Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Harold Fording of Barack Obama

Is the Clinton campaign about to do to Barack Obama what the GOP did to Harold Ford? Depending on the day, the Clinton campaign is either a well-disciplined, well-oiled machine where every word is scripted-even some of the audience questions-or it's a ragtag bunch of shoot-from-the-hip media hounds who just say whatever off the top of their head-and then resign or apologize, but, regardless, capture at least three news cycles with yet another awfully-close-to-racist attack on Obama that the Clinton campaign obviously doesn't endorse. And, by the way, shame on you for thinking that they would. It's all just below the radar. There's always room for plausible deniability. And it's very, very effective.

A seamy line of attack on Obama has been building since before the Iowa caucuses when Clinton's campaign co-chair resigned after suggesting Obama would be asked about whether he sold drugs. Then, Bill Clinton-possibly the best pure politician of our time-suggested that Obama was a role of the dice, and Mark Penn managed to work the word "cocaine" into a statement denying they were attacking Obama about admitted drug use. Today's comments by BET founder Robert L. Johnson while he was on stage with Hillary Clinton reminded me of the attack on Harold Ford during the 2006 Tennessee senate race and were the most vicious yet. You can read his comments here, including this jewel:

“And to me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood –­ and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in the book –­ when they have been involved.” Moments later, he added: “That kind of campaign behavior does not resonate with me, for a guy who says, ‘I want to be a reasonable, likable, Sidney Poitier ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ And I’m thinking, I’m thinking to myself, this ain’t a movie, Sidney. This is real life.”

Later, in a statement, Johnson said that he was simply referring to Obama's community organizing, how dare anyone suggest otherwise. Right.

Of course, in the movie, Poitier played a black doctor who was to wed a white socialite. For the uninitiated, Harold Ford ran for the senate in Tennessee and was beaten, in large part, by the now-infamous "Call Me Harold" ad. Here's, from The Prospect is Emory professor Drew Westen's analysis of that ad and it's impact: (it's long, but it's worth the read.)

Flying Hate Below the Radar
On Election Day, Democrats outflanked Republicans in every closely contested Senate race except one: Tennessee. At first blush, this is surprising, given that Harold Ford Jr., like so many of the other candidates who defeated Republican incumbents (Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, and Claire McCaskill, for example), was an emotionally compelling candidate. However, if we take a look at the way the Republicans used a sophisticated understanding of how networks operate, we can see both the limits of conventional analyses of the ad campaign ("Was it racist, or wasn't it?")
that led to the rapid decline in Ford's poll numbers, and what his campaign might have done to counteract it. The infamous ad, created by a prot¨¦g¨¦ of Karl Rove, was actually part of a broader stealth campaign orchestrated by now Senator-elect Bob Corker and the Republican National Committee. The stealth attack, designed to fly far enough below the radar to allow "plausible deniability" of racist intent, capitalized on the way neural networks work. If I were to ask you to name the first American automobile company that comes to mind, many of you will would say "Ford," even though you could just as easily have responded with one of the other Big Three. The reason is that I've just "primed" your neural networks with Harold Ford, putting anything associated with "Ford" at a heightened state of unconscious activation. The Republican campaign against Harold Ford Jr. played these kinds of networks like a fiddle at Opryland. As Corker fell slightly behind Ford in the polls, he began describing himself as the "real Tennessean," using as a cover story that Ford was a city slicker from Washington. This was a curious charge to make, given that Corker had been attacking Ford and his family for being part of a Tennessee political machine (although once again Corker had plausible deniability because Ford had spent part of his childhood in Washington). The Republican National Committee then ran an ad the Corker campaign disavowed once it drew national attention, allowing him to claim distance while taking advantage of its effects. But Corker then followed it up with another ad of his own that makes clear that the ads were coordinated. The ad that drew media interest began with a scantily clad white woman declaring excitedly, "I met Harold at the Playboy party!" She returns at the end of the ad, with a seductive wink, saying "Harold, call me." The obvious goal was to activate a network about black men having sex with white women, something about which many white men, including those who are not consciously prejudiced, still feel queasy. The "call me" line came just after the ad had ostensibly ended with the following words on the screen: "Harold Ford. He's Just Not Right." When I first saw the ad, I thought the syntax was peculiar.What did they mean by "He's just not right?" That's a term often used to describe someone with a psychiatric problem, and no one was suggesting that Ford was deranged. Then I realized what was wrong. If you were going to use that syntax, you'd say "He's just not right for Tennessee." What the viewer of the ad is not aware of (unless he or she is Tweetie Bird, or has trouble pronouncing r's), is that another network is being activated unconsciously. This second network was primed not only by the racial associations to the ad itself but by the broader campaign emphasizing that Ford isn't "one of us": "He's just not white."

For the record, I support John Edwards and have not made a decision about who I will support should he not be the nominee. These tactics-and I think that are tactics not accidents-do not leave me with warm feelings about Sen. Clinton. There's a an undercurrent around Hillary Clinton-sometimes very, very close to her-that tweaks our worst selves-the part of us that fears, stereotypes and hates. I don't like it, and I suspect that I am not alone. I don't buy the idea that these highly-placed surrogates have just accidentally spoken in error-in virtual concert. Either way, surely, someone who would be President can find a way to shut down this unconscionable line of attack.


Tina said...

My feeling is that the press is exaggerating the "race/civil rights dispute" and it works to the detriment of both candidates.
Networks are so hungry for "new news" that they will leap on any verbal mis-step and turn it into a seemingly major issue. Both Obama and Clinton are on the correct side (the Democratic side!) where matters of gender, race, and civil rights are concerned. It isn't really so awful, for example, to mention that a Democratic president, LBJ, was forceful in getting civil rights legislation passed. Nor does it diminish the great contributions of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton that women's right to vote was actually voted in by men. (Women couldn't vote, remember?) I think Edwards, Obama, and Clinton are all great candidates and great supporters of civil rights, equal rights, and social progress.

Nick said...

I'm having the same feelings as you. Every day Clinton attacks him again makes me think of voting third party if she is the nominee.