McCain’s Use of the Race Card

Joe Trippi (via Marc Ambinder) has an astute comment on how John McCain managed to get race into the campaign while appearing to take the high road to those who aren’t paying close attention to what McCain has been pulling:

It appears to me that the McCain campaign may be executing a classic “Race? Not me!” campaign.

The past 24 hours reflect exactly how to pull it off with nary a fingerprint that matters.

First you help inject race into the campaign and raise its focus as an issue (as the McCain campaign did yesterday with a little door opening from Obama himself).

Second – this unleashes energy and anger in the African American community (energy that often the African American candidate, Obama, can not control).  Leaders like James Clyburn take to the airwaves – and cable channels have two African Americans debate who is or isn’t raising race.   In any case black faces dominate the cable airwaves and some of those faces are angry.

Third – McCain then appears to speak in front of an all black audience.  White swing voters think “see, he isn’t racist”.  And if the crowd applauds so much the better, if it boos him for tactics real or imagined white swing voters see a white guy “who is at least trying” and angry blacks who are not being duly appreciative – either way it isn’t good for Obama.

Ever since McCain’s NAACP speech that seemed to me to be directed at white swing voters and not at African Americans I have believed that the McCain campaign is adept at understanding how to raise race as an issue and use it to its advantage.  Is a pattern emerging?

It was actually a smart move politically from McCain to respond to Obama as he did on race. While race has been used against Obama from many sources, from the Clinton campaign to conservative email attacks, the McCain campaign had not been able to openly use race until now. They needed an opening to bring race into the campaign while still maintaining the ability to deny doing so. Melissa McEwan describes this as the political equivalent of blowing a dog whistle writing, “As a literal dog whistle emits a pitch that only dogs can hear, a political dog whistle sends a message that only a particular constituency will hear (or intuitively understand).”

Such is the case with John McCain’s campaign advert conflating Barack Obama’s candidacy and person with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears (which can be viewed here). On its face, it’s an obvious editorial on Obama’s intelligence and competency, as his image is juxtaposed with two women alleged to be airheads while the voiceover intones: “Is he ready to lead?” And naturally there is an element of commentary on whether he is undeserving and entitled, with which Hilton and Spears are routinely charged. Famous for no reason, just a pretty face, the ad implies.

But loitering below the ostensibly substantive critique is something more nefarious. It’s no coincidence that it wasn’t the vacuous tabloid fixture Spencer Pratt or the “American Idol” punchline Sanjaya Malakar who appear in the advert – and it’s not because they’re not famous enough. For it was also not Scarlett Johansson chosen for the advert, who famously supports him, has campaigned with him, and whose twin brother works for him, despite her being arguably as recognizable as Hilton and Spears – and it’s not because she’s not young, blonde, or beautiful enough.

It because neither Pratt, nor Malakar, nor Johansson have personas that are the perfect combination of no brains, no talent, and all slut.

Obama, dog whistles the ad, hitting old racists in the sweet spot, could fuck these white girls – it’s practically a Democratic tradition … JFK, Clinton, heck even Carter lusted in his heart – and we don’t want that, now, do we?

It recalls the despicable “bimbo ad” used against black senate candidate Harold Ford in Tennessee, in which a white actress was hired to claim she’d met Ford at a Playboy party and asked the candidate to “call me,” playing on deeply-ingrained and ancient biases about interracial sex. But the difference between the “bimbo ad” (which was also a Republican production) and the McCain advert is that the former was explicit in its miscegenation message, whereas the latter is more, well, dog-whistly. And its deliberate obliqueness has set in motion a series of events that’s all too familiar to feminists, LGBTQI activists, civil rights activists, and various other social justice advocates.

The dog whistle piques them with something the average person won’t see as bigoted, but that the constituency for which they advocate (and/or of which they’re a part) will expect them to call out, because they instantly spy it and recognize it for what it is; they’ve heard the tune of that particular string being plucked their whole lives. Then whoever calls it out is marginalized as a hysteric, over-reactionary, looking to get offended, etc.

And that’s exactly how the game has played out here. McCain piques Obama and his constituency, Obama responds, McCain and the rightwing accuse Obama of playing the race card, his opponents unleash their new favorite battle cry: “You can’t criticize Obama without being called a racist.” Clockwork.

Josh Marshall more briefly sums up the strategy:

Let’s see how this works. McCain runs his Britney/Paris ad on the alleged but improbable basis that they’re the #2 and #3 celebs in the world, according to Rick Davis. McCain camp seizes on Obama statement that Obama has made multiple times before, accuses him of playing “race card”. Now McCain repeats Race Card, Race Card, Race Card a hundred times.

McCain has made the strategic decision that he can only win the election on the basis of Obama as friend of terrorists, unpatriotic suspicious outsider and radical, black guy who’s really more a flashy showbiz star (call it playing the Diddy card) than someone with the heft to be president. He’s probably right. That’s his only chance. And it may work.

While much of the media has gone along with uncritically reporting McCain’s charges, The New York Times was not fooled:

We know that operatives in modern-day presidential campaigns are supposed to say things that everyone knows are ridiculous — and to do it with a straight face.

Still, there was something surreal, and offensive, about today’s soundbite from the campaign of Senator John McCain.

The presumptive Republican nominee has embarked on a bare-knuckled barrage of negative advertising aimed at belittling Mr. Obama. The most recent ad compares the presumptive Democratic nominee for president to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton — suggesting to voters that he’s nothing more than a bubble-headed, publicity-seeking celebrity.

The ad gave us an uneasy feeling that the McCain campaign was starting up the same sort of racially tinged attack on Mr. Obama that Republican operatives ran against Harold Ford, a black candidate for Senate in Tennessee in 2006. That assault, too, began with videos juxtaposing Mr. Ford with young, white women.

Mr. Obama called Mr. McCain on the ploy, saying, quite rightly, that the Republicans are trying to scare voters by pointing out that he “doesn’t look like all those other Presidents on those dollar bills.’’

But Rick Davis, Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, had a snappy answer. “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck,” he said. “It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.’’

The retort was, we must say, not only contemptible, but shrewd. It puts the sin for the racial attack not on those who made it, but on the victim of the attack.

It also — and we wish this were coincidence, but we doubt it — conjurs up another loaded racial image.

The phrase dealing the race card “from the bottom of the deck” entered the national lexicon during the O.J. Simpson saga. Robert Shapiro, one of Mr. Simpson’s lawyers, famously declared of himself, Johnny Cochran and the rest of the Simpson defense team, “Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.”

It’s ugly stuff. How about we leave Britney, Paris, and O.J. out of this — and have a presidential campaign?

Evolve From the History Channel

After having series based upon fluff topics from UFOs to Bigfoot, the History Channel is evolving with a new series entitled Evolve. (Unfortunately I do not see it listed on History HD). They aren’t being swayed by the attempts of the religious right to deny evolutionary biology. Here is their description of the first episode:

They are one of evolution’s most useful and prevalent inventions. Ninety five percent of living species are equipped with eyes and they exist in many different forms. Learn how the ancestors of jellyfish may have been the first to evolve light-sensitive cells. Discover how dinosaur’s evolved eyes that helped them become successful hunters. Finally, learn how primates evolved unique adaptations to their eyes that allowed them to better exploit their new habitat, and how the ability to see colors helped them find food.

The Panda’s Thumb was impressed with the show, writing, “a few minor bio-gaffes, for the most part the show was excellent. There was no hand-wringing over offending creationists; instead, the show stayed right on the science.” P.Z. Myers has some criticism from a hard science viewpoint but is happy that, “It was unabashedly pro-evolution, too, not giving a second to the silly stories we get from creationists.”

Independents and Negative Campaigning

Whenever anyone speaks of the views of independents it must be taken with a grain of salt as the independent label applies to a wide variety of people who vary both in their views and in their interest in politics. John Avlon is not really speaking for all independents, but he does have one perspective as author of Independent Nation. In an interview with CNN, Avalon warns that McCain is playing a risky game with his negative ads:

Q: How does the negative campaigning play with independent voters?

Avlon: Independent voters are very sensitive to when politics takes a negative turn. And you know it’s August, and the heat’s turning up on the campaign trail, and so is the rhetoric.

But candidates need to be very careful, because hypocrisy is the unforgivable sin in politics. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have campaigned as being a break from the politics of personal destruction we’ve seen in the past. So, whenever the campaign takes a negative turn, independent voters notice, and they’ll punish the candidate that takes it too far.

Q: So negative campaigning doesn’t work for independent voters?

Avlon: No. … The reason [independent voters] are independent is they’re reacting against the extremes on both sides. They want to see an end to this split-screen politics. They want to see people who put patriotism ahead of partisanship and the national interests ahead of special interests. That’s what the independent voters want.

And both candidates so far have been pretty attuned to that. But this is going to be the real test.

Q: According to a study of political commercials by the University of Wisconsin, a third of McCain’s television ads have actually been negative attacks on Barack Obama. The study also found that 90 percent of Barack Obama’s television ads don’t even mention McCain. Is this a risky strategy for John McCain?

Avlon: Isn’t that interesting? Yes. You know, John McCain is walking a fine line here because a lot of his credibility with independents comes from the fact that he’s always stayed above partisan gutter-ball politics. He’s always criticized those folks who’ve indulged in that, especially on the Republican side, in the past.

So, while [McCain] needs to play offense and define Barack Obama … Barack Obama is focused really on a larger target, the American people.

While I agree with Avalon in his criticism of McCain’s negative campaign, there are some points where I do disagree with this interview. I disagree with making a blanket statement that negative campaigning does not work with independents or that independents are independent for any specific reason. Many independents are, as Avalon states, independent because of a reaction against the extremes and against the negative campaigns of the past. Other independents have not committed to either party because of lacking sufficient knowledge of politics to choose based upon the beliefs of the parties. Some independents will be turned off by McCain’s increasingly negative campaign while such tactics will work for others. The challenge for Obama is to repeat the success he had against Clinton when she decided to run a negative campaign and turn this to his advantage.

Besides disagreeing with a general characterization of all independents as being similar, I also disagree with another premise of this interview which is seen in much of the campaign coverage. The real question should not be whether campaigning is negative, but whether it fails to be fair and  honest. As Howard Kurtz puts it, McCain is employing the lowest common denominator. Obama is going easy on them in calling McCain’s dishonest attacks “cynical.”

Negative campaigning based upon an honest disagreement with one’s opponent is fair game. At least before he flip-flopped on Iraq, it would have been fair for McCain to criticize Obama for wanting to leave Iraq before he believed we could, and it was fair for Obama to criticize McCain’s support remaining in Iraq for one hundred years. What should be opposed is not negative campaigning based upon disagreements, but campaigning based upon distorting the views of one’s opponent and basing the attacks on irrelevant points rather than issues as McCain has been doing recently.

Failure to understand this point has contributed to some of the disagreements between Clinton supporters and other Democrats. Many Democrats decided to back Obama in protest over the “negative” campaign that Clinton ran. The real problem was not simply being negative, but that Clinton’s campaign was dishonest in her portrayal of Obama’s views and the manner in which she resorted to nonsense attacks which had no business in a presidential campaign. Many Clinton supporters failed to understand this distinction and therefore complained that Obama was also running a negative campaign, citing cases in which Obama criticized Clinton’s stands on the issues. They created a false equivalency between Obama criticizing Clinton’s support for the war and support for mandates, which are legitimate issues, and the manner in which Clinton campaigned based upon ads and mailers which attacked Obama by distorting his views and statements.

Obama won the Democratic nomination partially by bringing in many independent voters who were upset with the way in which politics was conducted but members of both parties. Such independents do not see a distinction between the dishonest tactics used by Karl Rove for the Republicans and the same dishonest tactics when used by Hillary Clinton. Such independents will also help Obama in his campaign against John McCain. The difference is that it is primarily the more knowledgeable independents who vote in primaries, while the low-information independents who might be swayed by negative campaigning will also be turning out in a general election campaign. While McCain’s tactics are deplorable regardless of their efficacy, we cannot be certain that such negative and dishonest campaigning will fail to work for him.