This is not the Republican party I'm used to. Coming of political age in the early 1990s, I grew up with a Republican party that was downright deadly at kneecapping the political opposition, particularly President Clinton. Though eventually victorious in the court of public opinion, for his entire presidency Clinton and Hillary Clinton were constantly hounded by the Republican Noise Machine, who worked in concert with the Gingrich-led congress to do the best they could to muck up the workings of our government.
Looking back at the work they did versus Al Gore and John Kerry, as well as versus figures like Howard Dean, I'm sort of amazed that they seem so impotent right now. Sure, having their candidate lose the election by over 10 million votes surely had a role, but the conservative disinformation apparatus seems to have run into the same mistake liberals (like myself) made in opposition to George W. Bush.
From the minute Bush entered the national scene, there were competing narratives pushed about him. Either he was a simpleton of the lowest order, or a cunning right-wing Machiavelli. He was either a willing tool of the torture-obsessed Dick Cheney, or he was the Decider calling all the shots. The problem we had on the left was that we pushed both of these versions of Bush relentlessly. The problem is that they directly conflict each other. He can't be both a boob and a cunning trickster at the same time. It wasn't a coherent narrative, and a narrative is what wins or loses a political career. The popular and now default vision of George W. Bush - a gross incompetent that placed unqualified cronies in positions of importance - was not a liberal meme, but one that emerged after Katrina and was cemented by the economic meltdown on his watch that has led to Bush being considered the modern day Hoover.
The right, by contrast, has been very good about setting the narrative for Democratic leaders. Al Gore was a serial liar, they said. John Kerry was a phony war hero, they yelled. These attacks, no matter how detached from reality they might be, took hold because the right was consistent in their application.
But something about Obama has made them flail like nobody's business. Ever since he declared his candidacy for President, they have been unable to settle on a line of attack. And what many don't realize is that the line of attack and its consistent repetition via news that reflects the thesis, is what sticks in today's media culture. The moment of the single campaign "gotcha" died when Bill Clinton survived Gennifer Flowers' early allegations.
At any given moment according to the conservative disinformation apparatus (ie. Fox News, conservative blogs, and talk radio) Barack Obama is a black separatist Muslim born in Kenya who wants to surrender to Al Qaeda and Iran while forcing gay marriage on straight men and abortion on women while also being incompetent and - oh yeah - a fascist Marxist dictator. They said this when he announced his nomination, had it hit a fevered pitch in the last week of the campaign (especially at those Palin rallies) and become standard talking points as part of the teabagging protests.
It won't work. In their anger about President Obama's transformational policies, they're reduced to sputtering. And America notices. Outside of the bitter, clinging 26-30% (the same people who approve of Bush and Sarah Palin), this frenzied flailing at Obama is all for naught. Not only do the disparate messages cancel each other out, but they just don't comport to reality. You could understand, if not agree with, why the accusations of elitism leveled at Al Gore and John Kerry, could stick. But as during the campaign, the mild mannered Obama pays no resemblance to the Lenin-obsessed black nationalist we hear so much about from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Juan Williams won't ever give up his thought that Michelle Obama resembles radical Angela Davis, but what America keeps seeing is an independent, fashionable First Lady.
It isn't just that the right's rhetoric about Obama is so unreal as to be laughable, but we are at a unique point in our modern politics where the unimportant "freak show" trivia that is the life blood of Fox News and Matt Drudge, has been placed in a proper context. Banks on the verge of collapse have a tendency to minimize whatever white noise is kicked up over the president's choice of DVDs for Gordon Brown.
Is the noise machine dead? No. As long as there are outlets like Fox and mainstream journalists like Time's Mark Halperin and Politico's John Harris to foist a neverending torrent of nonsense on the public, the noise machine remains in business. But the severity and unreality of its rhetoric continues to fall apart as America gets to know President Obama and trust him to lead us out of the crisis some of that previous nonsense helped to create.
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