Saturday, September 13, 2008

Afloat on a full sea

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

I very much dislike three of the newer McCain ads: “Disrespectful”, “Education”, and “Lipstick”. The first two can be accessed from the McCain video gallery on YouTube. “Lipstick” has been taken down because CBS is claiming copyright infringement. It is no longer on YouTube and I cannot find it on the McCain campaign site, but I did find the script for it:

Script For "Lipstick" (WEB :35)

CHYRON: Sarah Palin On: Sarah Palin

GOVERNOR PALIN: Do you know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick.

CHYRON: Barack Obama On: Sarah Palin

BARACK OBAMA: Well, you know, you can, you know you can...put...uh...lipstick on a's still a pig.

CHYRON: Katie Couric On: The Election

CBS' KATIE COURIC: One of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life.

CHYRON: Ready To Lead? No

Ready To Smear? Yes

I dislike “Lipstick” and “Disrespectful” because the McCain campaign should not be playing the sexism card. (Actually no one should be playing the sexism card, the racism card, or any other ism card.) To the extent that Palin’s appeal rests on the idea that she’s tough enough to stand on her own, anything that makes her look like she’s complaining about her treatment undercuts that appeal. What the campaign should be saying about Palin is not that she’s being beat up but that it doesn’t faze her. There’s a hint of that when “Disrespectful” talks about how Palin is proving them wrong every day but I still don’t like it. You don’t show that attacks don’t bother you by talking about them. As far as I can tell, Palin’s herself has not “whined” about the attacks on her. The campaign should take their cue from her.

The McCain campaign did an excellent job of pushing back on the truly egregious garbage that was thrown at Palin in the 7-10 days after McCain picked her. They shouldn’t squander the cultural capital they gained then by taking offense at statements that could be taken as sexist but could just as easily be taken as simply hard-ball politics.

Equally dangerous, aggrieved identity politics is the Democrats’ home turf. Remember, they’re the ones who managed to see racism in McCain’s ads about Hilton and Moses. They’re professionals in this field; Republicans are amateurs. McCain should not be giving any house room to the idea that being offended by tough attacks is an acceptable political strategy.

I hate the “Education” ad for a different reason. The first part of it, where the voice-over explains that Obama hasn’t done anything significant about educational issues is fine. But the whole riff about how his only accomplishment was a bill that teaches kindergartners about sex before they learn to read goes too far. Whether you agree with Fact Check that both the ad’s facts and its implications are erroneous or with Jim Geraghty that the ad is factually correct, it is - to use a technical term - icky. Even worse, it’s unconvincing. I don’t think any sane person who watches the ad will - however much they despise Obama - actually believe he supports teaching kindergartners about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. This means McCain is giving away moral stature by launching an arguably duplicitous ad that makes people mildly nauseous and he’s not getting any return from it because no one will buy the message.

I assume “Education” is designed to push back on the repeated claims that Sarah Palin supports abstinence-only sex education. I agree it’s important to push back on that inaccuracy but this ad was a bad way to do it. A less unpleasant way to get the point across would be to let the voice-over read some of the more off-the-wall claims and then run the CSPAN segment where Palin talks about her actual position in the 2006 Alaskan Republican Gubernatorial debate. That makes it clear that she’s not abstinence-only now and that she has not adjusted her thinking to make herself look more palatable because she’s running for Vice-President.

The bottom line on all these ads is that the tide is running in McCain’s favor. His campaign needs to realize they’ve ridden the “don’t slime Sarah” horse about as far as it can go. And they need to be very conscious of the fact that political hyperbole is fine but pushing it too far will backfire. (Talk about mixed metaphors...)

To cleanse the palate, there are two recent McCain ads I do like, both also available via the McCain video gallery on YouTube. One is “Fact Check”. This is the right way to push back on the Obama campaign trying to trash Palin: represent them as predators and point out how that approach by Obama contradicts his message of hope. As a bonus, Palin’s support for culling wolves by any means necessary implies who the victor will be in a matchup between Obama’s mercenaries and Palin.

Finally, I find “Stem Cell” (a radio ad) fascinating because it refers to McCain’s “Congressional allies”. This may be just because the ad is a joint venture of the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee. Or it may be that Congressional Republicans are starting to hope they might not be beaten like a rented mule in November after all.

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