Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama should do two things about GOP vice presidential pick Sarah Palin. The first is repeat: "I'm running against John McCain and I'm running for President not Vice President." He should keep repeating that as many times as it takes to get him to back off the distracting, pointless, and self-absorbing amount of time he's spent knocking her. The strength of his appeal and campaign has always been that he's taken the political and ethical high ground. He's stuck to talking about the issues of tax cuts, the Iraq War, the economic meltdown, health care, the housing foreclosure scandal. He's resisted the mighty temptation to take personal slaps at McCain and even Bush. At no point has he stooped to low brow non-issue character assassination.
That changed when he shouted to a crowd in Flint, Michigan, "I mean, you can't just make stuff up. You can't just re-create yourself. You can't just reinvent yourself." He bit hard on the Palin bait and that's a bad thing. A candidate who spends inordinate time and energy trying to tar their opponent runs the same risk as an attorney or a prosecutor in a courtroom. They avoid at all costs being seen as too overly aggressive with a witness. It's called witness badgering and that's even more dangerous when the witness is a middle or working class mother. Bullying her
can stir juror sympathy, even anger toward the attorney or the prosecutor, and it could cost them their case.
Palin is more than a GOP rival. To many she's the epitome of the struggling American mother. Millions of working class mothers will identify with her no matter what their views on abortion, creationism, or her experience or lack thereof. In other words, the bogeyman Obama creates in Palin could be someone else's bigger than life hero. One that's not easily deconstructed later. That's already happened. Packs of Hillary female supporters have expressed outrage at the Palin attacks. And polls show that more white women are shifting to McCain. A big reason: The loony Hate Palin attacks.
The second thing Obama should do is to resend the message that he apparently sent in the first hours after McCain announced he'd picked Palin. When a top Team Obama member hammered Palin, Obama did the smart thing and simply congratulated her and then went back to talking about the issues. He's forgotten that and that's sent the subtle message that it's OK to fan every silly, unsubstantiated, salacious rumor mongering slander and slur that can be conjured up. With some of this stuff you don't know whether to howl with laughter or scream in disgust that presumably intelligent adults not only dignify but actually believe it. A website that exclusively lists and debunks Palin rumors as of September 6 listed seventy-one Palin falsehoods. It warned that the number continues to grow exponentially by the hour.
Here are some of the juicier Palin gems. Her Down Syndrome son is the result of incest between Hubby Todd and their daughter Bristol. Palin called Obama Sambo and Hillary Clinton the "B word." She had an illegitimate child by an African-American. She's an avid porn watcher. She had an affair with her husbands' business partner. Two of her daughters, Willow and Piper, are named after witches on TV. Her son Track who is leaving for Iraq joined the National Guard because he's a drug addict.
Then there is the list of the by now Palin anti's. She's anti-black, Mormon, Semitic, American Indian, Catholic, Muslim, teaching evolution, funding special needs, and animal rights. The two jewels in the anti-Palin crown is that any book that doesn't conform to her alleged crackpot, fringe beliefs will be tossed in a roaring Nazi style public bonfire. The other Palin gem is that God willed the Iraq War.
In sane political times anyone even slightly past the age of reason wouldn't give this stuff a second's notice. It would be laughed away if it appeared on even the most extreme fringe websites. But these aren't sane political times. These are times when even the silliest, most outrageous, even grotesque gossip can quickly take on a life of its own.
In the days ahead it's almost certain that the cottage industry in Palin rumor mongering will grow even bigger and even more outlandish. This will stir even more disgust and anger among many of those who may not have an ounce of sympathy for Palin and the GOP. That in turn will put big smiles on Team McCain. Shrill and vile Palin hits deflect hits on McCain on the issues. They will give credence to the McCain camp's contention that Obama is desperate and will latch onto anything to smear an opponent. They will give even more credence to McCain's rail that the media is a big bad, sexist bully that delights in beating up on a poor, defenseless, mother and woman who just happens to be a presidential ticket candidate. Beating up on Palin is a lose lose for Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).