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."
McCain understands this strategy, and well, he should. He was also the victim of it at the hands of Bush. In their 2000 primary battle, Bush loved him some John McCain…until McCain spanked him by a double-digit margin in the New Hampshire primary. Bush showed up a couple days later in South Carolina, where he launched a brutal, coordinated, character-assassination strategy with the soon oft-repeated line that the Arizona senator "says one thing and does another."
And of course, in 2000, Kerry's allowed himself to be defined as a serial flip flopper who would say anything to get elected.
To be fair, Republicans aren't the only ones to use character attacks. It is standard fare in American politics. It's just that they are so much better at it. What is unique is the sheer precision with which the message is carried by politicians, pundits, think tanks, activists and the 527 groups. Republicans believe they have the power to change the paradigm by making an issue out of something that was not an issue before. They believe they can define their opponents better than the opponents define themselves.
Democrats, um, not so much.
Mark my words, here and now today: Republicans will make Obama's character a central issue in this election, every day, on every news show and repeated by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, The New York Post, the Washington Times editorial page, until Election Day. It will be relentless. And it will be tiring. And swaths of the public will begin to believe it.
Part two of this strategy will be to target media organizations and individual reporters who fail to press this line of attack. They will be labeled as examples of the arrogant, liberal, elitist media. And the national press corps, which hates that label, will respond by following the story—just as Brian Williams did on Meet the Press on Sunday.
Democrats will whine and cry and bitch and moan about the unfairness of it all. "Elections are about issues," they will piously complain, as they watch Obama's late-June, 15-point Gallup poll erode daily.
On Sunday's show, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., allowed Graham to put him on the defensive, where he stayed for the next half-hour. Biden granted Graham the obvious—that Obama had flip flopped. But Biden argued in that up-is-down/down-is-up way that politicians do, that Obama was still true to his promise to set a higher standard, by not allowing big-money interests to influence his campaign.
"He has been a game changer. Big money is not influencing this campaign. Major interests are not influencing this campaign," Biden argued. "People who are able to say, 'Look, if you don't change your mind, I'm withdrawing [my money], I can affect your decisions,' they do not impact on Barack Obama. He's had this incredible appeal that no one ever anticipated."
Yeah, yeah! But he missed the point. The second Graham opened his mouth to accuse Obama of lying and hypocrisy, Biden should have asked him, "Sen. Graham, with all due respect, I want to make sure I understand…You're saying any politician who changes his position is unworthy of the presidency, am I correct?"
When Biden finally got around to kinda, sorta making a point of McCain's extensive flip-flopping, he did it gingerly and almost apologetically, saying he wasn't sure if now was the time to "go there" before briefly mentioning—then dropping—McCain's politically expedient hemming and hawing on the Bush tax cuts and offshore oil drilling.
If Biden were thinking like the Republicans, he would have done something similar to Graham—who showed up prepared with contradictory Obama quotes, reading them over and over, just in case Williams didn't get around to it.
To his credit, Williams did finally pull old quotes from Graham that showed he once opposed off-shore drilling. Graham explained that $4 a gallon gas forced a change in his position. The fact that he had an explanation for his flip flop seemed to be enough for Biden and Williams.
If Democrats acted like Republicans, they'd already have coordinated their talking points. And their minions would have been on the phone with every major editor and producer in the national media, braying and whining about a pro-McCain media bias and playing the victim.
If Democrats were Republicans, they would have made sure that Sunday's show was not all about Obama's character, but all about John McCain's. Even on an off day, Democrat-acting-Republicans would have made sure every question about Obama's character was countered with one about McCain's.
But Democrats aren't Republicans. It is why they get outmaneuvered election after election.
Don't get me wrong. This should not be construed as a call to arms for negative campaigning. Democrats shouldn't abandon the issues, particularly given their advantages this particular election year. But character campaigning and issue campaigning aren't mutually exclusive.
When John Kerry was swift boated, his reaction was, essentially, (insert haughty Brahmin voice here), "Well, I won't dignify that kind of attack with a response."
Yeah, yeah. Americans say they hate negativity in politics. But they reward it all the time. They also like fighters. And they love strength. And they figure if a party can't stand up for itself, how can it stand up for the country?
Obama has shown a refreshing willingness to not cede ground to the Republicans on issues like national security and terrorism. But he better make sure he cedes no ground on character and moral fitness, either.
Here are three things he and the Democrats should do:
1. Challenge McCain's maverick reputation. There is plenty of stuff already in the public domain that contradicts McCain's well-honed reputation. Your opposition researchers have a mountain of material to work with about the senator's dealings with lobbyists, in particular. But opposition researchers aren't communications experts. Have your best people go through the opposing research and find one or two (max) of the best examples of McCain's contradictions. Don't go for the typical 50-example overkill. Make sure there is somebody talking about it on every major network and every major newspaper and every influential political blog. Every day.
2. Challenge McCain's temperament. Why not? If McCain's own party can do it, why can't the Democrats? In 2000, Bush used the party apparatus to spread stories—some true, some not—about McCain's volatile temper and often rude and abusive behavior to colleagues and subordinates. Unlike the Republicans, Democrats can just stick to the true stuff. But more important, they need to go back and study the model.
3. Challenge the senator's reputation as a straight shooter. The truth is, McCain is just as much of a flip flopper as any other politician. And that's not even an insult. It just is what it is. But the media have allowed him to portray himself as something bigger, something better. And Democrats have let him get away with it. There may not be dozens of examples. But there are a few goodies that anyone who knows how to type youtube.com into a browser can find. Democrats should give John McCain as much of the benefit of the doubt as Republicans gave to John Kerry, whose assertion that he "actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," was portrayed not as the inarticulate fumbling of a rambling politician, but a sure sign of a severe character flaw.
The point of all of this is not to make John McCain seem worse than other politicians. It is to make him seem the same as other politicians.
Do it now. Or it could be over before it starts.
Terry M. Neal is a former Washington Post political reporter. He is a media consultant and senior vice president of The Caraway Group in Washington, D.C.