The Republican formula hasn't changed much in the almost four decades since the Nixon campaign branded George McGovern the candidate of the three A's--acid, amnesty and abortion. McGovern, still trim and agile at 86, explained to an audience of political buffs at the National Press Club this week how that caricature took hold, and what little resemblance it bore to his positions on those issues. "I told my staff we don't have to answer this stuff," he said, adding, "I was wrong."
McGovern thought his views on these issues spoke for themselves. He opposed legalizing hard drugs, but he thought marijuana possession should be a misdemeanor, not a felony. He opposed amnesty in the midst of a war, but said he would look at it after the war ended, telling protesters, "It's the law of the land. If you don't want to go, be prepared to go to jail." His position on abortion was conservative; he thought it should be left up to the states.
President Nixon wouldn't debate him or even risk appearing in the same city. "Judging by the results, I don't know what he was afraid of," McGovern quipped. Nixon won in a landslide. The Vietnam War raged on and McGovern was dubbed a peacenik. He had been a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, service he didn't showcase. He didn't think his love of country or his patriotism would ever be questioned.
Voters believe what they hear repeatedly, and there's a cautionary tale in McGovern's experience all these many years later. A new book, "The Obama Nation," debuting in the No. 1 slot on The New York Times bestseller list advances a devastating, if twisted, narrative about Barack Obama as a secret Muslim consumed with black rage whose ultra-left policies are out of the mainstream of American values. The book's author, Jerome Corsi, coauthored the 2004 swift boat hit job on John Kerry, "Unfit for Command." Even though Obama has been campaigning and in the public eye for almost two years, people say they don't really know him, which means he either hasn't gotten out his message or he's not combating the negative messages from the other side.
On its Fight the Smears Web site, the Obama campaign, on Thursday, posted a document that calls the book's author a "discredited, fringe bigot" and over 40 pages rebuts point by point the "rehashed lies" packaged and marketed as "scholarship" by GOP activist turned publisher, Mary Matalin. We'll know on Election Day whether that is a vigorous enough response. The two Davids running the Obama campaign--David Axelrod and David Plouffe--have done such a brilliant job that Democrats would like to believe they have the right instinct on how to combat the swiftboating that is rearing its ugly head. But Obama's lead over John McCain in national polls has melted away, and doubts about Obama planted by McCain and his surrogates are taking hold.
Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, and author of "The Political Brain," tells NEWSWEEK that in an election year where people are furious with the president and his party, "A referendum on the personality of the contender is exactly what you don't want." Westen credits Obama with wanting to run a different kind of campaign but says that Democrats have it in their DNA to avoid confrontation and then rationalize their aversion to negative attacks as high-mindedness. The Obama team, by failing to fully exploit McCain's vulnerabilities--that he's not really a straight talker, that he's four more years of Bush--has unwittingly allowed their candidate to become the sole focus of the campaign.
McCain has used these summer weeks to brand Obama the "celebrity" candidate while the Democratic candidate has steadfastly avoided character-laced assaults on McCain. "If you've got someone raising doubts about you, you've got to be raise doubts about them," says Westen. "Because Obama is so bent on running a positive campaign, the campaign is about him. There's been no real effort to define McCain to the American people." Senator Kerry made the same mistake four years ago. He was so determined to run as an above-the-battle war hero that speakers at the Democratic Convention in Boston were barred from even mentioning President Bush's name, let alone speak out against the war for fear it would be interpreted as opposing the troops.
The Obama campaign promises theirs will not be a Kumbaya convention, that the destruction reaped upon the country by eight years of Bush will be highlighted and hung around McCain's neck. "He has to tell people his whole history and how it informs their vote, how he understands them because he is them," says Westen. "When the opposition is infested with [Karl] Rove acolytes, you have to adapt to realities on the ground." A week later, it's McCain's convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and his master narrative is clear. He's an American hero, strong on defense. That will be his convention theme along with how little we know about Obama. It's like watching a car crash in slow motion hoping for a different outcome.