Something hasn’t felt quite right about the strategy John McCain’s campaign has been using to go after Barack Obama. It’s not a partisan objection to McCain going negative; that’s a rational choice he has to make if he wants a shot at winning. It’s that within the scattershot approach to finding an attack line that sticks, the two main through-lines are in subtextual conflict with one another.
How can someone being portrayed as "the biggest celebrity in the world" also be painted as radical and out of the mainstream? Either Obama is like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton: a fluffy, substanceless, mass-consumed but empty celebrity-for-celebrity’s sake, or he is an unfamiliar and dangerous other with a hidden anti-American agenda.
It’s hard to reconcile the two. By trumpeting Obama's popularity, McCain is calling him – by definition – a safe, easily digestible consumer product, broadly acceptable in the mainstream. Thus, McCain boxes himself into a corner when he wants to make the argument not to elect Obama because he’s so far outside the mainstream.
The problem with trying to thread the needle and have it both ways by making both messages stick simultaneously is that if Obama is a dangerous other with a secret America-hating agenda, it’s hard to call him vapid. You can’t be sharp enough to be cunning sleeper and also be an empty airhead.
In theory McCain could put out both messages and hope that the audience of persuadable voters self-selects which characterization bothers them about Obama and ignores the other, and that, ironically, the non-deep-thinkers who would turn around and reflexively swallow those attacks wholecloth don’t appreciate how the subtexts work against each other.
In practice, the campaign is dependent on the media to repeat the buzzwords over and over and over to help amplify the impressions left by the ads. The media isn’t as likely to participate willingly in the “dangerous radical” game; they might be more willing to ask: “Obama phenomenon: crazy fad or authentic movement?”
The pivot is, ironically, an appeal to the cynical American cultural observation of itself, that Americans are often shallow in what they choose to make popular. This requires the person who embraces the caricature of Obama to see him or herself as not shallow, in opposition to his or her fellow Americans who have installed Obama on his celebrity pedestal. The audience then, is comprised of people who see themselves as above the common culture. (Closet elitists, if you will.)
Moreover, Obama seems more fully prepared for counterattacking the “dangerous other” theme, simply because he’s had a far longer time practicing. He’s been a national phenomenon far less time. It’s also awkward to argue against the celebrity charge. Every politician wants to be popular. And while Obama would love to argue (and has) that his popularity derives from an America hungry for policy differentiation from Republican policymaking that has produced record high wrong track polling marks, that doesn’t convincingly and fully explain his popularity. Obama has personal charisma, and he can't convince us that's not part of it.
The incredulity with which Obama responded to the Spears-Hilton ad betrayed his surprise at that new gambit: “Is that the best you can come up with?” And it appears, yes, the McCain camp is finding traction and investing heavily in the theme (over $140,000 day on the Britney ads alone). Given the subtext conflict, and that there is a risk of just as much backlash against the otherness fear politics, and Obama’s deftness at using aikido to turn those attacks around, McCain is better off going with the celebrity line and ditching the otherness line.
If nothing else, it undermines one of Obama’s greatest campaign assets – the numbers of people willing to go to their neighbors door to door and persuade on Obama’s behalf. If McCain’s campaign succeeds in caricaturing those supporters themselves as the political equivalent of boy-band tween fans, it might blunt some of that neighbor-to-neighbor outreach effectiveness.
Perhaps it'll ultimately sort out as Obama-as-cunning-stealth-sleeper and Obama's supporters as NYSNC fanboys and fangirls. Of course, caricaturing Americans who want to see an inspiring leader runs the risk of backfiring. Dumping on hope isn't generally a winning strategy.