This year should be a perfect storm for a Democratic presidential candidate, particularly one with the rhetorical gifts of Barack Obama. McCain has literally every indicator political scientists enter into their models to predict electoral success or defeat working against him: He has repeatedly allied himself with the most unpopular president since the history of modern polling, describing Bush in 2006 as one of our greatest presidents and musing about having Dick Cheney in a McCain cabinet (two facts the Obama campaign has failed to advertise). He has embraced the most unpopular war since Vietnam. And in the summer before the election, the economy is arguably in its worst shape since the Great Depression, with American families spending a greater percentage of their income on basic necessities, home foreclosures at their zenith, and the ratio of job loss to job creation at its highest since the 1930s.
And those are just the beginning of McCain's problems. Every time he panders to the right he turns off moderates, and every time he takes a moderate position he reinforces the view on the right that he is not a "true conservative" and depresses voter turnout from his base And finally, whether the stress of tacking right and left so many times over the last two years has taken the wind out of his sails or whether he's just gotten too old and tired to take on the rigors of a presidential campaign, he has lost the sparkle that once drew many moderates and even many liberals to him, while running against the most charismatic leader to emerge on the political scene since Bill Clinton.
Yet now John McCain is tied with Obama in the Gallup polls, in a dead heat in the mid 40s for the third consecutive day.
McCain's Only Road to Victory
As I argued several weeks ago in The New Republic, with the winds so strongly blowing against him, the only road John McCain can take to Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the few pieces of infrastructure left in good repair by the Bush administration: the low road. And in the intervening weeks he has made precisely the staff changes in his campaign necessary to turn that road into a superhighway, by hiring a team of Rove acolytes, and has begun to implement exactly the strategies characteristic of a Rove campaign. And they are working.
1. Attack his opponent's great strength. For Kerry, it was his military heroism. For Obama, it is his charisma. This week McCain, with a strong assist from the media and an Obama campaign apparently on vacation, turned an extraordinary foreign success into Paris Hilton celebrity and an illustration of how Obama is arrogant, cocky, and too big for his britches, acting like a president when he's just a nominee. (The fact is, of course, that he did exactly what McCain did, but for Obama, people showed up.)
2. Identify a wedge issue. Now that gays have lost their luster and Republicans have started to worry that too much immigrant-bashing will lead to a permanent Democratic majority as the country becomes increasingly brown, Republicans found a perfect issue in an election year in which the Democratic presidential candidate is black: affirmative action. The GOP has gotten the issue on the ballot in a handful of states, including McCain's home state of Arizona, and McCain suddenly last weekend "saw the light" and changed his position, now supporting the initiative banning affirmative action in Arizona, having previously called such efforts divisive. No one called him on it as far as I know. Now today's New York Times reports that Obama wrote as a law student in the Harvard Law Review that he was a beneficiary of affirmative action.
3. Brand Obama as effete, out of touch, outside the mainstream, different, foreign, not one of "us." This is the same strategy used effectively against every Democrat other than Clinton since Dukakis.
The Ties that Bind, the Ties that Divide
Against the perfect storm of an unpopular incumbent, an unpopular war, and an economy that has led banks to close and millions to lose their jobs and homes, McCain's campaign is creating a perfect counter-storm. Each element described above draws power on its own from the worst in our nature--the prejudice, hate, contempt, and stereotyping that have become the bread and butter of Republican campaigns for four decades, intensified since the entry of Lee Atwater and then Karl Rove onto the national scene. But just beneath the surface of each of these elements--enough below to allow plausible deniability ("there's gambling in this establishment?")--is the tie that binds them: race.
Obama's extraordinary capacity to meet with world leaders on an equal footing wasn't presidential, the story goes, even though McCain goaded him into the trip, assuming he would look and be treated like a novice. Instead, his confidence, competence, and Kennedy-like star-power became an example of his not knowing his place. (Does the term "uppity" come to mind?)
The focus on affirmative action divides the nation along racial lines by combining prejudice with legitimate grievances about the way affirmative action was implemented over the years (e.g., through quotas) and by the disastrous tendency of many on the left to drive white working class men out of the Democratic Party since 1964 (the last time white men voted Democratic nationally) by referring to them universally as privileged, when their experience of punching a timecard or working in a coal mine or an assembly plant belies that epithet and rightfully enrages them. But affirmative action is a particularly powerful tool in this election year as a stealth attack, because it activates unconscious sentiments that will likely come to an occasional conscious boil: Is Obama an affirmative action candidate, who didn't really earn his place on the ticket but was just placed there by zealous liberals (an idea unfortunately voiced consciously in the primary season by Geraldine Ferraro, and no by the words penned by his own hand as a law student)? Is he going to favor black people as president, or as described "colorfully" in a message circulating on the Internet, "paint the White House black?"
And branding Obama as different, "unknown" (despite two years of intense scrutiny and two books that reveal his inner thoughts, some of them very personal--and hardly what a 33-year-old black man aspiring to the presidency would reveal), outside the mainstream, and "not sharing our values" keeps his blackness at a heightened state of unconscious activation in the mind and brain of the voter. The purpose of the Muslim smear that began nearly two years ago on the Internet, like the purpose of conservative commentators' constantly using his middle name and Fox's repeated confusions of "Obama" and "Osama," was surely never to convince voters that he was Muslim, which its purveyors had to know would eventually be exposed as untrue (although the Obama campaign's choice to read from the Democratic playbook and let insidious attacks fester for as long as possible rather than addressing them head on didn't help with the plurality of voters convinced by them by February or the 10 percent of the population who believe them to this day, even after watching the "endless loop" of clips of Reverend Wright).
The purpose of that smear was to lay the groundwork for making Obama "them" instead of "us" (with the added benefit of connecting the unconscious dots between black and Muslim, reminding an older generation of a different kind of Muslim terrorist threat from within). And it has succeeded, creating a large percentage of the population, including many traditionally Democratic voters, who voice sentiments such as "something about him just makes me uneasy," or "I don't feel like I really know him," that bind together these nagging doubts about him with unconscious negative attitudes toward African-Americans they may consciously eschew--and mean it. The data from psychology and neuroscience are clear that even people who are consciously opposed to discrimination--which is most Americans--may hold negative unconscious attitudes toward African-Americans, reflecting the images they see on television, personal encounters, or the residues of an era past in which the only role for blacks was in low-level service jobs, and that make the image of a black president difficult, if largely unconsciously, for older white voters.
The Architecture of a Stealth Campaign
Recent history--as recent as the midterm election of 2006, when Congressman Harold Ford went down to defeat in a race-baited campaign for Senate in Tennessee against a white candidate whose stump speech and advertising centered on the question, "Who's the real Tennessean?"--suggests that Democratic "politics as usual" (i.e., when something unpleasant comes up, avoid it and talk about Social Security and Medicare) does not disarm these kinds of stealth racial appeals. Nor do facts. We can expect conservative 527 groups to unleash a series of ads that use Obama's own words and voice from his extraordinary autobiography, Dreams from my Father, against him to drive home both his differentness and his blackness. Television listeners will hear passages describing the pilgrimage he made to Africa to solidify his identity as a young man, or the fact that his father was a polygamist (perhaps that will make Mitt Romney an acceptable running mate for McCain), or that his grandfather in Africa was a convert to Islam. This is the stuff of great superficial media coverage, as each new ad unfolds, drawing endless discussions from pundits about how it will affect the average white American.
It is in this context that the McCain campaign made its impressive tactical strike this week, accusing Obama of "playing the race card" when he began inoculating voters against the racially tinged attacks that have been coming his way for two years and that right-wing media consultants have already telegraphed will be coming in full force at the appropriate moment (say, October, or during the Democratic Convention). The McCain campaign's move was intended to put Obama's campaign on the defensive, allow McCain to cry foul in the future (and win votes from incredulous and indignant whites about a black man in a position of power complaining about racism) anytime McCain brings up a racially divisive issue like affirmative action, and to "remind" voters that it was Obama who injected race into the campaign as he denounces the inevitable 527 ads to come that will play on Obama's blackness. McCain's new team has some very good chess players, and they thought several moves ahead. They were obviously waiting for this chance since Obama successfully inoculated against and foreshadowed future stealth attacks with his humorous remark a few weeks ago that "They're going to try to make you afraid of me. He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"
McCain and his advisors know that McCain can't be the one to run ads that cross the race line, at least not blatantly the way George H.W. Bush did with the infamous Willie Horton ad. But he can lay the groundwork for those attacks, and he already has. His first ad of the general election, a biographical spot called "The American President," had all the trappings of a positive, inspirational piece. But both its name and its final line--"John McCain: The American president Americans have been waiting for"--suggest a more insidious subtext. What other kind of president is there? An un-American president? An anti-American president? An African-American president?
When you hear unusual syntax in a Republican ad, you know the goal is something other than the conscious text. Why didn't the ad end with the grammatically expectable tagline, "John McCain: The president Americans have been waiting for"? For the same reason that the "Harold, Call Me Ad" (whose creator McCain hired within weeks of the successful race-baiting ad against Harold Ford in Tennessee) ended that ad with the syntactically peculiar words (written in white against a black screen): "Harold Ford. He's just not right." (Figure out what the brain alternatives the brain is activating as it is trying to process that sentence.)
McCain's campaign has recently followed this "positive" ad with a series of attacks ads with a similar theme: "Country First," which now appears not only in his ads (which end, "John McCain: Country First") but also in his stump speeches, letters exhorting conservatives to give to his campaign, and the banners behind him as he speaks. On the surface, of course, only a paranoid could see something insidious about his advertising that he puts his country first, right? But half of branding is identifying a tagline that differentiates a "product" from its competitors, and a political campaign run by understudies of Karl Rove does not select its taglines without maximizing bang for the buck. How does that tagline distinguish the two candidates? What is the implicit contrast with Obama? Who or what would he put first as president?
Only a few weeks have passed since McCain substituted Rove operatives for the campaign team that gave him a small speech with a small audience against a putrid green background as Obama prepared to deliver a larger than life speech with a larger than life audience as the backdrop on the evening he clinched the nomination. The change is obvious, and it has yielded dividends. After an extraordinary week abroad that led Obama to surge to a 9-point lead in the polls, McCain's team managed, with the help of a relentlessly carping media (bending over backward not to be "biased" by showing people responding to Obama in ways they do not respond to McCain), to convince voters that they hadn't seen what they'd just seen with their own eyes, that everyone from European, Arab, and Israeli leaders to our own troops in Iraq were embracing Barack Obama as the breath of fresh American air that he is after eight years of bully diplomacy and revolving door military service--and to belittle the trip as mere "celebrity." Within days, Obama's lead evaporated, even though he had just answered the main question voters have consciously had about him, voiced in Hillary's 3am ad and McCain's relentless and often condescending taunts: Does he have the right stuff to be the leader of the free world?
Is There an Antidote?
The question, of course, is whether there is an antidote to what has come and what lies ahead in the racial minefield of the 2008 election. I believe there is, but it runs against the instincts of most Democratic consultants, which is to duck for cover and change the subject when uncomfortable elephants are in the room. What Obama and his team need to do more than all else is to resist the temptation to run away from talking honestly about race or speak about issues related to it euphemistically.
Most Americans are not overt racists. But virtually all of us have internalized images and ideas that we may consciously disavow--as when our hearts beat a little faster when a young black man is approaching us on a dark street. Our better angels on race are our conscious values. Most Americans consciously detest racism, and they aren't simply lying to themselves or to pollsters. The more Barack Obama can fight this battle on the conscious battlefield, where virtually all Americans oppose discrimination on the basis of arbitrary characteristics such as race, the more he will win the hearts and minds of the American people and the more they will feel they know and can trust him. The more he shows white rural voters and white working class males that he isn't afraid to talk about his color, that he isn't afraid to talk about what it was like to grow up with a white mom and white working class grandparents but to have a black face, that he understands what it's like to feel tough economic times because he's lived through those times and because he worked for years to help workers who'd seen their plant doors shutter, that he isn't afraid to talk about both affirmative action and extending it to kids from poor rural schools regardless of their color, that he isn't afraid to talk about his values and his hopes for his two children because they're the same values and hopes most Americans share for their kids, that he isn't afraid to take stands that are unpopular but is willing to talk about why he is taking them, the more he will earn their trust.
And he needs to make clear to those same voters that he understands that if they want to know who he is and wonder whether he understands people like them, that's perfectly reasonable. Sure, he may have a higher bar to cross for some because of his color--just as a white politician might at first have to prove himself to black people he wants to represent--but that that doesn't make them racists with KKK hoods in the back of their cars. He needs to learn the lessons of his own magnificent speech in Philadelphia, which, as poll number showed (contrary to media chatter), was not "over the heads" of the millions of Americans who saw an American politician, and an African-American one at that, speak openly about both prejudice and legitimate grievances on both sides, like the fear and anger of white parents whose children were bused to parts of town that would make any reasonable parent afraid, including the parents who have to rear their children there.
So how could Obama have responded to McCain's claim that his warning that the Republicans were going to try to make him out to be different, scary, and not like the faces on our currency (a great line, if you ask me) constituted "playing the race card" and "dealing from the bottom of the deck"? I won't presume to speak in Barack Obama's voice. Only he can do that, and God knows, he has an extraordinary voice, especially on this issue, as anyone knows who has read Dreams from My Father. But suppose he said something like this:
Senator McCain, I don't presume to know what's in your heart. I don't presume to know why you were in the minority even in your party in voting against the Martin Luther King holiday, any more than I presume to know what you were thinking when you and President Bush were eating birthday cake at your home in Arizona when people were hanging from the rooftops--not just black people--in New Orleans during Katrina. I don't presume to know what was in your heart when you suddenly reversed course this week from supporting affirmative action programs aimed at giving people who are willing to work hard a hand up and not a handout, to suddenly supporting a ballot initiative in your home state that would set the clock back 40 years, when you had previously described those ballot initiatives as thinly veiled efforts to divide American against American.
But I'll tell you what I do know. Your party has used race to try to divide us in every election since 1968. You have personally attacked my patriotism, and you're not going to do it again. You've spoken to me in patronizing ways that frankly a man of your limited knowledge of the issues that confront the American people--who can't even keep straight who the warring factions are in the Middle East, which is supposedly your strong suit, and who is so out of touch on the economy that his first response to the mortgage crisis was to blame it on the victims of unscrupulous lenders--has no business doing, and you will not speak to me that way again. You and your wife have attacked my character and the character of my wife, and I suggest you not try that again, because that is a road you do not want to go down. I have always assumed that you were a man of honor, but frankly, your relentlessly negative attacks on me and your indifference to the truth is starting to make a lot of Americans wonder. For a man who said he wanted to run an honorable campaign, how many weeks and how many phone calls from Karl Rove did it take you to find the low road?
My comments were intended simply to warn the American people not to be taken in by efforts to paint me as different, as outside the mainstream, as not like them, as not sharing their values, because they are attempts to divide Americans in a way that is un-American. No more, no less. Do I think you or your Republican allies will use my race to try to drive that point home? It's already been done. Did Fox News ever refer to your wife as your "Baby Mama?" And what exactly did your surrogate, Terry Hill, mean last week when he described me on national television as "more politician than he is American"?
Senator, I believe we are one nation, under God, indivisible, and I will do everything in my power as president, and in this campaign, to keep it that way. I suggest you aspire to the same standard. That's what I believe it means to be an American.
The goal of a response like this is not to answer a charge that is nothing but a smokescreen for an attempt to inject race into the race under the guise of attacking such tactics. It makes McCain and the fire he is lighting the issue, and it changes the focus of media attention from Obama's statement to McCain's statement, record, and history.
It has been 40 years since such an eloquent voice has emerged on race as the voice of Barack Obama. He and his campaign should have more faith in his capacity to use it.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 primaries.