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From the Blog
How to win an election in the real world
The Republican Platform of 2012 includes an anti-Sharia Law plank promoted by Kris Koback, Republican Attorney General of Kansas. Koback has a long history of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant activity. Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, he helped to design the draconian National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which mandated registration of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. He helped create the groundwork for the Arizona's S.B. 10-70 statute, and helped other states set up similar laws. In Kansas politics he won the election as Attorney General in 2010 by brazenly (and incorrectly) claiming that large numbers of illegal immigrants were committing voter fraud. He works closely with the openly racist Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), which strives to keep a white majority in the US by limiting all forms of immigration. Kobach also succeeded in getting an anti-Sharia law passed in Kansas.
The anti-Sharia campaign continues to be pure rightwing hysteria. Robert McCaw, Government Affairs Coordinator at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), schooled Republican officials on the facts, "The plank is irrelevant, since the Constitution's Supremacy Clause ensures that no foreign law can replace it, and only serves as a smoke-screen for anti-Muslim bigotry." But there is a significant percentage of the Republican base that responds strongly to anything that is anti-Islam. Even more disturbing is that Kris Kobach is the kind of aggressive, far-right extremist to whom corporate donors are now inclined to give top dollar.
The Republican Convention itself was subdued and occasionally bizarre. Clint Eastwood did a creepy bit of improvisational theatre supposedly directed at President Obama, but good improv depends on two actors in real time. Poor Eastwood, who has morphed into a gifted film director these last few years, ended up sounding and looking like a stereotypically cranky old conservative white dude with deep resentment toward a changing world, but zero ideas for a better future. Clint's comedy debut left viewers confused and a little rattled, as he engaged in some weird and completely unnecessary obscenities against President Obama.
So it ought to be easy for the Demos to take on the Republicans, right? Not so fast. Just a month ago, Mitt Romney announced that Paul Ryan was his running mate. The talking heads at MSNBC were ecstatic — progressive commentators could hardly stop chortling and chattering about how easy it would be to run against Ryan. The President was up five or six points in the swing states, and Ryan is well-known as the guy who wants to privatize Medicare. But while progressives were jabbering about how easily they could beat Ryan, he and candidate Romney were out on the campaign trail spieling to millions about how Obama was destroying Medicare by robbing money from it. It was a straight-up, bust-out, bald-faced lie, of course; but the two campaigners just kept repeating it word for word when questioned about anything. Their corporate supporters pouted millions into ads that also likewise kept robotically repeating the same lie. And guess what? Obama lost his lead in swing states in ten days, and is now down a couple of points in some of them.
The folks at MSNBC — most of whom I like, by the way — were astounded. Why? Because liberals deal in logic and reasonable argument. They can't believe how effective lies are because they don't think that way. Political deception, on the other hand, is a kind of psychological judo aimed at terrifying, infuriating and confusing ordinary people.
For example, right-wingers often use a passive-aggressive fighting style. When seeking to do something that will create opposition, they accuse their opponents of doing it. If they want to pack the judiciary with ideologues, they'll accuse their opponents of packing the judiciary with ideologues. If they want to destroy Medicare, they'll say their opponents want to destroy it. If they want to destroy religious liberty for Muslims, they'll say Islam is out to take away everybody else's liberty. Whatever they want to do, they'll accuse their opponents of doing or wanting to do. In his 1965 essay, “Propaganda,” the great French theologian Jacques Ellul wrote about this: "The propagandist will not accuse the enemy of just any misdeed, he will accuse him of the very intention that he himself has, and of trying to commit the very crime that he himself is about to commit."
Corporate strategists are good at inventing fantasies that spark negative emotions, because their advertisers use fear and other negative emotions to sell their products and services. When the Swiftboat Ads first played on radio in 2004, John Kerry's main advisor thought them inconsequential, and told him not to worry. Why? Because progressive-minded people don't respond to juvenile lies, so they assume others won't either. But so-called "low-information" voters, and those that don't have time to think about politics, are easily swayed by fear and other negative emotions, because they stick in the mind. Voters in the South and Midwest believed the Swiftboat ads, and Kerry lost.
The Republicans are about to unleash a campaign of unprecedented political hardball, some of which will almost surely be based on outrageous misrepresentations involving race, religion and the fears of white working-class voters. Romney and Ryan have already shown they can score points with lies about Medicare. Furthermore, Romney has little else to run on — he refuses to run on his record as governor (too liberal), his record on Bain Capital (too exploitive), or as a Mormon Bishop (too controversial). But Larry McCarthy, who worked on the racist Willie Horton ads that beat Michael Dukakis in 1988, is involved in the campaign as a consultant and is likely to influence Romney.
So how should Obama respond? He should continue being a nice guy, but strong, and somebody who shouldn't be afraid of calling out a lie. He should never call his opponent a liar, but should attack the lie itself. And—here's the important part—he has to attack the lie instantly, as soon as his opponents roll it out. If Obama had immediately responded when Romney and Ryan started spinning their allegations on August 11 regarding Medicare, he'd probably still be ahead in the swing state polls. The President has to respond very quickly to win. He has to become a good counter-puncher.
The greatest boxers have one thing in common: they're almost all good counter-punchers. They study their opponent's style, lead the opponent on a bit, and then uncork the counterpunch. Why? Because the counterpunch is by definition a rapid response timed to the other fighter's style. Like politics, fighting is all about quickly turning the opponent's advantage into your opportunity. Then you go on the offensive.
Forget explaining. That just makes peoples' eyes glaze over. Every time Obama hears a whopper from the Romney/Ryan duo, he should immediately and unhesitatingly identify it as inaccurate — and he should tell the American people that it's not fair for politicians to lie to them. He should keep it friendly with Romney/Ryan personally, but he should call out their lies in simple, vivid language. And every time his corporate opponents try to slip a curveball by him, he should tell the people where it comes from —the new hardline Wall Street raiders who seek not just vast wealth, but to buy elections, suppress voter registration and remake the middle class as a new suburban peasantry.