Obama Still Wrong on Race: McCain’s Smears Of a Different Sort

Josh Marshall over at Talkingpoints Memo is having a little spat with Jake Tapper at ABC. The subject? Whether Obama is right to imply that McCain has been pushing xenophobia and racist themes in his recent bout of negative campaigning.

As Obama put it:

“But, since they don’t have any new ideas the only strategy they’ve got in this election is to try to scare you about me. They’re going to try to say that I’m a risky guy, they’re going to try to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills and, and they’re going to send out nasty emails.

But Tapper has it right here.

The direct evidence for covert racism, at least in McCain’s own campaign output, is lacking. The charge simply requires a too many assumptions and interpretive leaps for justified in making such a nuclear accusation. Even the recent supposed “Obama chases our white women” interpretation of the Republican’s “Obama is a celebrity” attack ads is just too much of a stretch. The implication of the ad, as Howard Kurtz notes, isn’t that Obama hobnobs with white women. It’s that he IS a white woman: and a ditzy one at that.

And, as Tapper points out, McCain has openly condemned the racist tactics of others (including firing a staffer who tried to go that route).

It’s certainly not out of bounds to suspect that McCain’s camp might harbor crafty racial message motives, or mention the possible interpretations of this or that statement or ad. But at this point, it’s simply not justified to say, as Marshall does, that this “is what he [McCain] is doing,” period.

Obama may have a legitimate beef with some on the right, but he has no justification for tarring McCain with the same accusation. It’s no doubt extremely tempting for someone in his position and heritage to suspect such motives in all opponents. But it’s precisely because it’s so tempting that he should be especially reluctant to indulge.

In any case, even if the McCain campaign were intentionally trying to play up racist themes as subtly as possible, Obama is foolish to try and to highlight it at this point. Because the references are so ambiguous, plenty of people will see him as too eager to play the victim no matter what, and few of the people who are likely to take the racism allegations seriously needed Obama’s say so to believe them.

There’s also the boy-who-cried-wolf dynamic. It’s quite likely that at some point over the next few months, some McCain surrogate or ally will say something far more unambiguously inappropriate in relation to Obama’s race. If Obama had largely ignored the race issue up until then, he’d get far more mileage from such an incident in the future: and maybe without him even having to do much of the work condemning it. Delayed gratification is a far better plan than a quick hit.

To be sure: the McCain campaign and the RNC, along with lazy columnists, are rather despicably trying to frame Obama’s character, using the standard litany of misrepresentations, interpretative stretches of their own, and outright dishonesty to paint a picture of elitist arrogance far beyond what reality can support. (“False, but accurate!” is the battle cry of this sort of tactic). And, as usual, people that want to believe in such caricatures are eating it up just as quickly as those who want to believe that McCain’s case against Obama is all about race. But “shallow, elitist, full of himself” is the tack that Republicans are taking, not race, and being guilty of one despicable thing does not automatically make you guilty of another.

Furthermore, while Obama’s camp has been far more positive up until now, and hasn’t been quite as desperately searching around for memes to smear McCain with, there’s increasing signs that they’re ramping up their own character meme. Can you guess what it’s based around? If not, then just listen to Obama’s ads and campaign output over the next few weeks… and count how many times the language uses the word “old” to refer, if not directly to McCain, to everything McCain by implication supposedly stands for (i.e. “old way”, “old politics”, etc.). In fact, I find the idea that these references are intentional far more plausible than the charges of racism.

McCain’s age is, of course, a legitimate factor to consider, at least on its own: just as is Obama’s lack of executive experience. But age is only relevant insofar as it means other problems, from health to mental acuity. That’s not what the Democrats are actually doing by citing age: they are attempting to tie the theme of “old” into a caricature of McCain’s personality: a cranky codger with little vision beyond maintaining the Bush era another 4 years.

They’ve still yet to build an entire media campaign around this theme, as Republicans have with Obama’s alleged presumptuousness. But the silly season is, sadly, still young.

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