Playing the Talkers

EJ Dionne wonders why August has been so bad for Democrats over the years, and I answer plainly; August is a political dead area where there’s very little for pundits, columnists, and talking heads on cable to talk about, and Republicans are better at manipulating that than Democrats. So whereas the media is usually unfriendly to negative ads, in August they’re just desperate for something to comment on endlessly, otherwise they’d have to go do jouranlisty things, that it gets a pass. So Republicans roll out their most incendiary attacks in August to placate the talking heads.

The real question is whether or not it works, and frankly I don’t really think there’s much evidence that it does. The media engages in a lot of post dated analysis to explain why things happened, and that generally includes giving more weight to campaigns than they deserve. Take the instantly infamous swiftboating campaign. It’s almost reflexively held as true that the Swiftboaters beat John Kerry. But this assumes, above all else, that Kerry’s military service was a trump card without the Swiftboat campaign, and I see no reason to believe that. Afterall, Bill Clinton was a draft dodger, and he beat two bona-fide war heroes from arguably the most popular war in the history of the United States. And not since Kennedy have we elected a non-incumbent (throwing then incumbent VP Bush 41 into the incumbent category for a second) with a truly stellar record of heroism in war. Indeed, it seems to me that the more likely answer is pretty simple; the war and foreign policy were a top concern, but Iraq hadn’t yet hit its worst point, situations elsewhere hadn’t really exploded yet, and Kerry decided to base the rationale for his being better than Bush in the area on a concept (past military service) that voters didn’t really care much about. And it didn’t help that Kerry, and Edwards even moreso, came off as incredibly uncomfortable talking about foreign policy issues. So at the end of the day, Bush seemed like the deeper choice on foreign policy.

So I guess the big question is what does Obama do in the fall to avoid falling into the same trap, and increasingly I think the watershed is going to be the debates. Obama needs to be forceful in a way that, frankly, we haven’t seen him so far. He needs to vigourously and directly defend his policies, and he needs to press McCain. The trick is doing this in a high browed way.

My suggestion is simple; when McCain starts to lie about Obama’s policies, Obama needs to say as much. It’s hard to look tough if you let your opponent tell outright lies abut you with you standing next to him. More to the point, when taxes come up, Obama should look right at the camera at say plainly, “if you make more than $250k, you’ll be paying more taxes, but if you make less than $250k, you’ll get a bigger tax cut under my plan than you will under Senator McCain’s.” From then on, any assertion to the contrary by McCain should be called what it is, a lie. Obama should also press McCain’s lack of understanding on the issues by challenging his simplistic assertions. McCain will inevitablty talk about cutting spending to balance the budget, and focus on “pork” and earmarks. But as most informed observers know, that’s a very small portion of the deficit, and an even smaller portion if you factor in McCain’s proposed tax cuts. So when McCain makes the claim, Obama should make the point, and ask McCain what other spending he’s going to cut. Will he significantly cut Medicare and Social Security benefits? Federal education spending? Defense spending? If he answers yes, then he’s taking a very unpopular position on national television with the entire media paying extremely close attention. If he rules it out, then he’s basically blown up his old rhetoric, and he comes off as pandering, which is the opposite of the “straight-talk” brand so crucial to McCain’s political life. I’d also suggest really pressing McCain on his go-to statement that he’ll veto any bill with earmarks in it, by testing it’s reach. Would McCain veto his own cap-and-trade proposal if earmarks come attached? How about a Medicare funding bill? Or, perhaps the best route, would McCain go so far as to veto a bill funding American troops in combat if it comes attached with earmarks? Obviously he’s going to have trouble saying “yes,” especially to the latter, and will again come off like a flippant panderer who doesn’t understand what he’s saying.

The upside to this is that the media has never really taken any sort of action like this with McCain in the past. As such, he’s not used to defending his simplistic, unrealistic pronouncements, and I seriously doubt he’s even given any thought to how he might answer questions about their validity in the real world. So, if pressed, I’d say odds are that McCain will basically spend the entire debate fumbling for some sort of working answer, looking totally lost about the details of his own, supposedly long held, positions, and will almost certainly make an inevitable gaffe.

 And, if we get really lucky, that famous McCain temper might make an appearance.