By Joe Campbell
October 4th, 2008
John (may I call you John?):
Sarah Palin said yesterday that Obama had disqualified himself from being commander-in-chief, and today that Obama was “palling around with terrorists” and was “not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America.”
It’s hard to see how she can escalate the rhetoric from here. She can call him a traitor. She can call him a terrorist. She can call him a Muslim. She can say he hates America. These are the only ways to truly go further. Make no mistake – this is a scorched-earth strategy. This is a strategy that attempts to define America in a way that excludes many of it’s citizens. If this is not an explicitly racist strategy, it is as close as a mainstream candidate can get – a candidate I might add who does not seem to be personally racist himself.
If you win with this strategy, the polarization that will accompany your administration will make the polarization of the past fourteen years seem tame. Racial tensions will be exacerbated to a point they have not been since the late 1960s. As this strategy is not designed on a set of policy issues or an agenda, it likely will not benefit the down-ticket candidates much at all, resulting in a expanded Democratic Congress. The feelings in this Congress will likely be as raw as your feelings were after losing to Bush – as you lost to what was previously described to be one of the dirtiest campaigns in history. Remember – you almost became a Democrat in this period – and opposed almost everything Bush proposed (a fact which you’re building on now as you constantly invokes this period to call yourself a maverick). Your contempt for Bush was legendary. And your status as a martyr for the honorable campaign that refused to go negative gave you great credibility.2 Now – imagine that voters elect a Congress of the party who expected to win the White House, only to have it denied them because of a national campaign that was explicitly designed to make their standard-bearer out to be a terrorist-sympathizing, un-American, menacing black man. Democrats will not just believe you cheated to win – but that you encouraged and played on the worst aspects of America in order to do so. And they would be right.
If you – a Republican apparently sympathetic to most of Bush’s policies – was driven to oppose Bush, to lead the charge against him even, by bitterness over your defeat – just imagine how much more bitter, how much angrier, Democrats would be if you were to win with a similar strategy. Imagine the deadlock. Imagine reaching out to this Congress.
But the timing of this attack gives me hope. It is both too late and too early. Those who believe smear emails have heard that Obama is a secret Muslim and hates America and all that. And those who listen to right-wing radio have too. But for many Americans, even as they may have been vaguely aware of such charges, have not heard anyone they trust make them – and they know charges like these have been in the background about every Democratic presidential candidate since at least Bill Clinton in 1992.
But now Palin is bringing them up. And these people have a choice to either trust her or not.
To trust her, these people first need to distrust several things:
- The media (who must be trying to cover up for Obama);
- Obama (who must be hiding his true self);
- The millions of Americans who voted in the Democratic primaries (because at best, they were fooled by Obama into thinking he was a red-blooded American like them);
- Joe Biden, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and many of the other Democrats who vouched for Obama (because if Obama really was a friend of terrorists not qualified to be commander-in-chief who is un-American – and these people have personally met him and subsequently vouched for him, they must at least partially agree with him);
- Themselves (because many of them thought Obama was authentic and inspired a feeling of pride in America in them – that it could produce someone like Obama).
It is the last step which is hardest. Because unless they have been ardently opposed to Obama from the beginning, they must admit that you were wrong – that they were made fools of – in order to believe Palin is right and that Obama stands opposed to what they believe.
They must also distrust their perception – because most people, seeing Obama debate you, saw that he held his own if he did not win outright. Obama was a steady, strong presence. He was confident. He was effective. He seemed very much a potential commander-in-chief. But Palin is telling them that when they saw this, they were wrong.
If this attack had been launched earlier – before most Americans had gotten to know Obama, I think it would have had a greater chance of succeeding. If it had been launched later, and Obama would not have a month to dispel the attacks, it might have swayed more people who would feel uneasy about electing someone who had been charged with such awful things.3 Which is why the timing gives me hope. It leaves just enough time for some well-justified backlash. And it clearly is a sign that you are growing increasingly desperate – as Obama is building a lead.
The fact that these attacks have not been launched by you until now that Obama is gaining ground will make some people distrust them. But the key point is this:
As Abraham Lincoln said,
You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Palin and yourself – in trying to exclude people like Obama from your definition of “American” – are working against what all of us have been taught in schools – our textbook understanding, our Saturday morning cartoon understanding, our life-as-it-is-lived understanding of America. It goes against this idea of America as a combination of a melting pot, Horatio Alger, Grandma, apple pie, cowboys, Martin Luther King, Jr., FDR, Lincoln, JFK, TR, Reagan, a city shining on a hill, a place where we judge people by not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, a tolerant nation, a unique nation, a nation blessed by God, the nation that created jazz, baseball, and the Constitution, that sent men to the moon, that defeated the Nazis and the Communists, that fought a war against slavery, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are protected, where freedom rings, where tolerance reigns, where what is right with America can cure what is wrong with America – this ideal America we aspire to and sometimes seem to almost reach.
Barack Obama represents a nation that united as one on 9/11. Barack Obama would never have existed in an intolerant America, in a non-diverse America, in an America that would not allow a poor child to succeed on his merits. The America that united, with pride and patriotism, with defiance and neighborly spirit on 9/11 is precisely the America that Barack Obama is part of.
John – you and Sarah Palin can attack this America only at your own risk. And you should be careful, lest you go down in history as a villain, instead of the American hero you once were.
A former supporter of yours in 2000,
P.S. Why not be a good fellow and try to make up for your sins here and donate to a good cause?
- Gov. Jesse Ventura vs. The Black Swan: Barack Obama as a Tinkerer
- The Power of Story: 9/11 and the Averted Attack
- John McCain: Gambling With Our Futures
- Fun Fact About McCain #1: Panicking in a Crisis
- The Difference Between McCain’s Bi-Partisanship and Obama’s Post-Partisanship
- On the site, I wasn’t specific about the timing – but in private conversations I was pretty sure when this would be launched. [↩]
- Of course, you had gone negative – just not as bad as Bush. [↩]
- Would you trust someone accused of being a pedophile to watch your children? No – because it might be true. This same type of fear can easily lead people away from the candidate attacked most – unless he or she has a chance to dispel this and for you to come to trust your own judgment and to see the attacks as politically motivated. [↩]