The Obama campaign has signaled that they’re going to come out on the attack more. I haven’t seen it much yet myself, but I think this can be a good sign or a bad sign. So far, the campaign has proven itself capable of landing only light jabs when it comes to attack ads. Personally, I don’t like when campaigns devolve into negative advertisements, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
However, the campaign feels it’s time to strike back against the ridiculous distortions, outright lies, insults and smears that the McCain campaign has been delivering.
Far be it from me to suggest to the likes of Axlerod and the rest how to do their jobs; but since everyone and their uncle seems to have some advice for the Obama campaign these days, here are my thoughts on how they can go on the attack without becoming the liberal version of Karl Rove…
How Not to Attack
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
The first thing not to do should be obvious, and this is not aimed at the Obama campaign but at zealous supporters of the Obama campaign: stop going after Sarah Palin with such vitriol. If you’re going to attack Palin, do so on the issues and policies, and do so in proportion to her importance on the ticket. Face it: it’s just not that important whether she knew any of the incarnations of the ‘Bush Doctrine’, and even if it were, it’s not worth the time and effort in continuing to distract the campaign on it.
Whether or not John McCain is going to survive 4 years in office, this is an Obama vs. McCain campaign first. There are attacks against Joe Biden that the Republicans could be leveling (rightly or wrongly) but they are wisely trying to keep their fight with Obama. Obama’s supporters should do the same with McCain.
Secondly, we should not stoop to the low of personal attacks again McCain. Whether his wife was addicted to painkillers, or even stole drugs from her charity, while it may be scandalous, unless there is some direct evidence that Sen. McCain was involved in the theft or coverup, etc. there is no need to go after it- it only makes you seem desperate. We should not try to discredit McCain’s military service- to do so makes us as bad as Republicans were in 2004 for swiftboating Kerry. If you hate Republicans for doing stuff like that, then why would you want to see Democrats do it? So they can win? At what cost, victory? If the lesson coming out of this campaign is that the only way for either party to win elections is with cheap shots and sucker punches, then in the long run, we all lose.
How to Attack
Everyone has a source of power on which he or she depends. When you look at your rivals, search below the surface for that source, the center of gravity that holds the entire structure together. Hitting them there will inflict disproportionate pain. Find what the other side most cherishes and protects– that is where you mus strike.
Robert Greene – The 33 Strategies of War
While I’m loathe to adopt Karl Rove’s campaign tactics, I think Karl Rove’s campaign strategy is a sound one. That is: attack your opponent on their greatest strengths. I have yet to see the Obama campaign really find a way to do this to John McCain.
The recent “Still” attack ad that I’ve seen is one of those “light jabs” I mentioned (another recent attack ad is a bit more cutting). These attacks are not delivering the kinds of blows that the campaign needs if they’re really going to go on the offensive. McCain’s greatest strength is not based on how many lobbyists he has in his campaign, or whether he knows how to send email. Nor, for that matter, is his strength on policy. McCain’s strength is his narrative, and his campaign has done everything to signal that they’re going to milk his heroic narrative as much as possible.
If you want to make attacks that put McCain on his heels, you have to attack his narrative and his personality, and I think there is a good way to do both.
First off, you cannot attack McCain on his service. He is unassailable on that. Aggravating as it may have been to see Kerry swiftboated in 2004, Kerry was not a POW for 5 years and John McCain didn’t toss his medals over a fence. So put that thought out of your head.
What you can attack McCain on is his honor today. I use that word, “honor” intentionally. His latest dubious claims about his own accomplishments as well as those of Gov. Palin leave him open to the label of “dishonest”, and his recent over-the-top attack ads against Obama, especially the kindergarten sex-ed ad, shows that whatever honor he displayed back in Hanoi has not carried with him to Washington.
This should be the basis of an attack upon McCain’s narrative. Specifically: He served as a hero during his captivity in Vietnam, but once in Washington, he sided with the lobbyists and special interests, he sided with Bush 90% of the time, he’s skipped out on important votes in the Senate (he is the most absentee Senator in this Congress), including votes to renew important tax incentives for renewable energy and I’m sure a whole host of other important matters, and now he’s decided to run a campaign from the gutter with vicious lies and smears about his opponent. He has proven that despite what a lot people thought about him before, he really is willing to do anything to get elected.
Democrats should add “dishonorable” and “dishonest” to every conversation about John McCain.
Why do I think this would be effective? It reshapes McCain’s narrative and puts him on the defensive (making the campaign about him, rather than Obama or Palin). But even if it failed to achieve those results, raising these kinds of questions have been proven to put McCain personally on tilt…
In poker, when a player lets their emotions get the better of them, they are said to be “on tilt” and they start to make poor judgments. Instead of playing their cards or their opponent’s cards, they are playing their emotions. This is always a losing proposition.
Similarly, when a campaign is on tilt, they are always at a disadvantage. They start lashing out, swinging wildly, and panicked emotions take over. McCain is known for his sudden, uncontrollable flare ups. If you want to make an attack that puts the McCain camp on the ropes, put McCain on tilt. Don’t just talk about his legendary short fuse, demonstrate it for the world. Did you see McCain squirming even under the relatively light questioning he had on The View? Let’s turn that up a couple notches. With ads that question McCain’s honor today, he will feel compelled to respond in public speechs, and he will inevitably be asked to respond in interviews, and his handlers won’t be around to shield him from the spotlight.
If anything, Obama has proven that he does not go on tilt. No matter how low the McCain camp swings, Obama retains a steady cool. Some think this is to his detriment. However, if the Obama campaign can get McCain on tilt by attacking his honor and his honesty, while Obama maintains his cool no matter what they throw back, I believe that contrast will be to Obama’s benefit.
The great thing is that they don’t need to smear or lie to assail McCain’s honor- because it’s true, he has been running a dishonorable campaign. Obama doesn’t need to dance around the issue like McCain did on The View. When asked if he thinks such attacks are unfair, Obama can defend the attacks by pointing out the smears and lies of the McCain camp, and while keeping his own cool, steer the conversation back to the issues he really wants to talk about.