On Sunday, longtime Washington hand David Gergen took umbrage with John McCain’s recent attack ads, charging that the Senator was using coded messaging to paint Barack Obama as “outside the mainstream” and “uppity.”
“There has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream, other, ‘he’s not one of us,'” said Gergen, who has worked with White Houses, both Republican and Democrat, from Nixon to Clinton. “I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it, but it’s the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, ‘The One,’ that’s code for, ‘he’s uppity, he ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who is from a southern background.
We’ll come back to the south in just a moment; first though, let’s look at Slate, Jeff Greenfield, writing in Slate. Greenfield is closer to the mark in terms of the GOP strategy: remind voters of out of touch elites such as Thomas Dewey, who narrowly lost to Harry Truman because the midwestern folksy Truman could paint as out of touch with the American heartland, “the little man on the top of the wedding cake”, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth dubbed him. That was the topic of a recent Jennifer Rubin post at Commentary, which Jennifer and I discussed on last week’s PJM Political on XM. Greenfield writes:
Tom Dewey was cursed with just this sort of personality. He was short, immaculately and expensively dressed, and he sported a mustache that led Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously to describe him as “the bridegroom on the wedding cake.” (It is no coincidence that Dewey is the last nominee of either party to sport any facial hair.)
But Dewey’s snobbishness went far beyond looks. Indeed, a single display of it may well have cost him the White House. On Oct. 13, 1948, in Beaucoup, Ill., Dewey was speaking on the rear platform of a train–part of a response to President Truman’s 30,000-mile whistle-stop campaign–when the engineer mistakenly backed the train up a short distance. Dewey snapped that “this is the first lunatic I’ve had as an engineer. He probably ought to be shot at sunrise, but I guess we can let him off because nobody was hurt.” Dewey may not have realized it, but to the hundreds of thousands who worked on railroads, their families, and the millions of others in blue-collar jobs, this smacked of something less than respect for the working folks. And on Election Day, such voters helped deliver Truman razor-thin pluralities in Ohio and Illinois, giving him enough electoral votes to pull off the most remarkable upset in presidential history.
In essence, the McCain camp aims to Deweyize Obama. It was explicit in Karl Rove’s description of Obama as “the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” Rove has a bit of a tin ear: The country club is the wrong image for Obama. But put him, say, at a “wine-tasting benefit for NPR,” and the attack may come into better focus. It’s implicit in the McCain ad charging that Obama could find time to work out at a fancy hotel but not to visit wounded troops. And the idea that Obama is on a premature victory tour fits perfectly with the way Dewey carried himself in 1948–as a candidate who’d already won and did not need to bother asking voters for their support. (The press view of that campaign was embodied by Richard Stout of the Christian Science Monitor, who wrote on Oct. 14, 1948–the day after the train incident–that “it is now as certain as anything can be in the course of American politics that Governor Dewey is elected and the nation knows it and yawns over the final three weeks of a campaign whose outcome was certain before it began.” Indeed, making fools of the experts may have been another motive for voters to pull the lever for Truman.)
Which brings us back to Allah’s comments in Hot Air regarding Gergen’s paranoid style:
George Will makes a point I made myself last week, that the irony of all these bad-faith charges of racism is that most of the GOP’s knocks on Obama’s ego are straight out of the playbook they used against “haughty, French-looking Democrat” John Kerry. Granted, there was no “Moses” ad for Waffles, but that’s because most people hated him; Obama is adored to an absurdly iconic extent, especially vis-a-vis his actual accomplishments (in Lindsey Graham’s words, “fame without portfolio”), which is why he gets goofed on as leading people to the Promised Land whereas Kerry got the windsurfer treatment. (Although there are plenty of goofs on Obama along the same dorky windsurfer lines to be found if you look around.) The real “tell” here, though, is what Gergen offers as further evidence to support his point — that McCain, when asked about affirmative action, said he opposes quotas. A perfectly mainstream conservative position, and certainly one McCain would also hold if he was facing Hillary, but because he’s facing Obama McCain’s no longer allowed to talk about it. Presumably he should be responding to questions on the subject with a terse “no comment” lest halfwits like this whip out their secret racial decoder rings to tell America what he “really” meant.
That’s okay. The more ridiculous the left’s demagoguery becomes, the more credibility they lose with voters. See, e.g., the new Rasmussen poll on McCain’s Britney ad. Not only did a vast majority see nothing racist about it (Democrats themselves are evenly divided) but fully 53% found St. Barack’s “dollar bill” comment over the line, including 44% of blacks. Keep talking, Gergen.
As I wrote last week, you only get to cry racism once in a campaign, so it better be aimed at something that’s actually, you know, overtly racist. Afterwards, it increasingly starts to sound like crying wolf. Ironically, the one time in recent memory that a Republican actually did say something that literally was racist–Trent Lott’s flashback to Strom Thermond’s Dixiecrat days, there was initally silence from the MSM until the then-nascent Blogosphere raised a stink, as Glenn Reynolds wrote in 2002:
But that’s the folks at Old Media: presented with real “racial insensitivity” — as in Trent Lott’s case — they don’t even recognize it until someone else points it out. That’s because they’re too used to it as an invented item to even think about the real thing.
As Orrin Judd recently wrote, “For all the New Yorkerish paranoia about how Senator Obama is a victim of racism and Islamophobia, the actual critique from conservatives is that he’s a standard issue liberal, indistinguishable from a Stevenson, Dukakis, Kerry or Hillary.”
Just as it did for the Democrats in ’48, when their man was the plainspoken midwesterner Harry Truman, that strategy has historically worked like clockwork for the modern GOP, except when the opponent is himself can fashion himself into a non-elitist, such as good ol’ boy personas that Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter flashed in ’92 and 76.