June 1, 2008
The Obama Way of Ending Divisiveness
When Barack Obama says he wants to end the divisiveness in politics, I believe him. When Obama says he wants to bring about unity, I believe him. When Obama says he wants to work for a new politics free from bitter partisanship, I believe him. When Obama says he wants to have vigorous debate, a robust discussion or a national dialogue to bring this about, I believe him -- to be lying.
Obama's strategy has been to orient the campaign around his greatest strength and advantage -- who could deliver the best speech -- and away from his greatest weakness -- his poor ability to answer questions about how he would deliver on any of its promises.
Obama and his Democratic opponents
Democrats have infamously proclaimed during the Bush administration that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Yet Obama has continuously sought to stifle any dissent aimed at him by labeling any criticism as a distraction, as divisive or as cynical. Although we are seeing a greater frequency of these claims, and more people are now noticing the breadth of issues with which Obama uses this tactic, stifling dissent was a strategy from the beginning of his campaign.
In his speech to the DNC Winter Meeting in February of last year, Obama laid out some of the ground rules he wanted to impose on the campaign.
Over the next year of a primary and the next two years leading to the election of the next president, the campaigns...(APPLAUSE)... the campaigns shouldn't be about making each other look bad, they should be about figuring out how we can all do some good for this precious country of ours. (APPLAUSE)
That's our mission.
And in this mission, our rivals won't be one another, and I would assert it won't even be the other party. It's going to be cynicism that we're fighting against.
Making Obama look bad is cynical. And cynicism is worse than even Republicans. Anyone criticizing Obama, and thereby engaging in cynicism would be judged as worse than Republicans.
Later in the same speech, Obama expanded the ground rules:
... for every attack ad that questions the character or honesty or patriotism of somebody, there are real patriots fighting and dying in Iraq whose families deserve to know how we plan to bring them home.
Questioning Obama's character or honesty or patriotism is a distraction. Anyone questioning Obama on these grounds would be judged as lacking in their support for the troops.
Obama has not set about setting up these restraints on his opponents simply because he doesn't want to be inconvenienced with such questions and criticisms. Obama clearly understands that his history, his associations, his decisions and actions are such that such questions and criticisms would be devastating to his campaign were they undertaken in earnest and robustly discussed and vigorously debated.
Obama does not want anyone to be able to question his character as it relates to having a 20 plus year relationship with his race-baiting pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He wants to prevent anyone from questioning his honesty when he repeatedly engages in dishonest double-talk like a dissembling pol as he changes his story about his relationship with indicted friend and political backer Antonin Rezko. Obama knows he must head off any questions of his patriotism because of his long relationship with an America-hating unrepentant domestic terrorist Bill Ayers.
Obama and the media
Obama understands that the primary means of limiting the questions for which he would otherwise be forced to answer is to create a media environment in which those questions are not asked.
Liberals, including the media have repeatedly attacked President Bush for making himself unavailable to the media in press conferences and other Q&A formats. Yet as Howard Kurtz described back in January, the Obama campaign has been "unusually insulated":
One moment of absurdity came Tuesday, when reporters on the press bus were asked to dial into a conference call in which Obama announced a congressman's endorsement -- even though the candidate was nearby and just as easily could have delivered the news in person to the bus captives. Obama answered a few questions, but reporters are generally placed on mute after they speak so there can be no follow-up.
Obama learned the wisdom of this strategy, or rather the folly of its absence, when he made himself available to reporters to answer questions about his relationship with Antonin Rezko, who is currently on trial for corruption. Irritated with the questions and unable to satisfy persistent reporters, Obama cut the news conference short, walking out and proclaiming, "'Guys, I mean come on. I just answered like eight questions." Obama more recently went on a 10 day stretch in which he held no press conferences. Frustrated with the lack of availability, a reporter tried to break Obama's silence by asking a question while he was eating breakfast. Obama again deployed the "chagrin defense", this time somewhat fomously, "Why can't I just eat my waffle?"
The Obama campaign seeks to restrict media access forcing them to react to his speeches and limiting unscripted interaction with the candidate himself. Because when the media reacts to his speeches, as evidenced by his "major speech on race in America" in March, which Obama gave in response to the revelations surrounding Reverend Wright's sermons, the media cheers, and swoons and practically struggles to avoid fainting.
And after Obama's major speech on race in America, the media began putting up the wall that would protect Obama from further questions about Reverend Wright. When Lanny Davis, a Clinton supporter, sought to put Hillary's comment that Wright would not have been her pastor in context, he described several of Wright's comments, at which point he was accused of "spreading the poison". When CNN anchor John Roberts interviewed Obama, he reassured the candidate that the entire network was a "Wright-free zone". Mission accomplished.
Obama and McCain
To date, Obama's strategy has been aimed primarily at his Democratic opponents, especially Hillary Clinton. But having moved from challenger, to front-runner, to now the presumptive Democratic nominee, Obama is spending more time engaging with the Republican nominee, John McCain. And the McCain campaign recognizes Obama's strategy of stifling dissent and co-opting the media to achieve it.
In his victory speech after winning North Carolina, Obama preemptively characterized the race ahead that McCain would run as pinning names and labels on him, as trying to distract voters from real issues, as pouncing on gaffes and associations and false controversies. He predicted that McCain would play on voters' fears and exploit differences, slicing and dicing the electorate by race and income.
Also in North Carolina, the Obama campaign put McCain on notice -- even agreeing with Obama that an issue was legitimate would be subject to the Obama strategy of being called divisive and distracting. When the Obama-Wright relationship blew up, John McCain assiduously avoided the topic, even at one point taking the North Carolina state Republican Party to task for using Wright in an ad. However, after Obama claimed Wright was a "legitimate political issue", McCain agreed with Obama that many voters would share Obama's view of it as legitimate. In response, the Obama campaign quickly reacted:
"By sinking to a level that he specifically said he'd avoid, John McCain has broken his word to the American people and rendered hollow his promise of a respectful campaign," said spokesman Hari Sevugan. "With each passing day, John McCain acts more and more like someone who's spent twenty-six years learning the divisive, distracting tactics of Washington. That's not the change that the American people are looking for."
Obama recently claimed that he was smeared by John McCain when McCain reiterated that it is clear that Hamas favors Obama for President. Obama then went further, claiming that it was a sign that McCain was "losing his bearings". In response, McCain senior advisor Mark Salter sent out a memo that included this characterization of Obama's efforts:
It is important to focus on what Senator Obama is attempting to do here: He is trying desperately to delegitimize the discussion of issues that raise legitimate questions about his judgment and preparedness to be President of the United States. [...]
Senator Obama is hopeful that the media will continue to form a protective barrier around him, declaring serious limits to the questions, discussion and debate in this race.
Senator Obama has good reason to think this plan will succeed, as serious journalists have written of the need for 'de-tox' to cure 'swooning' over Senator Obama, and others have admitted to losing their objectivity while with him on the campaign trail.
And McCain has good reason to worry. Obama's strategy has proven successful against Clinton, and the media show every sign of continuing it into the general election against McCain. His wife Michelle, an active campaigner and advisor, is now off limits in the Barack Obama campaign coverage rule book. But the ultimate test of this strategy, the ultimate judge of its success will only come at the ballot box in November, which remains an open question.
Between now and then, however, if Obama's strategy continues to be successful, the media will shield him from the tough questions and criticism. Because there is no bitter partisanship where there is no discussion of the issues, and there is no divisiveness without debate. Obama is not seeking a dialogue in this campaign to bring about unity; rather, a monologue. Obama wants you silent - unless you agree with him, or until enough people do that your voice is no longer heard.
Jeff Dobbs blogs at The Voice in My Head