Answering McCain's Attacks

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, August 4, 2008

As a week of name-calling and rapid responses faded into history, political practitioners seemed to agree that John McCain had diminished himself and his straight-talk brand with negative ads and petty misrepresentations. Yet, surprisingly, a consensus also seemed to be forming that Barack Obama, at least tactically, had not come out on top.

Which raises the question: How should Obama respond?

Critics of his performance last week (including some supporters) focused on his "dollar bill" comments -- his apparent invocation of race in saying that his opponent would try to scare voters because he, Obama, did not resemble previous presidents whose portraits adorn our currency.

I was more struck by the preamble to that comment: by Obama's statements that McCain and the Republican Party are so bankrupt in policies that they can win only by spreading fear .

This resonates with an article of faith among many Democratic believers that has been so long and deeply held it is hardly considered noteworthy: that Democratic policies are so obviously superior, and so much more in the interest of a majority of voters, that only some form of chicanery can explain Republican election victories.

In this view of the world, Republican operatives, from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, are more diabolically clever, and less bound by ethical restraint, than their Democratic counterparts. They manipulate cultural symbols and issues (God, guns and abortion) to deceive people into voting against their economic self-interest. Or they inflate security threats (Iraq, terror) to frighten them into voting against their self-interest. Obama himself a few months ago said that people who vote Republican are "tricked into believing" that Democrats are out of touch.

Whatever the substantive merits of this analysis, it seems to pose some tactical dangers to Democratic candidates. One is the risk of offending voters who may not see themselves as easily tricked or too dim to understand where their interests lie.

Middle-class voters who believe passionately that life begins at conception, for example, may find it insulting to be told that if they vote for a candidate who opposes abortion and favors tax cuts for the rich, they are being bamboozled. Even middle-class voters making their decision primarily on economic grounds may resent an assumption that they should vote for whoever promises the most tax breaks for their bracket, rather than weighing arguments about economic growth and societal benefit. This year, voters may not want to hear that concerns about Obama's relative paucity of national and international experience must stem from fear of his race or unusual name.

But a bigger danger of this faith in the superiority of Democratic policies, ironically, may be insufficient attention to making the case. Yes, this should be a Democratic year. The economy is sour, the incumbent unpopular. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, and the cost of deregulation is becoming increasingly clear in sector after sector. But voters will still want to be convinced.

Which brings us back to the question of how Obama should respond to McCain's negative campaign. Not long ago, the Democratic candidate rejected the Republican's offer of weekly, informal town hall debates. That was the smart move, most consultants said: The town hall forum is best for McCain, a wooden speaker who can't compete with Obama on the stump, so why would Obama play on his turf?

But by questioning Obama's substantiveness, McCain has begun to diminish the advantage of Obama's skill in rhetoric; and besides, there's no reason to think Obama -- who, after all, is deft, eloquent, quick-thinking and supremely well informed -- wouldn't be every bit as skilled in town halls as McCain. The forums would return attention to the issues, where Obama believes he has a clear advantage. And if McCain sought to use them for personal attacks, he would at least have to bear full personal responsibility for doing so.

Just after Obama clinched the nomination, he received a phone call from McCain. "He called me to congratulate me," Obama said the next day. "I had called him after he had won the nomination. We joked about the fact that, if you'd asked the pundits a year ago who were going to be the two nominees, it wouldn't have been me and John McCain.

"And we pledged to have a substantive debate, a debate that's not personal but is about our respective visions for the country."

Maybe it's time to go back to Plan A.

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