If you don't happen to be a fan of toxic attack ads, especially ones directed at ancillary campaign figures, today's Los Angeles Times holds some depressing news. More are on the way! And, as an added bonus, the Times predicts that Michelle Obama, spouse of presidential nominee Barack Obama, figures to be a prime target for Republican vitriol.
The candidate's wife drew the attention of critics while on the stump in Wisconsin back in February, where she said, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." That statement provided the grist for a raft of attacks, and, as the Times warns, it's one of a host of issues that "show[s] no signs of going away."
But the Times finds at least one figure from the opposing side of the field that isn't too fond of the idea of savaging Michelle Obama for her misstatements, GOP message guru Frank Luntz: "It's wrong. It's attempting to demonize someone who is very smart, very accomplished, but not totally tuned to the dangers of political discourse."
But while preying on those who lack the rigorous training in political politesse and protocol may turn Luntz off, it is an often used tactic is the levelling of a cheap attack. The same methodology was in play on June 6, when radio host John Gibson assailed an Obama supporter who had called in to defend the candidate:
GIBSON: Well, wait a second here. I mean, are you saying that because Barack Obama's got ideas for the country, anybody who doesn't agree with him is trying to tear this country down?
CALLER: No, I said that you're trying to tear that man down, not this country, trying to tear this man down --
GIBSON: Well, I don't -- Thomas, I don't like his ideas.
CALLER: Say that?
GIBSON: I don't like his ideas.
CALLER: Well, OK, that's fine. Everybody don't like everybody's ideas and stuff. But, this man from what I'm seeing, what I'm hearing, he is trying to accomplish something -- from what I hear and what I see, trying to accomplish something that no one else is, and all I can hear is everybody tearing him down.
GIBSON: All right. Well, Thomas, listen to his foreign policy plans.
OBAMA [audio clip]: Second, I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending. I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems. I will not weaponize space. I will slow our development of future combat systems. And I will institute an independent defense priorities board to ensure that the quadrennial defense review is not used to justify unnecessary spending.
GIBSON: All right, Barack Obama is against a missile defense system, which only yesterday tested again successfully and is really our only protection against somebody like Iraq getting a missile and firing something at us -- excuse me, Iran. So, Thomas, what exactly do you like about his foreign policy position that he just enunciated?
CALLER: Well, I could really barely -- I could barely hear what he was saying, actually. [unintelligible] I could barely hear what he was saying. So, I can't -- I don't really know too much about that.
GIBSON: Well, I mean -- but that's the point, Thomas, isn't it? I mean, when I say, look -- I criticize Obama over his friends, [Rev. Jeremiah] Wright and [Rev. Michael] Pfleger and [Rev. James] Meeks and the terrorist bomber and, you know, sidling up to [Louis] Farrakhan and stuff like that, somebody like you, Thomas, will call me and say "Hey, deal with the issues." I start dealing with the issues, I ask you about it, and you haven't dealt with the issues. You don't know what Barack Obama stands for. You just like him because he's -- he's -- he's like you and you want to see one of you up there, and you don't care what he stands for. Is it OK if I care what he stands for?
Now, surely it is not shocking that there are many citizens who become attracted to a candidate for reasons that are more or less superficial - a gut feeling, a general sense of inspiration or confidence - or predicated on a single issue such as abortion or taxes. Gibson likely does have problems with Obama's positions on the issues, and he may even so dense as to believe that this exchange constitutes "dealing with the issues," but the fact of the matter is he got to his criticism of those issues in a palpably sleazy way, hanging a caller out to dry on the slim matter of missile defense systems, and thus painting Obama as a political figure who inspires nothing but vacuity.
And, sadly, these tactics can be effective, or at least provide enough of an illusion of efficacy that political bag-men can't wait to indulge. The Times says that Tennessee GOP spokesman Bill Hobbs was "stunned and delighted" by the opportunities that Michelle Obama's Wisconsin remarks presented. They leapt at the chance to turn it into an ad. And they clearly didn't pay any heed to the philosophy of Frank Luntz, reasoning that if Michelle Obama was going to promote her husband's campaign, she was going to be a target of attacks.
So, it would seem that Margo Channing's famous admonition to "fasten your seatbelts" is the one to heed as we plunge into what could be a long, dark campaign season. But take heart, and substantive pushback, from this reality - everytime a Bill Hobbs-type runs an ad akin to the one that assailed Michelle Obama, remember: they do so because their own ideas and candidates have so few selling points. And let's face it, it's much cheaper to fling shit than it is to polish a turd.