Sunday, August 3, 2008

Way to stay classy, Republicans

I honestly wasn't convinced that the McCain campaign was trying to play the racial angle with the now infamous "juxtapose Barack Obama with two very white, female, and vapid celebrities" advertisement from last week, but after this latest web video I'm no longer sure. The web video entitled "Barack Obama Forgot Latin America" uses the premise that Obama's failure to mention a Latin American country in a list of countries during his speech in Berlin means...something? Here's the text, as printed on the McCain campaign website:
English Script For "Barack Obama Forgot Latin America" (WEB 1:00)

CHYRON: The World According To Barack Obama
BARACK OBAMA: Tonight I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen; a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world.
CHYRON: But Entire Nations Were Forgotten!
BARACK OBAMA: France, Berlin, Hamburg, Britain, Kandahar, London, Rwanda, Iran, Bangladesh...
CHYRON: Where Was Latin America Left?
BARACK OBAMA: Karachi, Beijing, the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Paris, Bali, Russia, Chad, Zimbabwe...
CHYRON: And Latinos?
BARACK OBAMA: Afghanistan, Somalia, Darfur, Belfast, South Africa, Madrid, Europe, Burma, Amman...
CHYRON: Maybe He Forget About Us?
JOHN MCCAIN: I'm John McCain and I approve this message.
I'll be the first to admit that I don't really understand racial dynamics in America. But I'm not sure how you can repeatedly use campaign materials that skirt the fringes of historical racial conflicts without knowing exactly what you're doing. If it's an isolated incident I can buy that pairing Obama (black man) with Paris Hilton (ditzy white woman) isn't so much about race as it is about directly insulting Obama's character and accomplishments. That isn't much better, of course, but it's allowable by the unwritten rules of national American politics in the present moment (I realize that at the state or local level things can get much uglier). You're generally allowed to say false and insulting things about your opponent's character, it's risky but done regularly, but generally not allowed to overtly exploit their race, ethnicity, parentage, etc. 

It's possible to make a similar argument about this web video, that it could be run about any candidate who didn't mention a Latin American country in a speech, whether they were white or black. You have to essentially argue that it's pretty low, divisive politics, and the McCain campaign really should be ashamed, but that it's not racist per se. However, I think it's pretty difficult for the McCain campaign to say "It never crossed our minds that there were racial tensions that might be exploited by implying that the black candidate doesn't have Latino interests at heart" right after saying "It never crossed our minds that there were racial tensions that might be exploited by juxtaposing a black man and two coquettish white women." I'm trying really hard not to let my bias in favor of Barack Obama color my perception of what the McCain campaign is doing here, and it's possible that I'm seeing racism because I really, really want Obama to win. On the other hand, even taking my self doubt into account, it's starting to look like the McCain campaign is using a strategy of deliberately skirting the edges of racial and ethnic tension. 

At this point I think you have to describe their strategy as, pardon my crudeness, "shitstorm politics." They're losing badly on the issues, but they're not losing badly on the dynamic of "familiar, older white guy politician who has been on the news for years" versus "unfamiliar, younger black guy politician who is relatively new to the public eye." In fact, the McCain campaign's success at working this dynamic is keeping this race alive, and distressingly close. The only way McCain can win this thing, and he very well might, is to start slinging bullshit, and try to stick enough of it to Obama that McCain looks like the better of two mostly unacceptable options. 

At this point I would like to acknowledge my incredible naivety in thinking that with McCain and Obama winning the respective nominations we would actually get a policy debate during this election. In 2004 the election was almost entirely about your affiliation or opposition to Bush, and there was still more substantive debate than we've gotten so far. Thanks, McCain campaign.

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