Is Obama Ready (for the GOP Smear Machine)?

Republicans have signaled that old-fashioned character assassination is how they plan to destroy Obama's credibility and his electability. If they want to win, Democrats need to get off their high horse and shut that down quick.


If you want clues to how this year's presidential election will be fought, look no further than this past week's Meet the Press on NBC, where the GOP telegraphed its aggressive messaging offensive and Democrats, as usual, sought to play at the smug intersection of fairness and above-the-fray.

The entire show, like most political reporting this year, focused primarily on Barack Obama. Moderator Brian Williams allowed Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to dominate the entire first half of the show with a condemnation of Obama for opting out of the public financing system, after promising that he accept public funds.

Graham's assessment of Obama's position change was, not surprisingly, informed by the harshest possible judgment. He argued that Barack Obama is a shifty, sneaky, snake in the grass, who—unlike maverick straight-talker John McCain—makes decisions based on political expediency rather than the good of a nation.

"Senator Obama looked at cameras all over the country, literally signed his name: 'I will accept public financing,' " said Graham, in full outrage mode. "And now, for whatever reason, he has broken his word. ...1.4 million donors allows you to break your word? This is reinforcing everything that is wrong with politics. This is a game changer in terms of the general election."

It was what Republicans do best—character-assassination politics, not unlike the attacks that Democrats allowed to define Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

Sure, Republicans will attempt on some level to engage Obama on the issues, but there is little for them to work with there, given the advantages Democrats enjoy on the economy, health care and on Iraq. McCain will try to challenge Obama on national security and the war on terrorism. And his campaign will make daily attacks on Obama's experience and preparedness to lead.

But Graham and other GOP talking heads have signaled that perhaps the most important strategy will be to attack Obama's chief strength—the perception that he is a different kind of politician who can bring change to our stale, inside-the-Beltway, partisan politics.

In the words of Graham, Obama "wants to win beyond anything else, even more than keeping his word."

George W. Bush rolled out nearly identical talking points after securing the GOP nomination in March 2000. I remember it well. I covered the Bush campaign for the Washington Post in 2000. I distinctly recall an interview at the Bush 2000 campaign headquarters in Austin in which Bush, eager to turn his attention to the general election campaign, began portraying Gore as a politician who would say anything to get elected.

Because on that line of attack, my Post colleague Dan Balz and I asked Bush in that interview if he believed Gore had the honesty and integrity to lead the nation. He responded: "That's what I'd like to know, and that's what America would like to know."