Richard Nixon is credited with coming up with, or at least effectively recognizing, the idea of systematically exploiting the supposed weakness of Democrats as out-of-the-mainstream liberals who aren't like everyone else. As un-American. As anti-troops. As vaguely elite. As "pointy-headed." As feminine. As weak on defense.
This unfortunate but highly effective stereotype has worked because there is a certain resonance to these charges. It's not because they are true; in fact, if you look at the record over the last 40 years, it is actually the Republicans who espouse un-American, anti-patriotic, elitist, and soft-on-defense policies. But the charges have worked because Democrats, by and large, do support the rights of those who "aren't like everyone else" -- minorities, feminists, gays, the poor, the disenfranchised, the accused. Of course, that nearly everyone knows and loves people who fall into these categories is beside the point. When they are cast as great social issues -- as the "us-against-them" dichotomy -- then it is not hard to see why they are so appealing to the one social class that is most threatened by them -- the white American male.
Democrats can learn from the way Republicans consistently find charges that resonate with voters. But this should not be an effort to merely recast the debate. It is possible to make the argument that it is actually the Republicans whose policies promote big government, a weaker military, and higher taxes. But while that argument is possible, it often doesn't work very well because these issues don't resonate with voters as flaws in Republican candidates or policies. Instead, Democrats need to find the resonant truths about the Republicans that describe preconceived notions about GOP candidates and policies. And that's the key -- the resonance of the charges. In other words, figure out what charges about Republicans resonate with voters, then exploit those preconceived notions. Let me explain.
Look at the last two election cycles before this year, 2000 and 2004. Both times, George Bush and Karl Rove were able to cast the opponent as "not like us" -- as "latte-drinking" limousine liberals. Gore was an extreme liberal phony who would surrender to environmentalists and who would raise taxes and expand government. Kerry was an extreme, liberal, flip-flopping socialist who "looked French," was soft on terror and who would raise taxes and expand government. Never mind that Bush, of course, expanded government more than any president in history, weakened the U.S. military, jeopardized the war on terrorists and ensured a future determined by vast debt, and yes, the need for more taxes.
And now, Obama is cast as an arrogant, presumptuous, overconfident, liberal, uppity, elitist "celebrity" who would raise taxes and expand government. He's a little too smart, see? And a little too full of hisself. He ain't like us. And we can't trust him.
In each case, the broad resonant themes are the same, while the message is tweaked a bit for each personality. And it seems apparent that this will be the Republicans' Rovian playbook for the fall campaign.
But what is equally obvious is that it's easy to apply the same formula to define John McCain. Just ask yourself -- what are the broad resonant themes about Republicans and about McCain? That is, what negative truths do voters think of when they think of Republican government and when they think of McCain?
In the Republicans' case, it's policies that favor the rich but hurt the little guy. And, perhaps to a lesser extent, it's incompetence in government, and a tendency toward corruption and arrogance.
Next, and this should be even easier: What is the overriding stereotypical view of John McCain? What charges about him resonate with voters? What are the most common images of him on cable, in print, on late-night talk shows? Heck, what's the first thing you think of when you see him?
To be blunt: He's a crazy old man who can't keep his stories straight. He's a doddering fool. He's a dangerous, burning fuse that cannot be trusted with the reins of government. It's not so much that he's a flip-flopper but that he doesn't even remember his flips or flops. Even his own campaign says to ignore him. He shouts at clouds and the children who run across his lawn.
You get the idea. And these resonant images and feelings fit in perfectly with voters' resonant feelings about Republicans -- the GOP nominee is an angry, arrogant, man whose policies, when he can remember them, will favor the rich and escalate the Bush incompetencies.
It must be said that this isn't about mere politics, although it would be an effective way to fight back against the highly negative campaign McCain is running. This is THE crucial issue of the campaign. These are dangerous times. We cannot afford to elect a doltish, forgetful, rash warmonger to lead the nation.
Early in the campaign, the McCain camp went ballistic when Obama made a casual comment that McCain was "losing his bearings." They shouted that this was ageism. They shouted it was an outrage about a "hero," etc. These kinds of reactions demonstrate how effective these charges are, and how afraid of them the McCain campaign must be. Yet, amazingly, the Obama campaign backed down and has not since touched upon this crucial issue.
But it must. Obama and his campaign must fight back hard. This isn't about age. It's about competence. Perhaps in this case that's tied to age, or, more accurately, to the patterns that some people fall into as they age -- they may have difficulty processing simple events, or they cannot remember specific things that they say, or they become unnecessarily angry, or they view the world as a reflection of whatever thought happens to be passing through their minds at the time.
All of these are characteristics evident in John McCain. Is he becoming unhinged? The man says things that are patently untrue, then says the opposite, which he then denies that he said. It's easy to find reams of data detailing his flip-flops, his flashes of anger, his constant mistakes, his inability to be even remotely consistent on the most basic policies or facts. The pattern has become so alarming that some have wondered if he will even be able to finish the campaign. Again, this is not about age; it's about the disturbing behavioral characteristics of John McCain.
So this MUST be a key issue for Obama. If McCain is elected, his incapacities may well result in a government run not by the president, but by his vice president and ideological bureaucrats with their own particular agendas, not answerable to the people. Of course, that's what happened upon Bush's election. In Bush's case it was intellectual and moral insufficiencies; in McCain's case it is most likely mental impairment.
This is the most important issue of the campaign, and it is the most resonant one for the American people. They've seen his dottiness first-hand; they know, deep down, that this is an important issue, even if he has been given such a free pass so far. The voters also know McCain is a temperamental, mean-spirited dinosaur who will support the failed policies of the past. So tell them both of those things in this campaign, over and over.
If such a strategy is undertaken, some might worry about the fierce reactions from the McCain campaign and the right wing. But why feel qualms about telling the truth? The McCain campaign and Republicans have lied about Obama's reasons for canceling a visit to wounded troops, tried to tie him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and even, in Kafkaesque absurdities, compared him to Moses and blamed him for high gas prices. They are now trying the "resonant issues" they have used on Democrats for more than 30 years - a strategy that will likely last until the fall -- that Obama hates the troops, is a tax-and-spend liberal, is weak on defense, and is unpatriotic.
The only way to answer such pathetic charges is with the resonant arguments about McCain and the Republicans -- he's a crazy, dangerous and angry man who can't remember what he says. He'll favor the rich and give us more of the same Republican incompetence in managing the economy and foreign policy.
At least, in Obama's case, the charges will have the advantage of being true.
Guy Reel is an associate professor of mass communication at Winthrop University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.