[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]
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.