My mentor, William Connolly, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, recently e-mailed some friends and colleagues a provocative quotation from his latest book, “Christianity and Capitalism, American Style.” It said: “The conviction that Kerry is a flip-flop artist was first peddled in ads early in the campaign when most people were not paying much attention. That strategy, according to advertisers familiar with neuroscience, is an effective way to plant an affect-imbued idea. It enters the thought-imbued feelings before being subjected to critical scrutiny. The plant is then harvested months later, when much of the electorate concludes that it is being reminded of a disposition it already had. Iterations by Fox News, ads by Bush, endless repetition by the Cheneys.”
Connolly now worries: “This time it is happening a little later in the process. McCain and his & minions on talk TV and radio are defining Obama. McCain attacks every day in a way that defines his opponent. The media run with it, even if they criticize the attack mildly. They are giving ‘ undecided’ whites excuses to be surly and resentful about him and to retain their fantasies about keeping things as they are in America. And Obama has been miserable, absent in countering this stuff. The Rove strategy is to attack the greatest strength — war heroism in Kerry and eloquence in Obama, and then to attach that attack to every other thing negative they can say about him.”
One of Connolly’ s political theory colleagues responded that he neglected “a younger generation of 18- to 30-year-olds of almost every ethnic and racial stripe & They don’t tune into the mainstream media or even talk shows, as much as we do. They live on other wireless and wired waves. They’re remarkably savvy readers/critics of advertising and they’re fired up. You’re also leaving out a massively mobilized black electorate, and the possibility of a highly mobilized Latino one.”
For me, this discussion poses a key question. Are these new voters really fired up, especially as Obama increasingly temporizes his political stance not only on civil liberties and the war but even economic issues? Acting more as an incumbent playing not to lose, he assumes that core supporters have nowhere else to go, so he will concentrate on the center. But numerous polls, which despite their limitations probably mean something, show that Americans are becoming more progressive on taxes and health care, more critical of corporate-oriented trade deals, and more skeptical of huge military expenditures and the occupation of Iraq. If Obama is moving to a center, it is not one defined by the voters but by the corporate media.
My fear is that Obama temporizes out of the hope that he can or the fear that he must win media acceptance. The media, however, are likely to retain a bias for McCain. A few pundits criticized McCain’ s recent Britney-Paris ad, as negative, but as Connolly pointed out in a follow-up e-mail, “they continually replayed — without comment on — the ad’ s subtle visuals: a picture of Obama alongside the words FOREIGN oil, with the word foreign in caps close to his picture. Associate Obama with the foreign. A presumptuous, uppity black man who is eloquent and foreign.”
Support for Obama in the polls, especially among working class whites, may also be overstated. Nor should Obama necessarily count on those Internet-savvy 18- to 30-year-olds or newly mobilized blacks and Latinos. Many will not turn to McCain, but they may sit this one out or at the very least stop e-mailing friends and staffing the many get out the vote efforts.
Obama must both define McCain right now and offer programs with appeal to all working and middle class Americans. Humor about the Paris ad was a good start, but his own future ads might juxtapose pictures and quotations of McCain once denouncing Bush tax cuts as gifts to the already wealthy or quotations from him about swift and certain victory in Iraq. He should then follow such attacks with detailed positive programs in each area. Obama is fortunate enough to have the money and political resources to reach voters with a message that energizes them.
There is no time like the present.
John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.