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

Euro-trashed: McCain and GOP Aim to Redefine Obama as Un-American

As his habit, New York Times political correspondent Adam Nagourney likes posing questions in his reporting but then leaves readers dangling by either not answering them or raising even more questions. It's a rhetorical dodge that suits him well in a long, drawn-out presidential campaign. But the big question he posed on Monday -- "Why is Obama not doing better in the national polls after his overseas trip?" -- deserves further consideration.

Nagourney writes that "even Republicans have described {the trip} as politically triumphant, " but he then pivots by asking, "Is Mr. Obama really struggling? Are these summer polls truly evidence of underperformance or fundamental weaknesses in his campaign?"

The piece ends, predictably, with this snooze: "{Voters} might just not be ready to make a decision quite this early."

What Nagourney failed to address is how Americans look at themselves and the world. Obama's rock-star welcome in Berlin, where as many folks showed up to hear him speak as there were at Woodstock, played exceptionally well in almost all the international papers, but left the average American feeling left out, bewildered, or indifferent.

Americans feel nervous about other countries attempting to interfere in their own domestic affairs. We historically resist being told what to do or how to conduct our business. Right after September 11, the U.S. seemed smugly invincible, the world's pre-eminent hyperpower, and as former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld suggested, showed little interest in "Old Europe." Well, that kind of disdain, a falling dollar, Iraq war, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and Bush's bellicose arrogance did much to damage the prestige of our nation, and made the rest of the world turn against us.

It became Euro-chic to be anti-American, especially among the left. But along comes Obama, and what we're now witnessing is an awakening, a seismic shift in feel-good attitudes about the gilded promise of American idealism. An Obama presidency, many believe, will do much to wipe away the ugly stains of the Bush years. In fact, Der Spiegel is already calling Obama the 44th president.

But this is the kind of blatant foreign editorial support that could backfire for the Democratic nominee. We may drive German cars, but we don't want to be driven by the Germans. The Germans might own some of our largest book publishing companies, but we don't want to be told how to think.

What Democrats must hope and pray for is that Europe mutes its vocal support for Obama. Turn down the volume, please. There is the danger that Republicans will use enthusiastic international backing as evidence that Obama is somehow too un-American to be president. What is celebrated and discussed in the cafés of Paris is of no concern to Sam's Club shoppers in Peoria.

In the last presidential election, the Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper, engaged in a voter experiment called "Operation Clark County." Slate's Andy Bowers explains what happened in October 2004: "The idea was simple: Give U.K. readers frustrated with the Bush administration a way to help drive him from office. The left-wing newspaper targeted one swing county in one swing state {in Ohio} and invited readers to send one-on-one letters to independent American voters.

"The response was huge and immediate. More than 11,000 Guardian readers across Britain and, soon, around the world signed up for the project. But almost as soon as Operation Clark County was announced, right-leaning media and bloggers counterattacked. They masqueraded as interested lefties and got the paper to hand over some of the voters' addresses." Many sent nasty "anti-Limey" letters to the newspaper. Bowers quotes from one: "Consider this: stay out of American electoral politics. Unless you would like a company of US Navy Seals -- Republican to a man -- to descend upon the offices of the Guardian, bag the lot of you, and transport you to Guantanamo Bay, where you can share quarters with some lonely Taliban shepherd boys."

And so, just how did Clark County vote in the 2004 presidential election? Bowers provides the answer: "In 2000, Al Gore won Clark County by 324 votes," but "Kerry won every Gore county in Ohio except Clark. Nowhere among the Gore counties did more votes move from the blue to the red column than in Clark."

The lesson of the Clark County presidential press experiment is NIMBY-- not in my own backyard. The election is for Obama to lose, and without help or hindrance from well-meaning meddlers from across the pond.

Already there seems to be a Berlin Barack backlash amid Republican (and independent) voters who are increasingly warming up to McCain. Nothing energizes the right more than the fear of losing a presidential election. McCain has capitalized on this collective anxiety by constantly referring to himself as the underdog, while attacking Obama -- and at the same time, reassuring voters that he is the happy, patriotic warrior they can trust. At the Columbus, Ohio hofbrau last week, he wondered out loud to the few reporters gathered there why his opponent was busy campaigning in Europe while neglecting the American heartland. But McCain sounded defensive and unconvincing, and so his camp later went for the jugular with a television ad attacking Obama for hitting the gym at the Ritz Carlton but finding no time to visit wounded U.S. troops in a German-based hospital. It was a low-blow that played loose with the actual facts.

The GOP will continue to run negative ads like this one because it wants to redefine Obama for undecided voters as a liberal pacifist whose national-security bona-fides are suspect. Can he be entrusted to sit in the Oval Office? His odd name, his mixed racial background, his outspoken wife, his past ties with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his lack of military service, his legislative and foreign-policy inexperience, his ascetic eating habits, his Harvard elitism will all be used to present a most damning portrait of the Democratic nominee.

As it now stands, Obama is being grossly caricatured by the GOP in ways that bear little relation to the truth. So why isn't Obama's camp and the Democrats offering a more spirited defense? Is the party too smug or cocky or decent to roll up its sleeves and fight fire with fire? Where are the partisan-fueled rebuttals that go beyond calling McCain's remarks "wildly inappropriate?"

Timid, skittish reactions also doomed Kerry, Gore, and Dukakis who were each ill-equipped to deal effectively with GOP smears. No wonder the Democrats have had difficulty occupying the Oval Office. By contrast, the Republicans seem to operate by one set of rules, and the Democrats by another. The GOP will continue to demonize the Illinois senator. It has no shame when it involves character assassination. It plays to win. By Election Day, the McCain camp will want you to believe that a vote for Obama is a vote for Osama.