In this week’s cover story, Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe and Evan Thomas juxtapose Democratic talking points about the sliminess of Republicans (“successfully scaring voters since 1968”) and testimonials to the managerial wizardry of Barack Obama (“he has ‘grace under fire’”) and present the entire package as an insightful look inside “The O Team.”
The eight-page spread, decorated with several behind-the-scenes photographs of the candidate and his top aides, paints Republicans and independent conservative groups as the source of all campaign nastiness. The authors even question whether John McCain, who has earned innumerable media accolades as a champion of more government regulations on free speech (“campaign finance reform”) is not perhaps a co-conspirator with those awful conservatives:
Sen. John McCain himself has explicitly disavowed playing the race card or taking the low road generally. But he may not be able to resist casting doubt on Obama's patriotism. And the real question is whether he can -- or really wants to -- rein in the merchants of slime and sellers of hate who populate the Internet and fund the "independent expenditure" groups who exercise their freedom in ways that give a bad name to free speech.
As for Obama, the magazine quotes a mid-level staffer to argue that the wise Obama would be far less a gamble than was electing George W. Bush eight years ago:
There is no ready training for commander in chief, and no real way to predict how a man or woman will perform once in the Oval Office. Campaigns can deceive voters, or at least mask shortcomings. After watching his father's triumph in 1988 and failure in 1992, George W. Bush had a good feel for the mechanics of campaigning: the importance of money, message and geography. His 2000 campaign was well managed by a tight group of loyal aides, with little infighting. It was only after he became president that voters began to grasp Bush's failings as an executive—his disdain for expert opinion, his stubborn approach to policy or rivals, his fatal lack of follow-through.
Obama, at least, seems to be more curious than the current president. Ruchi Bhowmik, a legislative counsel in Obama's Senate office, is one of the staffers whom Obama has called upon because she was too quiet in a gathering. "When he's at a meeting, he's very inclusive and a very good listener," she tells Newsweek. "He's not looking to dictate what everyone is discussing, and he wants to hear what everyone is thinking. He doesn't discount things." On Capitol Hill, Senator Obama has been a foe of "knee jerk" thinking, says Bhowmik. "Obama's response is, 'Well, we've always done it that way—why?'"
Presidential campaigns may be in some ways little more than glorified stress tests, not true measures of the potential for presidential greatness. Still, they do offer significant peeks into personal character. Obama "does not get rattled," says Bhowmik. "I've never seen it." He has "grace under fire." In the coming campaign, he will need it.
The lion’s share of the article seems dedicated to painting any Republican effort to criticize Obama as outrageous attack. Excerpts:
While Clinton veered between playing Queen Elizabeth I and Norma Rae, Obama and his team chugged along with a superior 50-state campaign strategy, racking up the delegates. If the candidate seemed weary and peevish or a little slow to respond at times, he never lost his cool. But the real test is yet to come. The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968, when Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority out of lower- and middle-class folks frightened or disturbed by hippies and student radicals and blacks rioting in the inner cities. The 2008 race may turn on which party will win the lower- and middle-class whites in industrial and border states—the Democrats' base from the New Deal to the 1960s, but "Reagan Democrats" in most presidential elections since then. It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as "the other" -- as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots (Obama is a Christian) and hangs around with America-haters.
Obama says he's ready for the onslaught. "Yes, we know what's coming," he told a cheering crowd as he won the North Carolina primary last week. "We've seen it already … the attempts to play on our fears and exploit our differences to turn us against each other for pure political gain -- to slice and dice this country into Red States and Blue States; blue-collar and white-collar; white, black, brown." Hillary Clinton was not above playing on those fears. Refusing to concede defeat last week, she cited an Associated Press poll "that found how Senator Obama's support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again." As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote: "Here's what she's really saying to party leaders: There's no way that white people are going to vote for the black guy. Come November, you'll be sorry." A top Clinton adviser, speaking anonymously so he could be more frank, says the Clinton campaign has actually been holding back, for fear of alienating other Democrats. The Republicans "won't suffer from such scruples," this adviser says. Sen. John McCain himself has explicitly disavowed playing the race card or taking the low road generally. But he may not be able to resist casting doubt on Obama's patriotism. And the real question is whether he can -- or really wants to -- rein in the merchants of slime and sellers of hate who populate the Internet and fund the "independent expenditure" groups who exercise their freedom in ways that give a bad name to free speech.
McCain's top aides include some veterans of past Republican attack campaigns, like campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, who was in charge of rapid response for Bush-Cheney '04, and Black, whose experience goes all the way back to the campaigns of right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist who resigned from the campaign last summer but keeps ties to McCain, suggests that McCain could try to block low-road smears. "He could say, 'If any major donors or political operators do that, then you will be persona non grata in my administration'," says Weaver. But McCain himself has said that he will not "referee" between various independent groups who always want to have their say in presidential campaigns. (The model is the notorious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who unfairly but effectively questioned John Kerry's war record in 2004.) [McCain strategist Charlie] Black tells Newsweek McCain was powerless to stop the "527s," named after the provision of the tax code that covers political expenditures by nonprofits, from running attack ads on their own. "Look, there's nothing we can do about the 527s," says Black.
Another McCain adviser, who asked for anonymity discussing internal campaign strategy, bluntly warned: "It's going to be Swift Boat times five on both sides … The candidates will both do their best publicly to mute it. But in a close race, I don't see how to shut that down." Indeed, two of the most experienced attack artists are already gearing up. Floyd Brown, who produced the infamous "Willie Horton" commercial that used race and fear of crime to drive voters away from Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988, produced an ad before the North Carolina primary accusing Obama of being soft on crime. He tells Newsweek that Obama is "extremely vulnerable" to questioning about his ties to Chicago fixer Tony Rezko, who has been indicted for political corruption. (Obama is not linked to any wrongdoing.) Another target is former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, whose association with Obama will remind voters of bomb-throwing student radicals of the 1960s. "There's plenty of stuff out there," says Brown. "I'm kinda like in a candy store in this election."
The totally one-sided nature of the Newsweek piece provoked McCain aide Mark Salter to write a letter of complaint to editor Jon Meacham, which Newsweek has published on its Web site linked to the original article. Salter pointed out the obvious, that Democrats engage in their share of slimy campaigning, and that the Newsweek team had “framed this race exactly as Senator Obama wants it to be framed.” An excerpt:
Suggesting that that we can expect a whispering campaign from the McCain campaign or the Republican Party about Senator Obama's race and the false charge that he is a Muslim is scurrilous. Has John McCain ever campaigned that way? On the contrary, he has on numerous occasions denounced tactics offensive tactics from campaigns, 527s and others, both Democratic and Republican. By the way, which party had more 527 and other independent expenditure ads made on its behalf in 2004? It wasn't us.
By accepting the Obama campaign construct as if it were objective, Evan [Thomas] and Richard [Wolffe] framed this race exactly as Senator Obama wants it to be framed -- every issue that raises doubts about his policy views and judgment is part of a smear campaign intended to distract voters from the real issues at stake in the election, and, thus, illegitimate. And even if Senator McCain might not be inclined to support such advertising, if he can't stop them from occurring then he will have succumbed to the temptation to put ambition before principle. How this notion could appear credible after MoveOn, the AFL-CIO and the DNC launched negative ad campaigns weeks ago, and after leaks from the Obama campaign that they would soon start running negative ads against McCain, is mystifying.