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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

[Editor’s Note: this is the second item in a two-part series on Democratic communications strategy by James Vega. It was originally published on August 8, 2008]
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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. SFTor on

    A quick additional thought:
    Wouldn’t such an approach drive home John McCain’s loss of himself and his values, and his becoming a wraith?

    Reply
  2. SFTor on

    Has anyone ever considered simply deconstructing the attacks to let voters in on the machinations going on in the McCain camp? A sort of inoculation through verité? As media-savvy as people are today it would seem to me to offer a bit of fascinating insight to many.
    Along these lines, perhaps: “The Republicans are at it again: the same campaign hatchetmen who slandered McCain’s wife and family eight years ago, are now working for…John McCain. They are attacking Barack Obama’s integrity with false accusations and personal attacks. (Insert example here, and refute it.)
    You don’t need to worry about Barack Obama’s integrity, or his values. Worry about a man who has hired his own enemies to help him win at all costs.”
    This is off the cuff, but something along these lines seems to me to have a chance to hit a nerve with voters disenchanted with politcians’ dishonesty and manipulation.

    Reply
  3. James Vega on

    Cugel:
    Thanks for the comments. Your points are well-taken.
    I obviously did not make it clear enough, but I actually agree with you that the kind of attack described in the first piece is not appropriate for the Obama campaign itself – It is inconsistent with the overall tone and approach of the campaign. I was actually proposing it as something Democrats and Democratic forces outside the Obama campaign could use.
    I did consider the likely response of the McCain people – that an attack of this kind “impugns” McCain’s wartime sacrifice etc. and is therefore a “smear” and “out of bounds”.
    However, this response itself is vulnerable to an interesting counter-stroke. As follows:
    “As a young man, John McCain was a war hero. All Americans honor his service and his sacrifice”
    “As a politician in the 1980’s and 1990’s John McCain took principled stances against some of the worst excesses of the Republican right-wing extremists.”Every American who was appalled by those excesses approved of his stance.
    “But that was then — What is John McCain today?”
    He hires political hit-men he once held in utter contempt.
    He backs away from the principled positions that once made him admirable.
    He allows his campaign to engage in behavior he once had the character to describe as vile and repulsive.
    So what is John McCain today?
    A man consumed by ambition,
    A man who has lost his moral compass
    A sad shadow of the man he once was.
    In short, the “how dare you impugn his character” meme actually sets the stage for further challenge to his “knight in shining armor” defense. In the essentially “He said- She said” format of many political debate shows, an exchange along these lines ultimately showcases the Democratic critique of McCain’s character more than the Republican defense. To the extent that a clear distinction can be made between the young war hero and the old sell-out, I think it benefits the Dems.

    Reply
  4. Cugel on

    This all sounds great. Except it breaks all the “rules” the media nodding heads live by. They have a media narrative and you can’t break it.
    John McCain “is a war hero.” He’s got “experience.” He’s the “Original Maverick”(TM).
    Anybody who tries to go against this narrative is “impugning McCain’s patriotism” or “impugning his character.”
    Can’t you hear the McCain camp’s outraged response to any such ads? “I was a POW! They can continue with these gutter attacks all they want, but I was a prisoner in Hanoi defending their freedoms! Blah, Blah!”
    Then you’d have 2 weeks of media “controversy” about whether the ads were “out of line” and whether McCain’s “demands for an apology” should be met.
    Meanwhile all the oxygen is sucked out of the campaign.
    You can see why Obama doesn’t run ads like this. It certainly isn’t because he’s got media advertising people who haven’t thought of it!
    They have to anticipate what the reaction will be.
    Unless we can eliminate corporate media bias in America Democrats have a profound disadvantage. Republicans can accuse them of being traitors and Frenchmen and no Democrat can respond with anything even slightly controversial, without being subjected to endless criticism.
    They are playing it safe by attacking McCain’s policies and suggesting that he is “out of touch.”

    Reply
  5. montanadave on

    This strategy is exactly what we must do. Please let your readers know if anyone picks it up. I’d like to contribute money to that effort. Thank you!

    Reply

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