In the last few days, it seems about a dozen communications experts have written pieces on HuffPo calling on the Obama campaign to get tougher with their messages (including my piece just yesterday).
Not a moment too soon.
This "sex ed" ad the McCain campaign just launched is waaaay over the line. After a parade of out-of-context quotes, it shows Obama smirking naughtily as the voiceover talks about him wanting to provide "comprehensive" sex education to Kindergarteners. The voiceover by itself is hard-hitting, but together with the visuals, the ad basically paints Obama as a pedophile. (In reality, the legislation provides for educating younger children about the difference between good touches and bad touches to help protect them against pedophiles.)
So this is it. This is Obama's Dukakis-and-the-death-penalty moment.**
Everyone who sees this ad can see how dirty it is. And if Obama wants Americans to respect him, they must be allowed to see him object as strongly - a controlled, but still palpable anger - as they would if somebody did that to them.
That means Obama should address the issue, personally and promptly, and do it just right. He should talk about how he has young daughters, and how just like any parent, he wants to do everything he can to protect them from pedophiles.
We should see his disapproval in his face: he must furrow his brow and narrow his eyes. He is so cool, he very rarely does this, but it is critical in this situation, as people will look for his feelings in his facial expression. He can speak in a voice of controlled anger - softly even, that's fine - but we need to be able to tell how he feels with the sound turned off. Not raging-hot angry, but piercing, calm, dignified angry.
This is not a moment for Obama to be relaxed and detached and thoughtful. This is a moment for him to show America how he behaves when something despicable is done to him, so we can all see how he would behave as our leader if something despicable were done to us - as it was on 9/11, and could be again. He should be dignified, but he should be tough as well.
Frankly, I doubt the McCain campaign created this ad for the mileage they can get out of the smear itself. No, they have seen how detached Obama can seem, and they are trying to showcase this for voters. They want to get Obama to under-react, to be inappropriately cool, to make him look emotionally out of touch the way Dukakis did. They're kicking sand in his face so voters can see him stand there and take it.
Obama needs to call their bluff. He should say he is proud of that legislation, because it helps protect little children from being preyed on by pedophiles, and as the parent of two young daughters, he wants to do everything he can to keep them safe... And it is despicable that someone would try to twist that into something sexually perverted to score political points. It is not just outrageous, it is shameful. John McCain has served his country with great honor. This kind of campaigning is not worthy of the man or his legacy.
If that sounds like a little much, read it again and get used to it. That is probably not quite the right phrasing, but that kind of language is exactly what this situation calls for.
Yes, it is important not to leave the impression that Obama is an angry man, especially in light of his ethnicity and this country's race relations, and for the next few days the campaign should be sure to feed the press lots of smiling, light-hearted images of Obama.
But this moment is a Dukakis moment: it calls for anger. If Obama wants to be our leader, he needs to show us what he's got. The McCain campaign doesn't think he has it in him to rise to the occasion. His challenge is to prove them wrong.
** From Wikipedia: The issue of capital punishment came up in the October 13, 1988 debate between the two presidential nominees... [W]hen Bernard Shaw, the moderator of the debate, asked Dukakis, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis replied coolly, "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life," and explained his stance... Many observers felt Dukakis' answer lacked the passion one would expect of a person discussing a loved one's rape and death. Many -- including the candidate himself -- believe that this, in part, cost Dukakis the election, as his poll numbers dropped from 49% to 42% nationally that night. Other commentators thought the question itself was unfair, in that it injected an irrelevant emotional element into the discussion of a policy issue and forced the candidate to make a difficult choice.