Despite John McCain’s best and most melodramatic efforts, the presidential prize has been slipping further and further from his grasp. It is now clear that his Hail Mary pass to Sarah Palin is not helping him to close the gap. Obama’s lead in the national polls is now three times larger than it was in the days preceding the national conventions. With now only one month to go, and with his Hail Mary arsenal depleted, it seems all but certain that the only thing left in the bag is a concerted negative swift-boat smear campaign. It’s a trick that has worked well for the Republicans going back to the elder Bush, and surely it will be tried again.
More often than not, Democrats lose the Presidential prize by failing to effectively and aggressively counter Republican smear campaigns. In order to avoid that fate, it’s important to be prepared to counter the smears everywhere, from the top of the ticket down to the grass roots.
Here, I offer a primer on what are some of the likely smear topics that will be pushed during McCain’s hour of desperation. All of these have been trial-ballooning for months, and many will probably find themselves combined together into relentless campaigns both in mainstream media and viral media. The purpose of this list is to provide a handy one-stop reference.
UPDATE: As predicted, McCain is taking the gloves off. Read below about how McCain would try to paint Obama as a black Al Capone, and compare that to McCain’s prepared remarks where he says “I don’t need lessons about telling the truth to American people. And were I ever to need any improvement in that regard, I probably wouldn’t seek advice from a Chicago politician.”
Obama is a socialist.
True, if you consider anyone left of Ronald Reagan to be a socialist. Otherwise, false.
Generally, Americans have a caricature-like understanding of socialism, framed by the libertarian nature of the country’s beginnings and the trauma associated with the decades-long cold war waged against the totalitarian regimes of the USSR and communist China. In reality, there are many variations on the spectrum from laissez-faire free market capitalism to totalitarian socialism. History has proven that either extreme is unworkable. The prevailing models in western European countries include variations on democratic socialism, which have enjoyed varying levels of economic successes and little in the way of lost freedoms. The American model is considerably to the right of the European models. Obama’s views would appear to be somewhere in between, but generally not outside of the historical range of American economic policies.
For this discussion, we adopt the conventional caricature-like definition of socialism.
- A caricature-socialist would advocate extensive wealth redistribution through the tax system. Obama does not advocate this. Obama advocates relatively modest adjustments to the existing tax system, reversing some of the recent tax breaks provided to corporations and the wealthiest Americans, while retaining the core structure of the tax system.
- A caricature-socialist would provide a government managed and regulated health care system. Obama does not advocate this. Obama advocates a universal health care approach but not a government regulated health care system. Obama’s plan uses the existing private insurance infratructure, but modifies the way that system is funded. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out that this is a tried and true scare tactic dating back to Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of Medicare as “socialized medicine” in 1962. Read the fascinating story here.)
- A caricature-socialist would advocate government ownership of major industrial sectors. Obama does not advocate this. He does advocate a mix of reformed regulations to promote fair trade, keeping jobs in the United States, and encouraging environmental responsibility, but he has not advocated government takeover of any industries. The largest government takeover in recent memory, the Wall Street bailout plan, was advocated by George W. Bush and is a direct result of years of Republican-sponsored irresponsible deregulations. Obama advocates responsible regulation of industries that are susceptible to market manipulation that can damage American security and stability.
- A caricature-socialist would advocate against the ownership of private property. Obama does not advocate this. He advocates government action to protect home ownership. Obama also advocates tax relief to encourage small business ownership, and supports public-private partnerships to incubate new businesses.
Obama’s positions are consistent with an American mainstream liberal interpretation of a market economy. Those who would paint him as a caricature-socialist are wrong. Those who would prefer a more European model of democratic socialism will be disappointed as well.
Obama is a racist.
False. There are those who would paint Obama as a white-hating racist. No evidence from Obama’s statements or actions support such a claim. The only evidence suggested is indirect “guilt by association”, implying that Obama has associated with people who may have said or done things with racial motivations. This is an extremely weak viewpoint. All Americans know or have known people who express or have expressed racist viewpoints or opinions. A person cannot be held responsible for the words and deeds of another.
In fact, it is preposterous on the surface to suggest that Obama is racist against white Americans. Half of his family is black, and half white. His mother was white. He was raised by his white grandparents. There is no evidence that he holds hatred for half of his family, and in fact he was much closer to his mother than his father. His stepfather is Indonesian and he spent time in diverse schools in Indonesia and Hawaii. Constant exposure to diversity is the best immunization against racism. His public statements and actions have been universally positive words of hope and reconciliation to people of all races and backgrounds.
There are many smear emails already making the rounds. One claims the following quote from Obama’s book Dreams From My Father: “I found a solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against my mother’s race.” This smear is simply a lie. There is no such quote in the book.
Another smear says that the book states “I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.” This false quote is an intentionally misleading rewording from the book. This hateful smear suggests that in the struggle between Muslim terrorists and Americans, Obama will stand with the terrorists. Of course this is absurd. What he was saying was the opposite – that he will stand with Americans, regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity. Here is a broader excerpt: “In the wake of 9/11, my meetings with Arab and Pakistani Americans, for example, have a more urgent quality, for the stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging. They have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific assurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.”
Another smear is that Michelle Obama is on tape referring to “whitey”. Here is the Obama statement on this particular smear:
On May 30th, Rush Limbaugh gave specific details about a video tape supposedly showing Michelle Obama using a tasteless racial slur, something an accomplished professional and loving mother like Michelle would never say. Proven sleazemeister Roger Stone went on Fox News two days later to make a similar claim.
What did Michelle actually say on that video? Nothing — there is no video. The entire thing was completely fabricated by people like Limbaugh and Stone who want to take Michelle and Barack down. In fact, neither Michelle nor Barack has ever said anything remotely like the stuff Limbaugh, Stone, and the rest made up for their fantasy tape.
Obama hates America.
False. This is another smear without any basis in fact, perpetrated with innuendo of the “guilt by association” variety, or suggestions that Obama refuses to say the Pledge of Allegience. There is no truth to any of it. All objective evidence of Obama’s actions, positions, and statements suggests that he is a patriot who loves America and wants to make it a better place for the next generation. Remember how the smear merchants attacked Obama for not wearing a flag pin? Yet those same smear merchants were silent about McCain not wearing a flag pin at the first presidential debate. It is typical of the smear merchants to focus on such non-issues when it suits them, and ignore the same issues when it works against them.
Obama has shady associations.
False and/or misleading. This smear attempts to make Obama guilty by associating him with people who have disagreeable pasts.
This will probably be a primary focus of the pending negative smear campaigns. Individuals who may be brought up in smear campaigns include:
- Jeremiah Wright – Obama’s relationship with the pastor of his church, who Obama likened to a wacky uncle, has already been well publicized. Obama has never been linked to any of Wright’s controversial statements or beliefs, and Obama has forcefully rebuked the paster for his controversial statements. He has said that Wright’s controversial views bear no resemblence to his own, and that contention is borne out by the full history of Obama’s activities. Obama said, “I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country.” Certainly, Obama’s association with Wright is no more disturbing, and arguably less so, than McCain’s naked pandering to religious fanatics such as John Hagee, who said Hitler was fulfilling God’s will. Obama rebuked Wright, while McCain gratefully accepted Hagee’s endorsement. More frightening still is Sarah Palin’s religious connections. Unlike either Obama or McCain, Palin is a devotee of a fanatical Christian sect that adheres to “End Times” concepts and believes their mission is to set up Alaska as a refuge for Christian warriors fighting against literal demonic beings that wield swords in their regional dominions. She has had witches exorcised from her body, and is on video as having stated that the war in Iraq is a mission from God.
- William Ayers – an ad funded by Swift Boat moneyman Harold Simmons attempts to tie Obama to 1960’s militant radical Ayers, now a 64 year old professor of Education at the University of Illinois. Obama’s connection to Ayers is quite minimal, having each served on the same board for a charitable organization. Anyone who has had the experience of serving on such a board realizes that the relationship among board members is professional and not personal. Board members discuss issues such as promotional activities to raise money for the charity. There is no reason to believe that Obama would engage Ayers on any other level as they have a generational difference and no known common interests. For his part, Obama is dismissive of the relationship, having deplored Ayers for having “engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old”. He has confirmed that he has had no meaningful connection to Ayers and has not even spoken to him for three years. UPDATE 10/6/08: As predicted in this article, the McCain campaign, using Palin as an attack dog, today attempted to smear Obama for “palling around” with Ayers. As there is no evidence to suggest Obama and Ayers have been “pals” or have spent any personal time together at all, the Palin attack can be seen only as a baseless and desperate lie. CNN debunked the Palin assertion.
- Tony Rezko – Obama did have a relationship with this now disgraced businessman. Factcheck.org concluded “Obama has a relationship with Rezko that dates back many years, but there’s no indication Obama did anything improper … Obama hasn’t been associated with him since his indictment for wire fraud, bribery, money laundering and attempted extortion, and Obama donated all of the disgraced businessman’s previous campaign contributions to charity.” Much has also been made of a real estate transaction that by all evidence was not improper. This has also been debunked by Factcheck.org, which found that Obama was the high bidder on a property, and that the 10 foot strip of land of the adjacent property purchased by Obama from Rezko was purchased at a fair price. In short, the story has no legs, but it sounds exciting for smear merchants because Rezko is under unrelated indictments. They appear to be hoping Rezko himself will smear Obama in an October Surprise in return for a reduction in the charges against him.
- William Daley – one of the smear approaches is to smear Obama by association to Chicago’s historic reputation of political corruption. William Daley, the mayor’s brother, is a minor economic advisor for Obama. Obama’s more significant economic advisors include Former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, former National Economic Adviser Gene Sperling, former chairpersons of the Council of Economic Advisers Laura Tyson and Joseph Stiglitz, former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker, and Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett. In any case, William Daley has never been accused of any wrongdoing, nor has his brother the mayor. It is only the historic Chicago name of Daley that is being held up to create fear from the smear. As we know, Obama detractors are fond of creating fear from names (Obama = Osama, Hussein = Saddam). It is nonsense.
- Emil Jones – this Illinois state Senate leader is being identified in smear ads as Obama’s “political godfather.” Sounds very scary and mob-like. However, Emil Jones hasn’t been charged with or even seriously accused of misdeeds. Jones may or may not have his own baggage, but he is not under any investigation, and in any case there is nothing to suggest any negative connection with Obama. Nothing here folks. Move along.
- Rod Blagojevich – the Illinois governor is under various investigations for misdeeds. However, he has no connection to Obama. Smear ads identify him as “his governor”, which is technically true. George Bush is “my president”, but I hardly think that should tarnish me. Obama shunned Blagojevich at the Democratic National Convention, while his gubernatorial competitors were given showcase speeches. Even Karl Rove dismissed the issue on Fox News, saying “Blagojevich only has the most tenuous ties to Obama.”
- Franklin Raines – former CEO of Fannie Mae, is being disingenuously connected to Obama in a McCain smear ad attempting to capitalize on the mortgage crisis and tie it to Obama. The ad intones, “Obama has no background in economics. Who advises him? The Post says it’s Franklin Raines, for ‘advice on mortgage and housing policy’. Shocking. Under Raines, Fannie Mae committed ‘extensive financial fraud.’ Raines made millions. Fannie Mae collapsed. Taxpayers? Stuck with the bill”. The truth is somewhat less “shocking”. Raines has said “I am not an adviser to Barack Obama, nor have I provided his campaign with advice on housing or economic matters.” The Obama campaign has stated it had “neither sought nor received” advice from Raines “on any matter.” The McCain smear relies on a quote from an article by a Post reporter which has been mischaracterized. Raines, who retired from Fannie Mae four years ago, said he got a couple of calls from the Obama campaign asking him a couple of questions on “oh, general housing, economy issues”, nothing to do with mortgage foreclosures or Fannie Mae issues. Once again, there is nothing of substance to this story, just innuendo trying to associate Obama with the Wall Street meltdown while diverting attention from the fact that it is McCain’s lifelong devotion to the Republican god of deregulation that is the ultimate source of the meltdown. Meanwhile, the McCain campaign has unsavory ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Staffers include Aquiles Suarez, former Fannie Mae lobbyist, Charlie Black, former Freddie Mac lobbyist, Wayne Berman and John Green who lobbied on behalf of Fannie Mae, Arther B. Culvahouse Jr., who earned money from and lobbied for Fannie Mae. “In addition, Politico reports that at least 20 McCain fundraisers have lobbied for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, pocketing at least $12.3 million over the last nine years.” This is one of those cases of “He who smelt it, dealt it.”
The use of scary ads about “shady Chicago politicians”, tying into the Daley name, and using words like “godfather” and “cloud of suspicion” is swift-boating in its creepiest form. It is essentially completely devoid of content, but for a willing audience it will conjure visions of a black Al Capone moving into the White House.
It’s also a long-standing Republican tactic to trash whole regions where they have no chance of winning. It’s a promotion of regional warfare analogous to class warfare. They have no chance of winning the west coast, Illinois, or the northeast, so they have generated memes about “west coast / hollywood elites”, “eastern media elites”, and now “shady Chicago political mobs”. Yet, these same people would howl in protest if they were derided as a bunch of backwoods redneck inbred crackerboys.
Obama is an organizer and trainer for ACORN.
False. The smear machine is working hard to trash ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), and by association, Obama. For example, Michelle Malkin states:
If you don’t know what ACORN is all about, you better bone up. This left-wing group takes in 40 percent of its revenues from American taxpayers — you and me — and has leveraged nearly four decades of government subsidies to fund affiliates that promote the welfare state and undermine capitalism and self-reliance, some of which have been implicated in perpetuating illegal immigration and encouraging voter fraud. A new whistleblower report from the Consumer Rights League documents how Chicago-based ACORN has commingled public tax dollars with political projects.
Who in Washington will fight to ensure that your money isn’t being spent on these radical activities?
Don’t bother asking Barack Obama. He cut his ideological teeth working with ACORN as a “community organizer” and legal representative.
The ACORN smears originate from Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s Secretary of State and chair of the George Bush Ohio campaign in 2004, who was instrumental in using his position to systematically disenfranchise Democratic voters in Ohio, constributing directly to the reelection of the worst president in history.
These are the facts, according to the Obama campaign:
- Fact: Obama was never an ACORN community organizer.
- Fact: Obama was never an ACORN trainer and never worked for ACORN in any other capacity.
- Fact: ACORN was not part of Project Vote, the successful voter registration drive Obama ran in 1992.
In his capacity as an attorney, Obama represented ACORN in a successful lawsuit alongside the U.S. Department of Justice against the state of Illinois to force state compliance with a federal voting access law. For his work helping enforce the law, called “Motor Voter,” Obama received the IVI-IPO Legal Eagle Award in 1995.
Obama is a tax and spend liberal.
Perhaps, but if so, that is the lesser of the evils. Certainly Obama has proposed substantial spending programs, although he has stated that some of them would have to be curtailed thanks to the spending now being dumped into the Wall Street bailout. More to the point, calling a Democrat a tax-and-spender no longer has the clout that it once had. Now that we have experienced 12 years of Republican Congressional rule and 6 years of total Republican rule, one thing that is clear is that Republicans no longer can claim the high ground on fiscal responsibility. If there is anything worse than tax-and-spend, it is spend-and-spend-and-spend-and-spend, which has been the modus operandi for modern Republican rule. We are now suffering under the greatest economic crisis in recent history thanks to reckless tax policies and reckless spending policies that have been in the works since Ronald Reagan and reached full fruition under George W. Bush. John McCain, far from a maverick on this issue, has been a vocal proponent of these catastrophic policies.
Obama would argue that his spending programs will produce a net gain for the country. For example, spending on universal health care program will produce a more stable workforce and more predictable economic management. Spending on education will result in better worldwide competitiveness. Spending on science will result in better and more efficient technologies. Now, one can argue with the premise, but after a quarter century of failed experimentation with what George H.W. Bush called “voodoo economics”, resulting in a dying middle class, record debt, a vanishing industrial sector, and corporate owned media, and a lobbyist owned government, it’s difficult to argue that it isn’t time for a different approach.
In any case, the taxpayers deserve a more serious national discussion of what kind of country we want to have and how we mutually agree to pay for it. It’s time for punchlines like “tax and spend liberal” to die once and for all.
Obama will raise a white flag of surrender in Iraq.
False. The concept that Obama is a “surrender monkey” is not a new one, but the imagery of a white flag was introduced by Sarah Palin at the vice presidential debate, and no doubt will be used as a common fear monger talking point for the next month. But what does it mean, really? Obama has never talked of surrender, but rather of responsible withdrawal from Iraq. It is an approach supported not only by commanders on the ground, but by the Iraqi government, and now, even by President Bush. The word “surrender” in this context is as vapid and meaningless as the word “victory”. McCain says he knows how to win a war, but cannot define what it means to win this one. Indeed, the only war in which he participated directly is one where it is generally agreed the United States lost. By some measures, it is the only war in the history of the nation that the United States lost. So what does it mean to surrender in Iraq? We are not at war with Iraq or with any nation at this point. The war against Iraq ended with “Mission Accomplished” and with Saddam in a spider hole. We are, however, in armed conflict against an international terrorist web, including Al Queda. Obama advocates pressing the struggle against Al Queda at its central “front” on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is not a surrender, but rather a redeployment from one front to another. The McCain campaign has yet to voice a counterargument to this concept, instead falling back to empty slogans that promote fear.
Obama will keep America dependent on Arab oil and does not believe in American energy independence.
False. The McCain campaign’s faulty and short-sighted single-pronged approach to energy independence is built on drilling, drilling, and more drilling. Drilling by itself will not wean America from dependence on foreign oil, and in any case will have little short-term impact. Increased drilling legitimately may be one part of a broader strategy, but it is not a strategy by itself. True and long-lasting energy independence requires serious development of sustainable alternative energies. For example, there exists one form of energy that is infinitely abundent, cannot be wasted, will outlast the planet, is equally distributed across the earth, and is inherently clean: solar energy. Although today’s technologies are still in a crude and inefficient state, with serious development solar provides a path for the future that is economically stable, highly distributed, and secure. Nature has already proven that solar energy can be efficiently captured and stored, but we have yet to build comparable artificial capture and storage technologies. Even so, with current technology we have the ability to fuel all commuting vehicles with clean solar energy, and doing so would immediately and dramatically shift the global economic and security equation. There are many other important alternative energy sources that can provide key components of an energy strategy during the difficult transition period away from oil. The McCain campaign has no strategy and no vision on this subject, instead relying on simplistic slogans such as “Drill baby drill.” For all her alleged expertise in energy issues, Sarah Palin understands nothing other than fossil fuels, and even that knowledge appears to be shallow. She has said “I beg to disagree with any candidate who would say we can’t drill our way out of our problem.” Texas oil tycoon T Boone Pickens, a far greater expert on fossil fuel energy than Palin could ever hope to be, has specifically stated that “this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of“.
Obama does not understand the difference between strategy and tactics.
False. This audacious statement, made by McCain at the first presidential debate, is breathtaking for the reason that the exact opposite is true. John McCain has a very long track record in public service, but has never exhibited the slightest comprehension of the difference between strategy and tactics. He continuously refers to “the Surge” as a strategy. The Surge is a tactical plan toward achieving a strategic goal (albeit one that has not been clearly identified by the Bush administration). The Iraq conflict itself is a tactic (badly concieved) toward the goal of defeating terrorism. McCain proved his inability to understand the strategic goal by almost immediately supporting an attack on Iraq only days or weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and by being dismissive of efforts in Afghanistan. These are only a few examples. His approach to both domestic and international affairs has been, uniformly, either tactical or (worse), spontaneous without forethought, and never strategic. He has not articulated a broad vision for the country, or a strategic roadmap for achieving the vision. He has repeatedly advocated tactical moves that are disconnected from any clear strategy and vision.
Further evidence is his insistence that he is a “maverick”, which seems to mean he operates spontaneously without the confines of a strategy. The many melodramatic fits and starts in his campaign, such as his proclamation that “we are all Georgians”, the selection of Sarah Palin, the “suspension” of his campaign, the decision not to debate, the decision to debate after all, the decision to pull out of Michigan, and so on, are more manifestations of the same spontaneous and non-strategic framework that defines his life’s work.
Obama lacks the judgment to be President.
False. Repeatedly, Obama has shown wise judgment. As a few examples, Obama took the (at the time) politically courageous position that invading Iraq was a mistake of historic proportions that did not serve the strategic goal of destroying the 9/11 terrorist network. Obama showed excellent judgment in the choices he made in combating frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and wise judgment in managing an oustanding campaign apparatus. He showed wise judgment in his vice presidential selection. He showed wise judgment in his cool handling of the tricky politics surrounding the Wall Street meltdown.
Meanwhile, McCain has shown poor judgment again and again. He was among the first to call for an attack on Saddam Hussein following the 9/11 attacks, despite there being no connection between the two. As a staunch advocate of the pointless and unprovoked invasion of Iraq, he carries the blood of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the responsibility of allowing bin Laden to escape capture for 7 years. That kind of bad judgment should be disqualifying. He showed bad judgment early in his campaign, which nearly collapsed and had to be rebuilt. He showed bad judgment in wasting months between his de facto Republican win in February and his official acceptance at the Republican National Convention. During that interim time, while Obama was preoccupied with the fight to the finish against Hillary Clinton, McCain had ample time to prepare a devastating strategic and tactical plan and to vet his running mate options. Apparently, he chose to do almost nothing. He showed epic bad judgment in the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate on the basis of a single brief meeting, despite the fact that she is the most unqualified candidate in living memory. He showed bad judgment in announcing a suspension of his campaign (which he never actually implemented) so that he could insert himself into a process where he was not welcome or needed – the debate over Wall Street’s bailout. His intervention did not help and may well have hurt.
In summary, there is indeed a judgment gap between the two candidates, but in the opposite direction that the smears would indicate.
Obama lacks the character to be President.
False. There are a series of smear email campaigns varying on the theme that “character counts”. The implication, or outright claim, is that character is something McCain has but Obama lacks. McCain is spun in a positive light primarily on the basis of his military service and his stint as a POW. Obama is spun in different ways, such as through the guilt by association tactics described above.
Because character is largely a matter of opinion, there is no definitive right or wrong on this question. However, it’s at least fair to say that McCain has plenty of negative baggage on his side, not the least of which is his personal history as a troublemaker, poor student, a philanderer, a hothead with a short temper and nasty mouth, and his participation in the Keating 5 scandal leading to the massive taxpayer bailout of Savings and Loans. In the current campaign, his acquiesence and willing participation in unprovoked negative ads and smears does not speak well of his character.
For his part, the character attacks against Obama either amount to guilt by association or outright fabrications, as has been discussed above. All real, tangible, non-innuendo evidence indicates that (as an adult at least) Obama has exhibited character above reproach. He was an outstanding scholar, a community contributor, has every indication of being a loyal husband and devoted father, has developed tremendous respect across the spectrum, and has exhibited presidential demeanor, with the calmness and detachment necessary in a complex world.
Both sides are guilty of some amount of posturing and pandering, a seemingly unavoidable evil in the dirty world of politics.