Obama Signals He Won't Back Down to GOP Smears

Since the rise of television as a major force in American politics, and particularly since Joe McGinnis's extraordinary behind-the-scenes portrait of how the 1968 Nixon campaign, led by a team of advertising men, manipulated the public image of Richard Nixon in The Selling of the President, many have expressed concerns about the extent to which voters can really get a sense of the candidates through the lens of the television camera. Their reasons are well founded. Media campaigns turned George W. Bush into an "everyday guy" despite his wealth, connections, and Andover/Yale/Harvard MBA pedigree; into a "compassionate conservative" despite his record of executing a fellow born-again Christian as Texas governor; and as a steady hand in times of national danger who could lead the country to safety. And the data are clear from 40 years of electoral history and the data from tens of thousands of surveys over the same time frame that people vote primarily with their emotions: they choose the party whose principles resonate with them emotionally and the candidate they feel in their gut they can trust and understands people like them.

But Tuesday night, when Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination, voters saw the three last candidates standing all speak in rapid succession, all of whom revealed important aspects of who they are.

John McCain's appearance an hour before Obama's victory speech itself spoke volumes. For a man who spoke with the word "Honor" on hand-held placards all around him, it was a dishonorable thing to do. Presumptive nominees do not typically deliver primetime speeches just before their rival becomes their general-election opponent to try to inoculate against both his message and his moment. Democratic leaders did not deliver a primetime speech excoriating McCain an hour before he clinched the Republican nomination. As I recall, Barack Obama congratulated him. That's how gentlemen have typically responded to their rivals' ascension to the nomination.

But the content of McCain's speech revealed far more than the fact of it. What voters watched -- and processed unconsciously and emotionally, even if they could not put their finger on it--was a man who seems utterly rudderless in his principles, punctuating rhetorical lines that belie virtually everything he has said at some point since running for Republican nomination -- with manufactured smiles where his handlers obviously advised him on his supersized teleprompter, "insert smile here." Our brains are equipped to tell the difference between real and genuine smiles, and McCain has such a poor poker face that he would be well advised just to tell the truth from here on out in his campaign, if there is a truth anymore to tell about whether he cared about the people of New Orleans when they were crying for help from their roofs while he was eating his birthday cake with President Bush, or whether he is for or against the kind of torture he endured as a prisoner or war.

Hillary Clinton's decision to rattle off of her victories in swing states, her claim to have won more votes than anyone in the history of the presidential nominating process (including her victorious rival), and her refusal even to acknowledge her opponent's victory (congratulating him on having "run," not won, a fine campaign, after being introduced by her campaign chairman as "the next President of the United States," as if she were magnanimously congratulating the loser), spoke to precisely the three aspects of her character that voters worried they saw over this long primary campaign: her difficulty showing warmth and graciousness, her seeming willingness to put her own interests and ambitions over the interests of both the party her husband led and the country both of them love, and her defensiveness when confronted with a mistake or a defeat.

The same aspects of her character led her virtually never to congratulate Obama when he won primaries or caucuses and her campaign generally to devalue them. They led her campaign to use tactics against a fellow Democrat they should never have used, most notably reinforcing conservative branding applied with deadly efficacy against her own party for years (e.g., painting Obama as a member of the liberal "elite," using fear tactics in her "3am" ad and images of bin Laden in another) and the kind of racially divisive politics inconceivable for a woman who, with her husband, has shown such extraordinary devotion to civil rights (e.g., her comments equating white Americans and hard-working Americans, presumably reflecting a slip of the tongue rather than conscious intent, but nevertheless clearly activating stereotypes about black welfare recipients). And those aspects of her character led her, in probably the most self-destructive decision of her campaign, to refuse to acknowledge, as John Edwards had bravely and forcefully done in 2005 when it was not yet popular (in his op-ed piece titled simply, "I Was Wrong"), that she had made a mistake in voting to give this president the authority to attack Iraq with barely a debate on the floor of the Senate and without appropriate Congressional oversight.

As someone who has deeply admired Senator Clinton, and expects that she will likely serve the kind of role in the Senate as Ted Kennedy has, enriching the lives of millions of people in ways they will never even know, and who put issues like health care reform on the table long before it was politically expedient to do so, I wish she had shown that side of her character Tuesday night and allowed Barack Obama to step onto the national and world stage in Minnesota with her support and with the clear message to her supporters: Revel in this man's words, because he will be our party's standard-bearer, and he will be a great one. Few can truly know how heartbreaking it must feel like to lose a race like this one, where she was clearly not only convinced that she was the best candidate to lead the country (and would have been an extraordinarily competent president) but also watched what seemed to so many like an inevitable victory slip through her fingers over many months. But that did not excuse her failure to endorse Obama Tuesday night, and it does not excuse her refusal to leave the stage until this coming Saturday, which has effectively focused the spotlight of media attention for the entire week -- Barack Obama's triumphant week -- on her, instead of on the traditional biographical pieces on the victorious candidate, who deserved the full attention of the public as he reintroduced himself to the American people after a long, bruising, and divisive primary process.

It's easy to paint Manichean portraits of political figures. One of the great flaws of the contemporary media environment is that it tends to reduce complicated people to caricatures that focus on one flaw, foible, or foolish comment. That is not my intention. Hillary Clinton will continue to be an extraordinary Senator, and with a second shot at health insurance for all Americans with a charismatic leader in the White House, she will hopefully see her dream fulfilled. But I hope and trust, as time passes, that she will display more of the sides of her character that we saw in the Democratic debates and less of the ones we saw Tuesday night.

Finally, Barack Obama showed two aspects of his character, one that has been apparent since the primary process began, and the other that has been less clear but that I suspect many Democrats were relieved to see. The first was his extraordinary capacity to respond calmly, graciously, and judiciously under stress. It is difficult to imagine that any human being could not have been seething with anger after watching both McCain's unprecedented effort to subvert his soon-to-be rival on election night and Hillary Clinton's unwillingness to make the appropriate endorsement that would have given Obama a 10-point lead in the national polls against McCain within days. (He will probably have to wait two weeks now to see that.) And I suspect the relative infrequency of his wide, trademark smile, except at the very beginning of the speech and afterwards while walking through the crowds, reflected that anger. But he didn't show it, and instead treated his ungracious rival with an exemplary grace that signaled not only to Americans but to our allies around the world the kind of man who would be their partner and leader were he to replace George W. Bush next January.

The second was his willingness to strike back at McCain and to show his teeth when attacked. In this election year, with the Republican nominee championing a deeply unpopular war, and with the economy in tatters and the average American growing numb to rhetoric about the wonders of the free market that they know has failed to protect their jobs, their pensions, their health insurance, and their wallets against the skyrocketing prices of gas and groceries, McCain's only path to victory will likely be a relentlessly negative campaign designed to impugn Obama's character and to play on his "differentness" (read: blackness) through questions about his faith, his patriotism, his ability to appeal to white voters, his masculinity, and on and on. Whether McCain does the dirty work himself if the race starts to seem unwinnable for him by September, which I hope he shows the integrity not to do, or whether the task is left to Karl Rove and the independent expenditure organization word-on-the street suggests he will be heading against Obama, Americans need to know that their potential commander-in-chief knows how to put up his dukes. Tuesday night Obama put up his dukes. He made clear that he will not resort to the low road, but he also will not take punches on the chin or below the belt. That was one of the most important messages he could send on the first day of the general election.

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