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How Should Obama Respond? A Third Way to End the Sliming

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The SwiftBoating of Barack Obama has begun. And by the same author and organizations. This should have come as no surprise to Senator Obama, his campaign, or to Democrats, and they should have been prepared with an effective response. Yet, their reaction has been weak and ineffective. Pundits may talk all they want about how the Obama campaign, unlike the Kerry campaign of 2004, has launched a counter-offensive to debunk this book. Technically they are correct, but in a deeper sense they are wrong. What has been launched is a defensive response, and such a response cannot succeed. As soon as a politician is on the defensive with something like this, the battle is lost. This is not opinion; this is backed up by psychological science.

Just this Thursday, on the front table at a local bookstore, was Obama Nation. It was listed as non-fiction. Nowhere to be found was the touted 40-page document put together by the Obama campaign refuting the book and detailing its inaccuracies. What every patron saw was the anti-Obama book and that is what will stick in all of their memories.

The problem with refuting slander is that the very act of doing so gives it currency. The charges and countercharges are discussed publicly and in the process the charges are dignified. The Kerry campaign of 2004 realized this and chose to ignore the SwiftBoat ads. This strategy failed because when a candidate ignores a well-organized and funded movement, the narrative of the campaign is written by them. Now Obama is refuting the charges in an effort not to repeat the Kerry mistake -- but this just substitutes a new mistake for the old one. The charges are now being discussed and detailed. So are the refutations but they are not best-sellers sitting on the front table in major bookstores. The belief seems to be that the media will get out the word that the book is scurrilous and the public will reject it. That will never happen.

Here are the psychological facts. Classic studies on attitude research show that the source of a message matters when a person is deciding whether or not to believe that message. That is the good news. Now for the bad news: The same research shows that after a while, the source becomes less important and the content is believed. This is called the "sleeper effect" because it does not manifest itself immediately. Thus the Obama strategy will seem to work at first but ultimately fail as the source of the message is forgotten but the content remains. Anyone who doubts this should look at the persistence of the belief that Obama is a Muslim, was sworn in to the Senate on the Koran, and went to a religious Muslim school. All have been proven false; all remain prominent in the minds of the electorate. The same will happen with the contents of this book.

Even mere repetition of the title of the book -- just the title, nothing else -- will insidiously harm Obama. The book is called "Obama Nation." Say it quickly a few times and what do you have? "Abomination." The unconscious mind is a funny thing. It creates associations. (See Drew Westen's book The Political Brain.) Obama and abomination. Add this to the constant repetition by the media, and you have a very serious problem. If you don't believe that, note how many slips from Obama to Osama there have been. And those slips stick...more negative associations. And if you still don't believe, check out the Internet sites and mainstream news stories about Obama being the Anti-Christ.

So is this hopeless? Are there only two possible strategies? Must you either ignore, as did Kerry, or defend, as is Obama? If this were the case, it would indeed be hopeless. But there is a third way. The solution is not to allow the narrative to be controlled by the anti-Obama forces. The solution is to rewrite the narrative. Here is how:

The Obama campaign should decry the silence of the McCain campaign and of the RNC. They should demand that both organizations denounce this book and all such efforts. Failure to do so indicates tacit endorsement and failed leadership. Perhaps they are even involved at some level. This is, after all, a well-funded and organized effort that benefits both the RNC and the McCain campaign. Certain McCain campaign ads seem to tacitly support these abominable views. Now the narrative shifts from the charges against Obama to the ethics and values of the opposition. If those organizations strongly condemn these tactics (and I mean really condemn them, not "of course we don't approve but..." or "I haven't read the book and so cannot comment."), and shy away from ads that seem to give them currency, the problem will evaporate. Further, others will not attempt it in the coming months.

Even if the RNC is not motivated to do this, McCain should be. After all, he was the victim of vicious false rumors during the 2000 campaign. He knows what it is like and he did not like it. If the RNC and McCain campaign do not condemn this or do so in a half-hearted way, they will be tarred by the brush of association with slime and slander. They will be seen to be as coarse as Corsi. The narrative will then be changed to the topic of ethics in political campaigns, with Republicans on the losing end.

If we can discourage this crash and burn approach to politics, perhaps the next time we visit a bookstore we'll see serious books on politics, politicians, and political psychology prominently displayed instead of unsubstantiated gossip disguised as serious reporting.