08/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics Of Stupid

Who played the race card against whom? And in what order, and why?

These questions -- endlessly turned over in the media yesterday -- actually represent the playing of an even more dastardly and insidious "card" against the entire electorate. The stupid card. Right now, both John McCain and Barack Obama are playing it. But not in the same way, and not with the same level of enthusiasm.

The answers to this week's race controversy were actually pretty straightforward. Yes, Obama was drawing attention to his blackness during his "dollar bill" remarks, as have scurrilous pundits and talk radio hosts and his (anonymous) chain email antagonists. It's inevitable at this point, and Obama is utterly within his rights, at any rate, to make mention of race and the possible ways that can seep into the campaign. But also, Obama did get a touch too sloppy with his use of the plural pronoun "they," which, if you parse his remarks, could only have meant President Bush and John McCain. (All plural pronouns refer to antecedents, after all.)

But the race card? It's a stretch, and the reason you know that's the case is because McCain operatives say they elected to play all their response cards this time in order to pre-empt the real thing from happening down the road. Nice move, if you can get away with it. But when Harpo Marx tried that trick in the movies, his fellow card players, rather sensibly, just up and left the table.

What should be doubly unsettling for Democrats is the fact that McCain's campaign appears to have convinced Obama to play some stupid cards of his own.

Instead of the cucumber-cool "dirt off ya shoulder" Obama who consistently appeared, at least in public, unruffled by the Clinton campaign's more surreal gambits, John McCain's "Celeb" advertisement -- replete with comparisons to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton -- appears to have Obama rattled enough that he's taunting McCain in response, asking "Is that the best you can do?" in Iowa on Thursday.

When was the last time Obama taunted anyone (off the basketball court)? It's not his style -- though one could imagine Sen. Joe Biden pulling that off as a running mate. Meantime, the Illinois Democrat is just playing McCain adviser Steve Schmidt's game. In response to their "Celeb" television ad, the Obama camp rattled off a nervy response that, for all its accusations that the other side was trotting out the "same old politics," looked an sounded a lot like, well, the same old kind of political response ad.

Black and white freeze frames? Check. Stern-but-not-angry female voice? Check.

So McCain won the day by being a better shadow-boxer. Perhaps Schmidt, a Karl Rove protege, has convinced The Maverick that this is the only kind of fight he can win, what with voters broadly trusting Democrats on domestic issues and foreign leaders lending credibility to Obama's supposedly invalid national security priorities. But that's not the game Obama has to play. Think about it: last week, most political observers were marveling at how well the trips to Afghanistan, Iraq and Europe had gone for the Democrat. The focus was on whether the Anbar Awakening began before the "surge" in Iraq, or whether a 16-month withdrawal was what a sovereign Iraqi government would in fact prefer. Little details like that.

Staying smart is sometimes thought to be the strategy preferred by mushy-headed liberals who are afraid of down and dirty combat. But for Obama, it's already paid high dividends. Forgetting that now would be stupid.

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