Democrats are nervous that the Zen-like demeanor of the campaign is naive, but maybe it's just a way of calming everybody down. By not reacting to every groundless attack, Obama could be leading us into the new politics he promised. Or he could just be a easier target to hit.
The same people who brought you the windsurfing, French-speaking John Kerry are likening Barack Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, so taken with his celebrity that he declined to visit wounded American soldiers recuperating at an Army hospital in Germany when he couldn't bring along his media entourage. The story is untrue as is the ad the McCain campaign quickly whipped up
. The Washington Post found "no evidence at all" for the accusation.
Facts won't stop the McCain people any more than they stopped Karl Rove and the Bush crowd in 2004. The Swift Boat attacks showed it doesn't take facts to get a negative message into the political bloodstream. You can have a huge impact with relatively little money. The more ridiculous the charge--Obama is to blame for high gas prices, Obama is Paris Hilton in drag, Obama disses troops to go to the gym--the more free air time you get from a toothless media watchdog. Republicans worried that their September convention would look pale, male and stale after Obama's rock-star performance in Denver decided to do a Rove--go straight at your opponent's strength and turn his rock-star status into a negative.
The combination of huge adoring crowds in Berlin, a missed visit to the troops and a truncated quote taken out of context form the lethal weapon. "This is the moment … that the world is waiting for," adding "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions." Republicans jumped on the remark as presumptuous. The McCain campaign calls him "The One," and comic Jon Stewart said when Obama was in the Mideast he stopped by the manger in Bethlehem to visit his birthplace. Similarly mocking characterizations helped do in Kerry--and before him, Al Gore, who never said he invented the Internet or discovered Love Canal--but the images stuck because they fit the easy caricature. And the caricature is starting to put a frame on Obama--the biggest celebrity in the world, an out-of-touch elitist who thinks he's already won the election. Earlier attacks that Obama was really a darling of lobbyists or that he was borrowing speeches from campaign co-chair Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick didn't stick because they didn't fit what voters think they know about Obama, that he raises money by the fistfuls over the Internet and he's an accomplished orator and writer.
McCain has zeroed in on the one kernel of truth that can support a web of lies. The Obama people can say they're a transformative campaign, but at some point they have to deal with reality, however distasteful. The old politics is alive and well. If Obama acts like he's above it, he fuels the fire. If he answers in kind, he risks damaging his brand as a new kind of politician. It's the same box he was in during the primaries with Hillary Clinton. Saying this is a new era, that it's not your grandfather's electorate, that the issues of war and energy independence and economic stress trump the old-guard tactic of character destruction may be true--but why take the chance? "There are lots of ways these things become viral, and this is the Ebola virus of 2008," warns Matt Bennett, cofounder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. "I think his guys are brilliant; they'd better take steps to inoculate him."
The campaign fell into a similar trap when Obama made his triumphal march from the Iowa caucuses to New Hampshire. Thousands crowded into his big iconic rallies while Hillary held town meetings, taking questions and engaging the voters. The polls showed Obama with a big lead, but the voters didn't like being told the race was over. The pattern repeated itself in other primary contests. Every time Obama acted like the presumptive nominee, Hillary would rear up and reassert herself.
Moving his acceptance speech into the stadium where the Denver Broncos play will be the high point of the Democratic National Convention. But once the fall campaign unfolds, there will likely be fewer stadium blowouts. As one Democratic strategist put it, "When you're swimming with sharks, you don't cut your finger." Obama has signaled outside groups on the progressive side to stand down, that he wants to control the message, and he has the money to fight on all fronts.