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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Karl Rove’s strategy for attacking Obama — how Democrats can respond.

With the recent appointment of Steven Schmidt and several other staffers to the highest levels of the McCain campaign, the political protégés of Karl Rove have now taken almost complete control. As a result Rove’s basic political strategy has been elevated to the core approach of the campaign.
At its heart, Karl Rove’s approach for the last 20 years has been an essentially class-based attack on Democrats – one that portrays them as representing an out-of-touch, educated elite who have little in common with average Americans. In this strategy, individual Democrats are not simply wrong about specific issues; their errors all arise from deep, pathological defects in their basic values and character.
This general strategy can be traced back to the campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace in 1968 and 1972. But one of Rove’s distinct additions was to recognize that attacks on a candidates’ character must be psychologically plausible – they must be fine-tuned to exploit weaknesses the opposing candidate actually appears to reflect in his behavior.
In this regard, Rove has always had an exceptionally sinister aptitude (one that is reminiscent of Hannibal Lector’s perverse but penetrating form of psychological insight) for being able to recognize subtle human weaknesses and frailties. For example, although Al Gore and John Kerry were both products of relatively advantaged, prep school environments and were clearly not working class “ordinary guys”, they were nonetheless quite distinct. On the one hand Gore was vulnerable to being portrayed as somewhat pompous, self-important and egotistic. Kerry, in contrast, invited the caricature of being a long-winded, detached, emotionally remote New England Yankee. The overall class-based frame worked for both men, but the political hit-man’s art lay in recognizing and exploiting the subtle variations between them.
Obama presents an even more complex challenge. Although meditative, professorial, articulate and elegant, he nonetheless does not fit the image of a typical left-wing college professor (or, for that matter, of a Black militant, a well-to-do New York limousine liberal or corrupt Chicago pol).
The solution the Rove team developed, only days after taking control of the McCain campaign, was to portray Obama as a resident of the rarified world of the “Hollywood movie star liberals” – a pampered universe of exclusive health and exercise clubs, expensive hotel suites and fancy bottled water. The implication was that, like other Hollywood stars, Obama must be “self-infatuated and effete” or “vain and out of touch” or “effete, elite and equivocal” – in short, a weak and vain man without real character; a male fashion model living a movie stars’ life and not the real life of ordinary Americans.

This class-based caricature of Obama is important for the McCain campaign because it provides a critical psychological, character-based foundation to support a very disparate set of accusations – that he does not really care about America’s solders, that he lacks real patriotism, that he “plays the race card” and so on. Using this “typical Hollywood liberal” stereotype, it is not even necessary to explicitly contrast Obama with the “heartland virtues” of John McCain who the Rove team directly links with such traditional movie-hero figures as John Wayne.
How can Obama best respond to this line of attack? The kernel of truth which the attack exploits is the fact that Obama is most obviously not an “ordinary” or “average” guy in any meaningful way and any attempt on his part to present himself as such necessarily appears completely unconvincing and condescending.
But it is a profound misunderstanding of “ordinary people” to think that they require a candidate to exactly resemble them in order for him or her to win their respect and support. On the contrary, individuals who excel and achieve success through hard work, perseverance and dedication are greatly admired by most Americans, so long as they continue to genuinely respect and care about ordinary voters if they enter political life. Average voters genuinely admire upward mobility and success if it is honestly and honorably achieved.
And in fact, Obama’s life story provides a powerful core narrative that supports precisely this alternative way of understanding him. It is composed of three elements:

1. A far from easy or pampered early life and a youth marked by confusion, mistakes, bad choices and lack of direction.
2. A remarkable personal turn-around, build on the foundation of the incredibly hard work, perseverance and dedication that is required to get a law degree at a top university.
3. A decision to turn his back on the “easy life” of a professor or private attorney and to try instead to find a role of service to the community.

This is simply not the life story of a typical pampered Hollywood star or vacuous celebrity. On the contrary, it is a quintessentially American success story of youthful error followed by redemption and success through hard work and an ultimate decision to seek a way to contribute to society.
The McCain campaign’s attempt to fit Obama into the “vacuous Hollywood star” framework simply will not stick if Obama’s unique biography can be correctly presented. Between now and the convention, Democrats must make a coordinated and concerted effort to define a simple core narrative along these lines – one that can be driven home every single time the McCain campaign attempts to stigmatize Obama with their utterly fraudulent depiction of his character.

6 comments on “Karl Rove’s strategy for attacking Obama — how Democrats can respond.

  1. malleusmaleficarum on

    The narrative of Obama’s biography is so complex that it has already been the subject of two best-sellers: Dreams from my farther and The Audacity of Hope. The American public already know more about the biography of Obama than they have known about virtually any previous presidential candidate in history, but that is not to say that they cannot be reminded and tutored and instructed in the deeper levels of his bio. What is truly needed is a long-form — because the depth potential of 30s and 60s is simply insufficient. Next month, Citizens United — a horrible right-wing 527 will premiere their demolition of Obama — a full length documentary. Obama and his supporters better have an adequate response — a full length documentary like the one used so successfully by Hubert Humphrey in 1968 when he fought back from a double digit deficit to a photo-finish on election day.

  2. Stan_1036 on

    Tom Sullivan has the right goal: identify these attacks with George Bush, so they reinforce the basic notion, “Bush=McCain.”
    Here’s another script.
    Remember how George Bush ran for President? Personal attacks on his opponent. Misleading the American people.
    Now John McCain is trying the same thing. Personal attacks even his fellow Republicans condemn. False statements discredited from coast to coast.
    So the next time you hear one of those George-Bush-style attacks, ask yourself this question: can America stand four more years of another George Bush in the White House?

  3. Tom Sullivan on

    Good stuff, James. I agree with hitting back hard, and I think you have a workable narrative, if only Obama’s campaign will use something like it. It has to come from them. My concern is how to win against skilled players like Rove and Schmidt. As I said elsewhere (http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2008083205/why-we-dont-shoot-back#comment-7155), these guys tend “to be three moves ahead … The trick is not to fight on their terms.” They’ll be ready for a response. Play their game and they win. Still, we’ve seen them struggle to get traction on oil drilling. The public has gotten wise to them. But they’ll still run the same plays over and over, hoping repetition or “death by a thousand cuts” will work, as it has in the past. I say, “Run the Other Way,” as Bill Hillsman suggests. I don’t see a downside to disrupting their game against Obama by reminding already wary voters what con men they are. Something like this:
    They told you there’d be candy and flowers.
    They told you they’d rebuild New Orleans.
    They told you no, we do not torture.
    They told you tax cuts would create jobs.
    They told you they’d restore honor and dignity.
    What else have they told you lately?

  4. tfisher on

    These are excellent comments (it’s a side-point, but the broken digital calendar line is an appropriate description.)
    Does anyone see a risk to the McCain brand with this attack? The Spears/Hilton commercial, along with the other overtly childish attacks seems to already be damaging McCain with his former buddies in the press. If they view him as damaged goods, he loses a group that had propped him up despite his long history of confusion about issues and pandering positions.
    It just seems like he will gradually lose his purported maverick and independent image, as well as the ridiculous “straight talk” label. I understand he may think that this is the only way to win, but the downside is he could end up with such bad margins that the Rovians won’t be able to execute the usual strategy of squeaking through a tight election. You can’t recount (or fight recounting) if the margins are horrifyingly bad anyway.

  5. James Vega on

    Thanks for your very perceptive comments.
    1. I think you are certainly right that there is a large element of rather childish resentment of Obama – reflected in the politically silly Paris Hilton and Moses comparisons – that does not come from a classic Rove strategy but rather from McCain’s inner circle. I think that gang really does perceive Obama’s support as a totally frivolous, “teen crush” kind of thing and are desperately frustrated because the rest of the world doesn’t see things their way. Various reports have attested to the sincerity of their bewilderment and outrage.
    2. The more calculated, Rovian part of the “vacuous movie star” frame, on the other hand, is, I think, the class-based attempt to portray Obama as living in a different world from ordinary Americans and unsympathetic to their needs and desires. The “lefty, Black militant university professor” frame has two problems (1) Despite serious efforts, they couldn’t make it stick very well after Obama quit his church and (2) it’s hard to maintain during an tense election without slipping into “white backlash” rhetoric that sounds way too much like old George Wallace or Richard Nixon.
    The “vacuous movie star” on the other hand, allows them to attack Obama as an elitist who doesn’t care about average Americans but without sounding like a time warp from the early 1970’s.
    3. I agree that Maureen Dowd was onto something in her take on this — Like a broken digital calendar, she’s right once a year.

  6. David in Nashville on

    Actually, the “Rovian” [if that’s actually what it is] choice utterly bewilders me. Yes, it takes the classic approach of trying to turn a strength [the sometimes over-the-top adulation Obama has received from many of his supporters] into a weakness [He’s as vacuous as anyone else with a wacko fan club]. But this basically depends on a level of ignorance about Obama that doesn’t really wash. Does anyone really think that a Columbia-and-Harvard-educated University of Chicago law professor is just like Britney or Paris [If her “response ad” is any indication, even Paris isn’t like Paris!]? The leftie black academic who despises Good Ordinary [white] Folk seems to have far more possibilities, and that view has been flourishing in the fever swamps all along. Yet they take a tack that’s opening them up for ridicule. Actually, I think this isn’t being driven by Rove; I think it’s driven by McCain and his resentment of being displaced by this johnny-come-lately. In other words, it’s not a rational choice at all. In that regard the much-maligned MoDo may have nailed it in her latest column.


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