Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Meta-Messaging: "I Play Nice With Others"

Jerome Armstrong's post this morning hinted at the biggest danger facing Democrats in the likely McCain-Obama general election match up: both candidates will be using the same overarching themes and narratives throughout the campaign. As he notes,
I haven't seen much of a dent being put into McCain's core brand (war hero, reformer, maverick) to date...If McCain is able to leverage that into becoming a "change Republican" he'll have done what Matzzie says, which is pointed out in the above examples: "Sometimes being the first person to adopt a message isn't the winner--your opponent can hijack the dialog in the media and turn it to his advantage."
This misses, however, the other massive overlap between their messages: both lay claim to the mantle of bi-partisanship, of being able to bring people together despite their differences to work out functioning compromises. For Obama, this is encapsulated by his theme of "Unity," whereas for McCain, its in his branding as a "Maverick," as distinct from the ideological, far-right Republicans. As one Republican consultant told the NY Times, "I think that by rook or by crook or by providence or just dumb luck, we nominated the one guy who continually outpolls the Republican brand."
John Heilemann of New York Magazine noted this exact problem in February, quoting Wellesley political scientist Marion Just's summarry of both Democrats' meta-narratives:
"Clinton's meta-narrative," she says, "is that she'll do anything to win; she can't be trusted, she's ethically challenged; she's manipulative, calculating, and programmed." Obama's meta-narrative is decidedly otherwise. "It's the same, in a way, as John McCain's," says Just. "He's authentic, honest, free of taint. Then you add in new, charismatic, and an agent of change."
Heilemann concluded, however, by noting that many of the tactics used by Obama in the primary election wouldn't work against Republicans in the general. He was able to avoid discussing his past drug use, for example, by having surrogates from his campaign attack the Clinton's for any mention of the topic, while decrying "negative politics." This worked in the primary election because it fed into the public's established image of Clinton, yet this won't be the case in a general election match up against McCain.

Rather, what happened in North Carolina, where two Democrats were attacked in commercials that linked them to Obama, and through Obama to Reverend Wright, is likely to foreshadow the next few months. Candidates and political organizations that McCain has no direct control over will viciously attack Obama, McCain will officially denounce them with a knowing wink, and the ads will keep airing, both as paid advertisements and as topics du jour on the cable news channels. McCain will thus get two for the price of one: he'll benefit from the attacks being out there, but he'll simultaneously be able to take credit for taking the high road, which the press will happily cede to him because it plays into his established image. Just look at Slate's coverage of the NC ads:

Today, the North Carolina Republican Party unveiled a new ad criticizing two gubernatorial candidates for endorsing Barack Obama, who, thanks to his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is "just too extreme for North Carolina." But before they even announced it, John McCain had sent a letter to the state GOP chair asking the party not to air it: "The television advertisement you are planning to air degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats. In the strongest terms, I implore you to not run this advertisement."
It didn't work. Despite pleas from both McCain and the RNC, the state party will still run the ad.
But the fact that McCain tried matters. One of the strongest of Hillary Clinton's dwindling set of arguments is that Obama will be vulnerable to GOP attacks in the general election. Between Wright and "bitter" and the flag pin, he has already given them enough fodder for three elections' worth of attack ads. So if McCain has decided not to make an issue of Wright, that's a big deal. Presumably that means other, equally tenuous lines of attack would also be off limits, too.
Now keep in mind that McCain is no innocent when it comes to exploiting gaffes. He's on the record calling Obama's "bitter" comment "elitist." (Although many would argue those comments are fair game.) And it's possible McCain realizes he doesn't have to exploit something like Wright--that the damage is done.
But if you're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, this could bode well for future campaign civility.
This will all be exacerbated by McCain's ability to tout his bipartisan bona fides. While McCain supporters will be able to point to McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, and McCain's leadership in the Gang of Fourteen's Supreme Court compromise, Obama will have a harder time pointing to concrete examples of his ability to actually exercise cross-party leadership (and how can we forget the Hardball interview of flustered Obama-supporter Kirk Watson, who couldn't provide Chris Matthews with a single legislative accomplishment by Obama) . Notably, Obama backed out of working with McCain himself on an ethics bill, as detailed here by The New Republic.

If (when?) McCain and Obama face off in the general election, the central issue will be who, in the publics mind, can plausibly claim the mantle of reform and change. In this battle, McCain will be a much tougher opponent for Obama than many expect him to be.

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