The "lipstick" kerfuffle illustrates two larger issues that Barack Obama and the Democrats have, one being specific to this election and the other being more endemic: As I argued earlier, they have to move the campaign's story line past Sarah Palin, and, more broadly, they need to learn to take GOP attacks seriously—and hit back.
I predicted last week that John McCain's acceptance speech would end the Palin boomlet by shifting the campaign focus back to its natural grooves: the race between Obama and McCain for the highest office in the land. I blew that one.
Sarah Palin continues to be the dominant force in the presidential campaign, and thanks to an appealing entry onto the national stage, she has been a net positive for the McCain campaign. (I guess celebrity's not so bad after all.) And the Obama campaign and its liberal allies are fueling Palin-palooza by focusing attention—and attacks—on her. Did Obama have Palin in mind when he described McCain's policies as lipstick on a pig? It doesn't matter—even if he didn't, he should have known that's where it would end up.
The Obama campaign has got to remember that Palin is not the opponent. Engaging Palin only diminishes Obama (by putting him on the same level as a neophyte who hasn't given more than a few days' thought to what she would do if, God help us all, she became president) or boosts the Alaska governor (by including her on the presidential candidate stage).
With the startling exception of Dick Cheney, vice presidents are an irrelevancy (until they become presidents), and no one believes that Sarah Palin is going to become the next Cheney. (Picture John McCain sitting in the Oval Office and saying, "Get Palin in here; I need to draw upon her years of executive experience to show me how to run the country!") The Obama campaign should treat her like a typical vice presidential candidate and move on. The media might not cooperate, but they won't change the focus on their own. (Even if she face-plants in front of Charles Gibson's cameras or otherwise becomes a laughingstock, the issue is not Sarah Palin but John McCain's judgment and decision making.)
Obama's broader problem is that he is in danger of falling into the same trap Republicans lay every four years for Democratic candidates: underestimating GOP attacks. The GOP is painting Obama as a raging sexist because he used the word "lipstick" on the stump? It can't be serious. Republicans are painting John Kerry as some sort of traitor/coward while running a candidate who skipped the Vietnam War? They can't be serious. Al Gore is a deranged serial liar? They can't be serious. Mike Dukakis wants to burn the flag while letting hardened criminals out of jail? They can't be serious.
The attacks aren't serious, but the attackers are.
I wrote all of the above before Obama made his morning appearance and declared (echoing his fighting moment in his acceptance speech), "Enough!"
"Spare me the phony outrage," he said. "Spare me the phony talk about change."
And for good measure: "I don't care what they say about me. But I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and swift boat politics. Enough is enough."
Josh Marshall thought it was too reactive, but I like the fact that he hit back and didn't come across as whiny in doing so. But Marshall's right inasmuch as having hit back, Obama needs to pivot, move on, and take the story line with him.