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Convicted Of Charisma

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By Michael Kinsley
Saturday, August 23, 2008

"On Thursday, as the convention moves from the indoor Pepsi Center to Mile High, an open-air football stadium, Democrats will have to balance their desire to spotlight Obama's enthusiastic following with concern that images of a cheering throng will ratify Republican attacks on the candidate as a glitzy but untested celebrity."

-- The Post, Aug. 14

It's not completely crazy for a political party to worry that a campaign event could be too successful. In Britain in 1992, the Labor Party was leading in all the polls until just a few days before the election, when it also staged a huge rally in a football stadium (different kind of football, of course). British voters punished Labor's leader, Neil Kinnock, for seeming complacent and overconfident and delivered an upset victory to Conservative Prime Minister John Major. The rally was regarded as "too American."

But nothing can be too American for American political parties at convention time. So the notion that "images of a cheering throng" could backfire on the Democrats is pretty remarkable. As a matter of logic, it's hard to see any connection at all between Obama's ability to attract a crowd and the question of whether he has been sufficiently "tested." And yet, it's true. Even though Ronald Reagan might have found it hard to believe that there was something wrong with cheering throngs, Republicans are making an issue of Obama's popularity, and the Democrats have to be careful not to overdo things.

With so much going their way in this election, the biggest challenge the Democrats face is simple: The Republicans just play the game of presidential politics so much better. They play it with genius, courage, creativity and utter ruthlessness.

Most amazing among the principles of the Republican Way of War is: Don't waste much time and energy probing the enemy's weaknesses. Go directly to his biggest strength. Four years ago, it was easy to imagine any number of ways the GOP might go after John Kerry. You would not have guessed -- or at least I would not have guessed -- that they could successfully attack his service in Vietnam. Especially when the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, not only had avoided Vietnam by joining the National Guard but had avoided much of the National Guard by skipping the meetings and then had grown up to start an unpopular war that even four years ago seemed to have been going on forever.

A lesser party might have said, "You know what? Let's just leave the whole military-record thing alone." But not the Republicans. They conjured up the Swift boat campaign and managed to turn Kerry's military service into a negative. As is usually the case, the media helped.

They didn't intend to. But journalistic convention makes it hard for reporters to deal with a big, complicated lie. They can't call it a lie, so they end up giving the impression to all but the most obsessive followers of politics that, well, it's complicated, and the Republicans are probably exaggerating, but there must be something there.

Or take 1988, when it was Gov. Michael Dukakis vs. Bush the Elder. Once again, there were many options available for attacking Dukakis, most of them variations on the undeniable fact that he was a liberal from Massachusetts. What also seemed undeniable when the campaign began was that Dukakis was an unpretentious man from a modest background with an appealing, all-American, immigrant-family success story. His opponent, by contrast, seemed like a parody of an upper-class Republican: son of a senator, fancy prep school and Ivy League education, rich from oil.

A lesser party might have decided to take a pass on the whole born-in-a-log-cabin or Harry Truman-look-alike aspect of a traditional presidential campaign. But the Republicans were fearless. They jumped in and turned Dukakis into an arugula-loving elitist, while repositioning George Herbert Walker Bush as a pork-rinds-and-country-music-loving good ol' boy. In their most daring act of legerdemain, they even made an issue of Dukakis having gone to Harvard (for law school -- he attended the wonkish Swarthmore as an undergraduate), even though Bush himself had gone to Yale College and was a member of the ludicrous, aristocratic anachronism the Skull and Bones.

The greatest strength of this year's Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, is his eloquence, his charisma, his ability to create excitement and draw a crowd. This could be a legitimate debating point if the Republicans were saying that, on some particular issue or even many, Obama is using his charm and way with words to disguise a lack of substance in what he says. But Republican ambitions are grander: They are attacking Obama's charisma, as if popularity itself were a disqualifying factor and whoever draws the larger crowds is by definition the lesser candidate. This is truly perverse. It comes close to being an attack on democracy itself. Can the Republicans possibly score with such a preposterous argument?

Oh, probably.

The writer is a columnist for Time magazine and an occasional contributor to The Post.


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