Listening to Barack Obama's acceptance speech, I got two messages. The first was tactical. Like a general mapping out a battle strategy, Obama has listened carefully to his critics, and in the speech he rolled out rebuttals, one by one, to the charge that he must announce plans and solutions to the country's nagging problems. His trademark eloquence mostly had to wait until the last few moments, but when it came, the giant stadium audience was moved. Yet for all its effectiveness in terms of tactics, the speech didn't dispel the specter that hung over it, and over the Obama campaign as a whole. The second message I heard was one of doubt and bewilderment. Can it really be true that a vast swath of the electorate thinks that Obama isn't an American or Christian, that he's a Muslim who wants to raise their taxes? A wiffle ball celebrity who has no real ideas?
At the root of this specter is apathy and indifference. By now, the country should know who Obama is and what he stands for. Most people do, in fact, and they have picked sides. They probably picked sides months ago, since the better informed a voter is, the more likely they are to make their decisions in the opening months of an election. The least informed and most apathetic voters make up their minds late, and it's these whom Obama must persuade. Can he?
For the past eight years the Republican machine has counted on the power of apathy to win elections. The effect works on several fronts:
--Appeal to bias and prejudice: Tell the voter that he's right to distrust Obama and all black men in general. If you're lucky, no new thinking or attitudes will pierce the shield of fixed opinions.
--Paint easy stereotypes: In Obama's case, the stereotype is of the snob and outsider, the elitist who isn't like you and me.
--Appeal to patriotism: Imply that Obama doesn't love the flag and therefore is inclined to cut and run, give in to foreign enemies, and neglect security.
--Fabricate falsehoods and never back down from your lies: Swift boating is the classic example, but calling Obama a Muslim competes on the same level of sleaze and dishonesty.
--Doubt your opponent's masculinity: This goes along with branding Obama a snob and an elitist but takes a subtle turn with the suggestion that he isn't experienced enough to run a war: he's a green youth sent to do a soldier's job.
--Fan the flames of fear: A tactic that won over the security moms for Bush in 2004 but has since weakened its punch. Fear could easily rise again if there is a major security threat between now and the election.
--Tell the public that everything is fine and not to worry. This is the opposite of the last point, but a certain segment of the population isn't bothered by contradictions. If Obama can be a Muslim and have a crazy Christian preacher at the same time, people might buy that the economy is tanking but there's no need to rock the boat.
It's tragic that these simple, low tactics have been so thoroughly effective since Reagan's rise in 1980, became perfected when the first George Bush slimed Michael Dukakis, and reached an apogee under Karl Rove. It's not an absolute truth that appealing to the most indifferent and least informed voters wins elections. But in an environment where two or three percentage points can shift the Presidency, playing the apathy card seems to work. What Obama has on his side is powerful: higher registration among Democrats, a surge of charisma and optimism, intelligence, a widespread sense that the Bush administration has been a massive failure, all the blunders in Iraq, a sagging economy, soaring gas pries, a mass perception that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and a workable vision for getting America back on track. In ordinary times, these advantages would overwhelm the Republicans and their none-too-strong candidate. Then you look at the polls and ask yourself, If Obama is so obviously superior by almost any measure, why isn't he ahead already?
I don't think anyone knows. We can speak of hidden racism and a need, as yet unfilled, for the average person to find out more about Obama, who remains, oddly, an enigma to many on Main Street. But the larger truth is that we have lived in the post-Watergate era with apathy and cynicism as the common denominator of politics. It would be a greater tragedy if this sad tradition continues, yet it will take nothing less than a sea change to end it.
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