says:

    sing a specific case shows the heartwrenching consequences of the policy much better than dry statistics.

    And this is the reality of politics. Anecdotes always make for good speeches and good commercials. This is done all the time.

    The ad against Bush by the NAACP where the daughter of the man drug to death is pretty much the democratic version of the Willie Horton Ad.

    Both candidates use anecdotes in support of their positions-it isn’t new and it is an effective way to personalize the realities of the position.

    Horton’s situation was a great example of the problem with the program-he is a casebook example of why it was a bad idea. I think the ad would have been just as effective had he been a scary looking white guy-it was the furlough led to murder that was scary.