Tiptoeing Through the Mud

Sen. Barack Obama at a town hall meeting in Norfolk Wednesday.
Sen. Barack Obama at a town hall meeting in Norfolk Wednesday. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, September 12, 2008

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It has been hard to remember lately that the country is in the midst of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes.

The campaign is a blur of flying pieces of junk, lipstick and gutter-style attacks. John McCain's deceptions about Barack Obama's views and Sarah Palin's flip-flopping suggest an unedifying scuffle over a city council seat.

The media bear a heavy responsibility because "balance" does not require giving equal time to truth and lies. So does McCain, who is running a disgraceful, dishonorable campaign of distraction and diversion.

But Obama bears responsibility, too: His task is to remind Americans that the stakes in this election are far higher than the matter of who said what and when about Palin. He isn't doing that.

Yes, Democrats are a gloomy lot, inclined to see catastrophe around every corner and the other side as tougher, meaner and more manipulative. Imbibing this potion of false pride about Democratic virtue mixed with paranoia about the Republicans' dark genius only leads to defeat followed by glorious disillusionment.

Nonetheless, it's clear that Obama has lost control of this campaign. And he will not seize back the initiative with the sometimes halting, conversational and sadly reluctant sound bites he has been producing. The excitement Obama created at the beginning of the year has vanished, perhaps because his campaign (and, yes, many columnists) bought into the McCain campaign's demonization of the big rallies. Absurdly, McCain is now contesting the terrain of change -- and doing so at celebrity rallies of his own.

This moment eerily resembles the situation in 1988 when George H.W. Bush used his convention to define the campaign and never again ceded the agenda to Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Here's the problem: Few voters know that Obama would cut the taxes of the vast majority of Americans by far more than McCain would. Few know Obama would guarantee everyone access to health care or that McCain's health plan might endanger coverage many already have. Few know that Obama has a coherent program to create new jobs through public investment in roads, bridges, transit, and green technologies.

In short, few Americans know what (or whom) Obama is fighting for, because he isn't really telling them. And few know that McCain's economic plan is worse than President Bush's. As Jonathan Cohn points out in the New Republic, McCain would add $8.5 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years. It's McCain who should be on the defensive.

It should not be hard for Obama to use crisp, punchy language to force the media and the voters to pay attention to the basic issue in this election: whether the country will slowly continue down a road to decline, or whether, to invoke a slogan from long ago, we can get the country moving again.

One test in the coming weeks will be whether Obama continues to contest North Carolina.

In truth, he has paid too much attention to broadening the political map and not enough to nailing down the states he must win. But North Carolina is a state on the edge. Despite one outlying poll showing McCain with a big lead, most give him an advantage of only four to six points. If Obama does his job in framing a national message, this state should at least be competitive enough to force McCain to expend resources here.

But Democratic politicians say that won't happen unless Obama grabs the campaign back. "One of the criticisms is that he hasn't cut through all the Republican rhetoric to reveal in a clear and simple way what his plan is, which I believe would resonate with the electorate," says Jerry Meek, the Democratic state chairman. Voters, Meek says, "like a fighting spirit."

Rep. David Price, a Democrat who represents the Chapel Hill area, argues that Obama has "offered economic proposals with a lot of promise . . . but there has not been the direct personal connection that there needs to be." Obama "needs people to feel angry, he needs to get people to feel something is at stake."

McCain has shown he wants the presidency so badly that he's willing to say anything, true or false, to win power. Obama can win by fighting for what he believes. What he can't do is wait for the media to call McCain out -- although they should -- or expect voters to know he'll fight for them when they are not yet sure that he's willing to stand up for himself.


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