"Kids for the Hero and the Mom"
That hand-lettered sign, held aloft by a little boy at a rally this week in Virginia for GOP nominee John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, neatly summed up the dilemma Barack Obama faces going into the final stretch of the presidential campaign.
With the emergence of Palin as a national celebrity with powerful appeal to the previously uninspired Christian right and a healthy cohort of white women, nervous supporters have been urging the Democratic nominee to get tougher, sharper, meaner. But how does Obama, the proponent of post-partisan politics, do that against a Republican ticket that has spent the past two weeks wrapping and rewrapping itself in powerful, myth-making narratives of working motherhood and military service?
Republican strategists, many of whom came to the McCain effort from the Bush-Cheney political stable, have turned Palin's gender into her armor. Similarly, they've increasingly used McCain's harrowing 5½ years in a Vietnamese prison camp four decades ago to inoculate him from criticism ranging from his episodes of confusion about warring factions in Iraq to his uncertainty about how many homes he and his wife, Cindy, own. (When questioned later about his lack of knowledge about their collection of homes, McCain deflected with his POW experience: "I spent some years without a kitchen table, without a chair, and I know what it's like to be blessed by the opportunities of this great nation.")
Thursday, adding to McCain's Vietnam narrative, a Swedish television station released a rarely seen video of a thin, young, but already gray-haired McCain stiffly disembarking from a bus carrying just-released American POWs. Full disclosure: U.S. News in January posted on its website McCain's first-person account of his ordeal, which was published in the magazine in May 1973. His report has been one of the year's most popular stories on our site.
Democratic political consultant Chris Lehane calls McCain's POW experience, the centerpiece of his nomination night acceptance speech and biographical video, "a force field, a fairly effective bulwark against any of the incoming criticism." Earlier this year, Gen. Wesley Clark, a Hillary Clinton supporter, was effectively silenced after he suggested that McCain's incarceration didn't necessarily translate into leadership ability.
A similar gender strategy has worked in much the same way for Palin. Legitimate stories examining her performance as a small-town mayor and Alaska's governor have been branded by the McCain campaign as sexist. So have call-outs about her biggest and most oft-repeated campaign whopper: that she opposed funding for Alaska's notorious "Bridge to Nowhere" earmark. (Top McCain campaign adviser Rick Davis has gone so far as to demand that the press treat national candidate Palin with "deference.")
And while Palin had maintained silence with the media—broken last night when she sat down with ABC's Charlie Gibson—so, too, has McCain. The former on-the-record candidate who relished freewheeling back-and-forths with the media has been avoiding press conferences and direct interaction with voters who attend campaign events.
Democratic strategists say that Obama can't follow the lead of former President Jimmy Carter, who, during a recent meeting with USA Today and Gannett News Service reporters, tried to put a chink in McCain's protective coating. Carter lauded the senator's military service but said that McCain has been "milking every possible drop of advantage" from his POW days. And, strategists say, the Democratic nominee also can't take on Palin for her inexperience. Those lines of attacks, they say, are exactly the wrong ones to pursue when it's becoming clear that the fast-closing race will come down to who does a better job attracting a crucial 2 to 3 percent of voters in a half-dozen or so key states.
"For these folks, this is ultimately going to become an up-or-down character vote," Lehane says. To combat McCain-Palin on that front, "you have to connect with people's hearts and have them look through a character prism to compare and contrast." Obama's argument? "It should be that we hold John McCain in high regard, but he won't make a difference in your lives," Lehane says. "You do a 'Working Joe' tour with Joe Biden, you have Obama visit 10 small towns or exurbs in swing states and have him spend a night with a family.
"You do not do anything to degrade the Obama brand of a new kind of politics," he says.
One Democratic consultant not affiliated with the Obama campaign says that the Democrat's message should be simple—and can be boiled down to a 15-second ad: "Thanks, John McCain for your sacrifice. But no thanks for a third Bush term." And then, he said, beat that—and the economy—like a drum.
With only 53 days until Election Day, Obama, the strategists say, has to draw better character contrasts and break through the daily news cycle that has been dominated by the governor of Alaska since the morning after Obama's acceptance speech. And with the McCain-Palin roadshow showing no sign of slowing, that breakthrough needs to be tough and sharp. But Obama would be advised to leave the military and motherhood out of it.