What Is In The Water In Anti-Obama Tennessee?

07/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

There has been some lament within conservative circles over the absence of a clearly defined attack machine to take on Barack Obama. T. Boone Pickens, the financier of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth effort, has pledged, at this juncture, to sit the election out. Republican insiders have worried about a lack of funds, and a public relations backlash that comes with launching such ads.

There has, however, been one organization at least nominally willing to step into this attack-politik void. And it isn't one of the much-discussed discussed 527 variety.

The Republican Party of Tennessee has, on several occasions, trotted out lines of criticism against Obama that put them further down that road than even Karl Rove - the vaunted campaign attack alchemist - has been willing to go. The state's GOP released a press release in late February, accusing the Democratic nominee of being anti-Israel, linking him to Louis Farrakhan, and featuring a photo of the Senator in African garb for good measure.

Nearly two months later, the party began circulating a video of Michelle Obama saying that she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life, followed by a montage of Tennesseans discussing the essence of their patriotism (including, conspicuously, a guy at a pool table with a rack of guns behind him).

The attacks on the Obama have not been the strict purview of the state's GOP party. A local conservative radio talk show host has been called out for consistently using Obama's middle name - "Hussein" - on the air, while a member of Tennessee's Democratic Executive Committee was forced to apologize recently after suggesting that Obama may have terrorist connections.

Taken together, these episodes constitute some of the most inflammatory rhetoric of the early campaign season and raise a fairly curious question: what is in the water in Tennessee?

"It is all over the rural parts of Tennessee," said a Democratic source from the state. "And it's not just Republicans. I took that temperature a few months ago and the Democratic Party warned me that even some Democratic officials were believing viral smears about Obama."

Much of the Republican bile directed Obama's way has come, observers say, from the state GOP's communications director Bill Hobbs. A conservative activist and quasi-journalist, Hobbs is known as a somewhat controversial figure. In February 2006 he resigned from Belmont University in Nashville, where he was serving in the communications department, after posting a cartoon of a stick-figured Prophet Mohammed holding a bomb. The drawing, entitled "Mohammed Blows," was meant to spotlight the media's unwillingness to publish the infamous Danish cartoons on Islam.

The firing did not dissuade the Tennessee GOP from offering Hobbs a job, nor did it dissuade Hobbs from pushing the political envelop, which he has done with regularity since taking over the new post.

"I think that [Michelle Obama] video, which we put up on YouTube, struck a nerve. It struck a nerve with Democrats and they squealed and they squealed really loud, and it caused a big storm in the media," he told the Huffington Post. As for whether a candidate's wife should be off limits, he added, "It doesn't matter if the campaign surrogate is married to the candidate or not. What campaign surrogates say on the campaign trail during the course of the campaign is fair game."

But not everyone has been on board. And the reaction to Hobb's work has become a telling illustration of just how difficult it has been for conservatives to settle on a line of attack against Obama. Tennessee's two Republican Senators expressed reservations, with a staffer for Bob Corker demanding that the Michelle Obama spot be taken down, and a spokesman for Lamar Alexander suggesting that "there are probably better ways to communicate our pride in America."

"You've got the more centrist, moderate Republicans who are frankly embarrassed by Hobbs," said Ken Whitehouse, a political reporter for the Nashville Post. "I've got Republican members of the state legislature who are biding their time, keeping their mouth shut, but don't like what he's doing because he is drawing attention to himself and not the message. But at the same time you have people who want to fight and love him for it."

Indeed, it has been rumored that Karl Rove warned the state's party directors not to use Obama's middle name (to insinuate that he is a Muslim) for fear that the GOP would be seen as bigots -- which, if true, puts Bush's brain in a milder camp than some of the state's conservative figures. And yet, it was a Tennessee Democrat who made such an insinuation.

A few weeks ago, former state Rep. Fred Hobbs suggested that Obama "may be terrorist-connected," based on a Fox News report about a Hamas "endorsement." The remark drew a sort of perplexed and outraged response. (A Democratic superdelegate from the state, Lincoln Davis, declared through an aide that while "he does not know for sure if Obama is terrorist connected...he assumes he is not.") Fred Hobbs quickly apologized while Bill Hobbs (not related) pounced on the Democratic dysfunction: "It is interesting to see that the state party claims to be unified behind Barack Obama but it is clearly not true."

More objective sources were forced to insist that (polling be damned) the state was not inherently anti-Obama. But even they admit that the rhetoric emanating from their state, at least so far, has represented the greatest pushing of political boundaries.

"That came out of left field," Whitehouse said of Fred Hobbs' comment. "You are going to have people associated with every party and every state in the nation, you will have people like that. I don't think it is a cultural thing... Does it look bad for Tennessee that both guys named Hobbs are doing this? Yes it looks bad. It is embarrassing as hell. But I don't think these guys represent what mainstream Tennesseans believe."