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Monday, March 17, 2008
Why Jeremiah Wright Hurts Obama Big-Time
It cannot be emphasized enough how important a good narrative is to a presidential campaign. Presidential campaigns are, essentially, competing storylines about where the country needs to go next.
In 2004, John Kerry's campaign was built around a simple narrative - John Kerry is a war hero. The hero narrative is the oldest narrative we have -- Washington, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Grant, Eisenhower, and Kennedy have all used it. Kerry's narrative had a nice complementary counter-narrative against Bush: i.e, W didn't meet his obligations to the military and shirked his duty in Vietnam. The Kerry narrative imploded because, well, Bush was better at countering that narrative -- The Swift Boat vets destroyed his hero narrative by emphasizing how Kerry betrayed American troops when he returned home, and the Democrats planned attack on Bush fizzled when the 60 minutes phony document drop was exposed as a fraud. The Bush narrative -- that he was steadfast and Kerry had no core principles and can't be trusted in a time of war -- was ultimately successful.
The most important thing to do in a presidential campaign is to knock the other person off of their narrative. By the time Kerry saluted the Democratic convention and said he was "reporting for duty" it was almost impossible for many Americans not to laugh out loud.
The Wright stuff matters because Obama has sold himself as a different type of black politician -- one who can transcend race and isn't beholden to the race hustlers of the democratic party's recent past. Now, things that would have been dismissed (Obama refusing to wear a flag pin, his wife's comment that she has never before been proud of this country) appear to fit with a very different and unfavorable narrative.
I'll update this post later, but suffice it to say, Obama's narrative of unity is in serious jeopardy.
The New York Times effort to torpedo McCain with allegations that he was sleeping with a lobbyist should be viewed as a direct attack on McCain's narrative. McCain has established himself as a military hero who has fought for the good guys -- against America's enemies overseas and now, corrupt lobbyists here at home. His fight for campaign finance reform is a key part of this narrative.
The NYT realizes that Obama is vulnerable on this score in a very real and understandable way. Imagine, if you will, that you had a lobbyist buy your backyard for you on the same day you purchased your home. You would have saved a ton of money on the sale, plus saved every single year on property taxes. That's pretty much what Obama did and, unlike Whitewater, it is a form of corruption that is extremely easy for Americans to understand.
Thus, the NYT needs to give the Dems a talking point, one that suggests (again, in an understandable way) that McCain is literally in bed with lobbyists. The fact they couldn't nail the story down is irrelevant -- they pushed it anyway. Indeed, it will provide some measure of defense for Obama during the general election as I expect that outside groups will push this attack hard against McCain.
The "corruption" angle illustrates why narratives and counter-narratives have to work together. Hillary couldn't push down the corruption road with Obama because the Clinton's have zero credibility on these issues. Likewise, she's going to have to handle the Jeremiah Wright stuff with great care, as a not-insignificant part of the Democratic primary electorate believes this conspiracy garbage.
Hillary's hope is to hammer him on inexperience and use that (along with the public's knowledge about this Jeremiah Wright stuff, and the Chicago-style corruption) to paint him as "unelectable" with the superdelegates.
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