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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Clinton victorious in Rovian attack; The 'National Security Advantage'

Hillary's recent victories in Ohio and Texas have been attributed to the Latino vote, which went 2-1 in Clinton's favor according to CNN. Latinos make up something like 30% of the Democrat electorate, a huge and rising demographic that will be a factor in the general election, even if their voting power will be more diluted. I'd talked on this blog about how race-oriented politics were a burgeoning subject of interest for political scientists.

Little study has also been made of how a minority candidate might repel other minority groups because, well, we've so rarely had minority candidates. Jesse Jackson's success early on in the 1988 Democratic Primary was the closest example, but the non-white demographic was smaller then.

The racial theory is that a black candidate--Obama--might create a negative impression in the Hispanic community. While controversial, the reaction of non-white races to non-white (or female) candidates is vital in understanding Democratic primary politics, where minority groups constitute a majority in many states. The 8% Asian, 14 % African American, and 15 % or so Latino proportions in the general population make minority voters a crucial component of the general electorate as well.

McCain castigated a Right wing demagogue from Cincinnati who verbally attacked Obama for having the middle name "Hussein". McCain has a non-white adopted girl, so he may be highly sensitive to any insults or slander that are potentially based on race. Some of McCain's concern could be practical politics considering the size of the non-white population. A sizeable chunk of the white electorate would be repulsed by even the faintest hint of racism. McCain is not going to stand for racism in his campaign if he should face Obama. This isn't to say 527 groups and the like won't try to use race as an issue to woo voters leery of non-whites ascending to positions of authority.

Struggling for its life, Clinton's campaign has resorted to some dirty tricks. In one ad, they darkened Obama's face, to make him look more black (see the pictures). Long before this campaign, someone sitting in some ad agency had figured out that darker complexions trigger racist sentiments. Jose Padilla, in photos taken in a Miami courtroom, looked considerably darker and more threatening.

Primary voters who waited until the last few days to decide also went in favor of Clinton. Much of the 12th hour sway might be the product of a now-famous Clinton TV commercial concerning a fictional 3 AM call to the White House.

Obama responded to that ad--which was widely seen as a stab at Obama's lack of experience--with one of his own, which replicated the other ad's 3 AM phone call premise.

Obama's reaction to the Clinton ad represented a look ahead into the kind of attacks that he might face from McCain, a man whose national security credentials far outweigh Clinton's. Obama's response to the ad may have pleased his constituents and given the impression that he was fighting back, but it also showed that Clinton's jab had left a mark--some emotional injury perhaps. Of course Obama was intellectually correct in saying his vote against invading Iraq (before he'd been elected to the Senate) was a better decision, but psychologically Clinton had succeeded in creating an impression that Obama was less capable of managing crisis.

The real choice to support Obama or not may have come down to electability. The Ohio vote was especially important because no Democratic Presidential candidate has gone on to win a national election without winning the primary in Ohio, a fact Hillary pointed out in her victory speech on Tuesday night.

As much as Obama would like to claim his string of victories as representing his general electability, many of the states he won will likely go Republican. Obama could say the same about Clinton's victory in Texas considering that the Lone Star State hasn't gone Democratic since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Discounting states that will almost certainly go Democratic like California and New York would cut into Hillary's vote count.

Obama's popularity among independents might be a huge factor in swing states. Obama could popularize his appeal among superdelegates at the convention--it appears neither candidate will emerge with a sufficient number of delegates prior to the convention--by claiming he could snag independents in the G.E.. Clinton could make the powerful claim that she can get the elderly to vote for her. The elderly are a vital segment of the population who appear in large numbers for elections, unlike the young, whose participation is circumspect. Motivating thousands of young people might be great long term plus for the Democrats, but Hillary could argue that her appeal to the elderly is more important winning this election.

The "National Security Advantage"

During the 2004 Election, consultants told Kerry to appear strong on national security. How best to show off your national security credentials is anyone's guess. Well, whatever his intent, Kerry seemed to present an image the opposite of what he tried to create, kind of like Michael Dukakis 1984 advertisement showing him in an Abrams M-1 battle tank, his helmeted head popping out of the turret making him look like a little beetle atop the mammoth war machine.

I can remember the Republican National Convention where delegates wore muti-colored or pink bandaids to commemorate Kerry's Purple Heart. Many in the audience also brought flip-flops to mock Kerry's supposed changes in positions over the years. The plan was to attack character. Never mind that the sitting war President had never fought in a war, and even been shunted out of the Texas Air National Guard just coincidentally after missing a physical that included a drug test.

Perception is what matters in politics. By destroying Kerry's image, thoroughly ridiculing the man, swift-boating, the critics can take away the positive image and darken it, turn it negative. Willie Horton, a furloughed prisoner in Massachusetts who went on to murder someone, was Dukakis' swift-boat. Unfortunately, Democrats suffer from the nobility of reason in their politics. This isn't to say Democrats can't fight dirty, but rather their more educated, rationale approach to politics is a real liability in understanding the appeal of the rude and crude in American politics. Image is everything; substance and positions are a distant second.

I read on needlenose.com about the crucial idea Democrats have failed to grasp that Americans choose candidates based on whom they identify with, not the issues they represent. Swopa cites "Elections aren't about issues" by Paul Waldman:
If there's one thing Republicans have understood and Democrats haven't, it is that politics is not about issues. Politics is about identity. . . .

Think about what happens in campaign after campaign. The Democrat comes before the public and says, ``If you read my 10-point policy plan, I'm sure you'll vote for me. Let's go over it point by point." The Republican then comes before the public, points to the Democrat, and says, ``That guy is a weak, elitist liberal who hates you and everything you stand for. I'm one of you and he's not." And guess who wins.

. . . voters don't read policy papers, and they don't make decisions with a checklist of issues in their hands. That's why Republican campaigns operate on a different level: Whom do you identify with? Whom can you trust? Who is strong, and who is weak? These questions transcend issues, which is why Republicans -- who know they are at a disadvantage on the issues -- spend so much time talking about them.

At a certain base level, the voter responds only to the character as it is projected. In a choice of two candidates, character is a relative concept. Character can also be depleted through an opponent's negative ads far more easily than it can be accentuated through self-promotion. In other words, a huge amount of media content can be presented that accentuates a candidate's positives, but it only takes a little muckraking to destroy that image. The candidate that is unwilling to use negative advertising in this way loses.

In a Feb. 28 post, Swopa spotlights a TPM Cafe (link not found) post from 2006 that claims "even if the average voter supports the position the Democrats take, they may prefer the values projected by the GOP take-no-prisoners approach." By shifting the debate to values and identity, the audience is directed to the arena of political discourse most favored by the Republicans: national security.

This couldn't have been more accurate in 2006, but does it remain so today? First, there is fear fatigue. This political force has greatly propelled Obama's popularity and established a negative charge that repulses a large chunk of the electorate for any politician trying to make us scared, or take a political stance built on general fear. Also, this supposed security advantage of the GOP has faltered as the results trickle down and casualties mount.

Framing the Debate

In a re-linked 2006 post on needlenose, Swopa paraphrases Matt Yglesias as explaining "the GOP protection myth is based more on personal attributes and general stances than specific policies." In essence, the political debate has been shifted away from the substantive topic as if the subject of contention could be changed and directed by one side to create a political landscape favorable to its candidate. For instance, rather than confronting the issue that might cause problems, focus on attacking the opposing candidate. If the politician--particularly one who rides on high in the pulpit as a war president--repeats his impression often enough, people will believe his message, true or not, by cross-associating the President's message with their patriotism.

As Waldman says, voters identify not with the status of a commander-in-chief but rather the impression how much the President is like them. By focusing media attention onto issues of character and credibility, the issues--Katrina, Iraq or whichever--lose their relevance.

Obama's appeal is a good example. He presents himself as an agent of change. He's content to talk about what he can do as President, and promises delivering on issues without saying how, or even what his specific goals would be. The comparative lack of experience--serving in the Senate only since 2004--Obama's character vulnerability is the accusation that he might not know how to handle crisis, or get the job done: or to borrow from Hillary's slogan that "yes, we will !" versus Obama's "yes, we can !".

Still, Obama's ascendancy testifies to the terror fatigue that plagues most Americans, especially the young. People grow tired of fear, and identify with a candidate who campaigns on a message of change and optimism. This is particularly important to young people--who wants to raise families in a world ruled by fear and terror? At a certain point, people need to get on with their lives without the constant specter of terror looming over their future.

Fear is after all merely the impression that something bad will happen. Being afraid in no way impacts the likelihood of the event occuring.

Terror warnings may have been able to drum up political support for the administration in its war on terror, but Americans have become less likely to respond to the cry of wolf, and far more likely to attribute government warnings to politcal motives. One recent example was Bush's claim that America would face a terror strike if the Protect American Act weren't renewed with telecom immunity attached, seen in an Olbermann vitriol here.

The recent past has seen no limits in the pushing of the fear button for political purposes. So bad has the confluence of terror and politics been that an entire national security argument has been built around politics--that one party, the Democrats, is inherently less capable of defending the nation. Such a denigration would have been unheard of during times of real war. Could you imagine FDR saying that Americans had best vote for him if they didn't want to lose World War Two? Or could Republicans have been labelled soft on communism during the Cold War?

National security is non-partisan. The politicization of our national security shows really the full flowering of the political-victory-at-any-cost approach. I don't think the electorate will forever writhe under fear often contrived for purposes of partisan gain. Politicizing the war on terror--or any war for that matter--is not as effective nowadays, as war fatigue grows and many Americans grow indifferent and desensitized. Hence Bush's claims--or are they threats?--of impending terror attacks "larger than 9/11" inject ever stronger doses of fear to compensate for the consequences of crying wolf.

"Vote GOP or die" could simplify that approach but no one would believe it.

On February 28th, needlenose's swopa made the comment that we need to bring common sense back to the national security dialogue. So much of the GOP's political success up through 2004 can be attributed to claiming an advantage on national security. This cycle, McCain-backers are already trying to frame the general election as one of a Democrat softer and weaker. Interesting how this approach mirrors against Clinton's attack angle concerning ominous threats that cause White House phones to "ring at 3 AM". As a matter of fact, Hillary's approach seems to have shifted to Rovian politics, which could be called both crude and effective--dirty politics.

Capitalizing on fear--in Hillary's case, of the unknown qualities of Barack's leadership--introduces doubt about Obama's experience. Fear of terror is replaced by fear of the unknown. The substance of the attack differs from one based on the threat of terror, but the methodology is the same.

Judging from the last two elections, Rovian tactics work. Rove's approach entails identifying key political constituencies--like soccer moms and NASCAR dads in 2004--and building a set of positive contact points between the candidate and those groups, so the key groups can identify with their candidate.

Rove's approach involves demonizing the opposition. Focusing media attention on the political vulnerabilities of the opposition is essential to "prepping the battlefield," to borrow the military term for a creating a "battlescape" where victory will be achieved. If fear of terrorism drives the soccer moms--relabelled "security moms--, then frame the opposing candidate as "soft on terror." If swaying NASCAR dads is the aim, attack all dissent as disloyalty, and label the opposition party as timid, effeminate, or European.

One example of how Rove operated was to fax out each morning a set of talking points to groups sympathetic to the party and its social orientation--organizations which share conservative values in the GOP's case. When they spoke before the media, these representatives were to repeat Rove's message of the day.

Politics is particularly media-driven. A uniform message is vital in framing of the issues, so topics can be debated in a political landscape favorable to your cause. Constant repitition can also support the message; the sheer volume of repeat exposure can slant the debate away from the issues over to unrelated notions of trust and character that may be immaterial to the resolving the subject at hand. A continuous study of polls completes the feedback loop, allowing the Rovian political operator to adjust the message, its tone, or its urgency/frequency/importance in the next morning's batch of faxes.

Attacking McCain

Going after the GOP's supposed "security advantage" would have best been done by reducing Bush's credibility and authority. On needlenose.com, in talking tactics for the 2006 election, swopa suggested "why not make it easier on ourselves and first demolish the false image of Dubya as the Great Protectorâ„¢" (link)

Rove's style worked until 2006, but may not be as effective as it had been. To follow Rove's approach, Democrats need to attack McCain's character first. This could backfire if it's too timid, but too harsh criticism levelled at war hero McCain could damage their candidate's cause.

McCain's "security credentials" may be more assailable than a sitting President's, but there must exist the political will to attack McCain's character. In the Obama dust-off, Hillary showed off her attack dog credentials--this could mean she'd go after McCain aggressively. Yet in the Senate she didn't do all she could to oppose the War on Terror or invasion of Iraq, two of the highly dubious fruits of Republican control over our national security. Democrats have hardly done their fullest to oppose Bush, his wars, and dessication of Constitutional limits on Presidential authority. Senator from New York, Hillary certainly could have done more to oppose Bush and his plans.

Finally it's unclear just how much better Hillary's grasp of foreign policy is, with her supposedly superior experience. Robert Naiman writes in commondreams.org about the reaction of Obama's and Hillary's foreign policy teams to the Colombia/Equador/Venezuela border spat. I saw nothing in the press releases of the two candidates that indicated that perhaps the US should simply stay out and keep its mouth shut. Our government should be responsible for managing our foreign policy, so I don't think the posturing by either candidate demonstrates any understanding of how to manage a diplomatic crisis.

First and foremost, foreign policy requires non-participants to not get involved in making policy recommendations or mediate the conflict simply on the grounds that they are an unelected claimant to the office of President in the future. G.W. Bush must have left such an impression on both candidates as to have them believing the President must meddle and have his say, as if they were the Emperor upon his word the entire world trembles and eagerly obliges. Both Democrats seem to have a lot to learn, and a horrific precedent of interventionism of the recent past on which to draw.



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