Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Litigating Weakness -- End of an Era?

So I've been listening to my various Sunday news show podcasts, and there's an interesting phenomenon: no one ever talks about McCain. Every issue is looked at through the lens of Obama. Iraq: is Obama going to withdraw soon enough to please the lefties? Christians: can Obama appeal to them? Swing voters: is Obama too [pick one: weird, Muslim, liberal]? Apparently, this is the frame the MSM has adopted: Americans don't particularly like John McCain, but he's a known quantity. There's nothing he can do to win or lose the election. The whole questions comes down to whether Obama is, to use objective and talented* Rich Lowry's phrase, "minimally acceptable." That the MSM buys into this says something about the MSM, but that's another post for another time.

What's more interesting is that it reveals the last hail-mary in a strategy that the GOP have deployed since 1980. It is the strategy of litigating the Democrat's weakness. In 2004, the GOP put several memes into play that ultimately dominated conversation about the entire election: was Kerry a flip-flopper, was he unpatriotic (the swift-boating), and was he too elite and too liberal for America? We did not litigate the presidency of the incumbent. We didn't even investigate the record of George W. Bush, despite the fact that it was riddled with more failure, inexperience, drug use, and cowardice than any president in my lifetime. Those were verboten, apparently. Rather, Gore was on trial for being dressed by a woman, for his sighs and elitism, and because he was wooden. We elected a man** because the other guy was tried and convicted of being wooden. Helluva nice electorate, that.

Now comes Obama, who is perpetually on trial. Let us sift through the various crimes:
  • Association with a demagogic pastor
  • Being a Muslim
  • Elitism***
  • Dangerous inexperience
  • Lack of sufficient, GOP-sanctioned patriotism***
  • Excessive liberalism***
Did I miss any? Up next: flip-flopping!***

Strangely enough, it works. The media devote single-focused attention on these bogus issues, and in election after election, the Dem is found guilty of these crimes. The pattern is repeating itself now, as Obama must nearly daily defend himself against one unhinged assertion or another. (Today's charge and rebuttal summed up in the AP headline: "Obama denies shifting to reach political center." You expect exclamation points and the issuance of a scarlet letter--"F" for flip-flop, one imagines.)

But maybe it won't work this year. The strategy is effective up until the point when a party's brand is so badly damaged that it must constantly be judged. After the Andy Jackson revolution in 1828, the opposition party was judged so harshly that it folded. Following the humilation of the civil war, the Democratic party was judged time and again as crooks like Grant were re-elected. Following the Roosevelt landslide of 1936, the scarlet letter of greed was affixed to the breast of Republicans, who weren't able to remove it until 1968. This last generation, the old puritan judgment of the citizens held Democrats in contempt. And so we must appear before our interlocutors, the Gibsons and Stephanopouluses, and answer for our shameful affiliations and past crimes.

But the Bush administration has tempered the judgment. Republicans are running the same old crap up the election flagpole, yet they have spent eight years running their own corruption and incompetence up the governance flagpole. It takes a long time of the ship of American public opinion to turn itself around, but once the process starts, it's not clear that baseless attacks hold the same sway they once did. Rich Lowry thinks the Dem has to be just "minimally acceptable" to be elected. He may regret, however, that the rules of acceptance have changed, and that his team no longer dictates them.

**okay, elected isn't the best word.
***how original!

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