Race, Celebrity and the Presidential Campaign

Topic A
Saturday, August 2, 2008

In this edition: Ed Rogers, Carter Eskew, Benjamin Ginsberg, William A. Galston, Edward J. Rollins, Tad Devine, Ralph Reed and Jamal Simmons.


Former deputy assistant to President Bush and chairman of the BGR Group

John McCain's celebrity ad was effective. It wasn't uncontroversial and it didn't please all the political scientists, but it sure got noticed, and it made Barack Obama overreact. Questions about Obama's desire for celebrity status will linger. He now has to be very careful about intersecting with Hollywood, pop culture and entertainment. Lee Atwater said the worst thing you can do in American politics is play to your negative stereotype. Well, Obama's negative stereotype now includes the idea that he may be a little too glitzy. (Speaking of negative stereotypes, when Obama was talking about the pictures of presidents on dollar bills, was he introducing the presumptuous notion that his face belongs on American currency? I wonder whom he thinks he should replace.)

There are signs that Obama is beginning to believe all the hype. So, thinking he would have media cooperation, he tried to preemptively accuse McCain of attacking him because of his race. He forced it, and it didn't work. Bottom line: If McCain had the celebrity ad to do over again, would he do it? Answer: Yes. If Obama had it to do over again, would he talk about race and presidents' pictures on the money in our wallets? Answer: No.

McCain broke through this week and helped himself.


Chief strategist for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign

I once asked a famous commercial advertiser why he didn't attack his big rival, a competing laundry detergent -- say that it "ruins your washing machine!" or "causes hives!"

His answer: "Because I might gain temporary market advantage, but I'd devalue the whole category. Sooner or later, people would stop buying soap."

That may be the main difference between political and commercial marketing: The political marketer is all about temporary advantage -- the field of politics be damned.

We've seen that familiar dynamic this week in the presidential race. John McCain's team has decided, given the gale forces against his candidacy, that he must destroy his opponent. Nine out of 10 political strategists, when faced with his playing field, would probably take this route. Barack Obama is struggling with a more complex strategic question: How does he counter the mud and not tarnish his own brand? A casual attempt this week to flick McCain's charges off his shoulder dragged Obama into a silly and distracting discussion of race. The ghosts of losers past must haunt his team -- will Obama be Swift-boated if he doesn't strike back hard?


Partner at Patton Boggs and a veteran of three Republican presidential campaigns

Given the intensity of the subjects -- race, age, hubris and temperament -- this week has the potential to help define the campaign.

For the short term, the McCain campaign succeeded in changing the subject from Obama's triumphant overseas tour. But one good week does not mean victory. Over the next 12 weeks, the McCain campaign needs to reinforce its message, making certain that voters retain the image of Paris-Britney-Obama in one vacuous celebrity breath. They cannot let voters instead remember the Obama counterattack superimposing "old politics" on McCain's picture.

The injection of race into the campaign (whether by Obama's unforced error or by McCain's rapid opportunistic response) can be a game changer. The challenge for the McCain campaign (look what happened to Bill Clinton at the hands of the Obama campaign) is to make certain that this is understood as a smart and strategic inoculation, not a cranky response to an agenda that the McCain camp saw slipping out of control.


Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

The Obama campaign needs to think harder about how to respond. The remark about presidents' faces on our currency was a sloppy unforced error, as the campaign quickly recognized, but also symptomatic of a larger problem. On the one hand, Barack Obama cannot afford to let potentially damaging charges go unanswered, as Michael Dukakis did in 1988. On the other, if he gets sucked into the daily back-and-forth of negative campaigning, he will erode what has made him distinctive and attractive. Besides, he seems uncomfortable in that role. It's not an easy call, but on balance, he's probably better advised to stay on the high road while leaving it to surrogates and, if necessary, advertising to answer charges. Getting a vice presidential choice into the fray earlier rather than later would be useful.

But the overriding imperative is to drive home the message that put Ronald Reagan over the top: While I stand for dramatic change, I'm a safe choice for president. There's nothing Obama can do about his youth, his paucity of experience as conventionally defined, his newness on the national stage or the color of his skin. But he can help the people get more comfortable with him, in part by relentlessly talking about people's problems in terms they can understand and in settings that emphasize intimacy rather than distance. The message people hear must be, "John McCain thinks this election is about me; I think it's about you. And in all the respects that matter, I'm one of you." But that message will be credible only if Obama doesn't convey the impression, which he sometimes does, that he, too, thinks the election is about him.


Head of Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign and Mike Huckabee's campaign chairman this year

An ad man's dream.

In addition to Obama being compared to the "silly girls," you also heard he's going to raise your taxes and make us more dependent on foreign oil. That's the good news for those on the McCain team. The bad news is they may be diminishing their own great brand: "Straight Talker, John McCain!"

After being attacked in the primaries by Mitt Romney's relentless negative ads, John McCain refused to respond in kind. The Manchester Union Leader praised him and said McCain has "conviction" and that "Granite Staters want a candidate who will look them in the eye and tell them the truth."

I get disturbed when I hear McCain operatives say this campaign is all about Obama and that they have to define the Democrat as "not ready to lead." This race is also about John McCain. Is he ready to lead? Is he willing to have the courage to move the country in a new direction? The first test will be whether he has the courage to run an honest, "uplifting" campaign. Or will we be going to have more "negative tactics" from the Rove junior varsity.

We need to demand that each candidate look us in the eye and tell us how he gets us out of the mess we're in and the direction in which he will take the country. If they spend their TV millions doing that, the country will be well served. And, finally, the news media need to be covering the race, not rerunning political commercials.


Principal consultant to Al Gore in 2000 and adviser to the John Kerry campaign in 2004

The celebrity ad and the other attacks are the harbingers of what will inevitably be an incredibly nasty campaign. Will they work? Perhaps. But I believe that Obama will prove to be a more elusive target than previous Democratic nominees, stretching back to George McGovern, who were subjected to the Republican attack machine.

That's because Obama's narrative is not one of an elitist, and his rise from a single-mother home almost to the summit of power is obviously the result of talent and hard work, not favoritism and privilege.

Obama's campaign still must find a way to talk about race -- the central fact of this election -- without appearing to be injecting it into the political dialogue. And the campaign needs to resist the suggestion that it should have opened up a horse-race lead in an election in which no one will soon move the 15 percent who are hanging out as soft or uncommitted.


Southeast Region Chairman for the George W. Bush campaign in 2004

Obama's celebrity has spawned a kind of modern-day Beatlemania, complete fainting fans, Men's Vogue cover shoots, swooning politicians and an admiring press corps. But with the celebrity ad, McCain has now officially taken that strength and turned it into a weakness. Campaigns are about establishing narratives about one's opponent, and the narrative about Obama's hubris and arrogance is compelling because it touches on Obama's unattractive tendency to cast himself as the deliverer for the nation whose time has come. People like their politicians with a little more humility, especially during a time of war and significant economic challenges at home. Moreover, claims of superior judgment no longer work for Obama, since he was wrong about the outcome of the surge in Iraq.

The best way for Obama to insure that he is not distracted by the race issue again would be to agree to a forum on the topic with McCain. While it is true that he excels speaking from a teleprompter in front of a large and friendly audience, engaging directly with McCain would allow him to show that he is willing to fight to win the office -- and doesn't assume he has it won.

As for McCain, during the doldrums days of summer, in a campaign that features one of the toughest environments for Republicans in decades, an occasional long ball that uses humor and a touch of satire can drive the national conversation and throw Obama off his game. He should keep it up.


President of New Future Communications, consultant to the Democratic National Committee and press secretary to Bob Graham's and Wesley Clark's presidential campaigns

The negativity of the last two weeks has revealed a change in tone and demeanor from the Arizona senator that undermines the amiable style that reinforced McCain's maverick mirage. First he charged that Obama would "rather lose a war than lose a campaign," an attack on Obama's patriotism that even fellow Vietnam war veteran and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel criticized. Then McCain launched an ad that falsely claimed Obama skipped visiting wounded troops in Europe because he could not bring television cameras. McCain, the honorable war hero, seemed to be dishonorably playing politics with the troops. While the Republican's strategists must believe that these negative attacks will take a toll on Obama, the greater danger is for McCain, who is proving the Democrats' point: John McCain is a maverick no more.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company