To win in November, Obama can't lose the culture battle.
Barack Obama is not running against John McCain. He's running against Richard Nixon and George Wallace, combined.
Obama is facing Nixon's "cultural strategy," in which the 37th president convinced "the great silent majority of Americans" that he was on their side against civil rights, busing, anti-war protests and spoiled, rebellious college students. Nixon's aim was to bring together in 1972 the 57 percent of the voters who supported either him or Wallace in 1968.
The cultural strategy worked—and subsequently became the Republican Party's answer to its contradictory two-fold task: (1) Defend the interests of rich people and corporations and (2) Win a majority of the votes.
In the years since then, Democratic candidates for president—with the exception of Bill Clinton—have largely missed the point that there are two battles going on, one over culture and another over policy. The Republican strategy is to win on culture, so they don't have to debate the policy.
If you judge a candidate on policy, you're asking: "Will his policies keep my family safer, healthier and more prosperous?" If you judge a candidate on culture, you're asking: "Is he one of us?"
For the last nine elections, the Republicans have tried to define the Democratic nominee as "not one of us."
He can't be for us; he's for the blacks.
He can't be for us; he's for the gays.
He can't love America; he hates the flag.
He can't defend America; he's against the military.
He can't keep us safe; he's soft on criminals.
He can't share our values; he mocks religion.
He can't be one of us; he's an elitist who looks down on us.
The goal, in its crudest form, is to convince millions of Americans that Democrats hate them, which is virtually the same thing as convincing millions of Americans they should hate Democrats.
It's tribal politics. But in America, if you want to play tribal politics, you have to create the tribes.
Ann Coulter is among the willing. She once wrote: "Liberals mock Americans who love their country, calling them cowboys, warmongers, religious zealots and jingoists. ... Liberals relentlessly oppose the military, the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag and national defense. ... Liberals malign the flag, ban the pledge and hold cocktail parties for America's enemies."
This approach comes straight from Newt Gingrich's notorious GOPAC memo, leaked in 1990, which instructed Republican candidates to wrap themselves in words like "pro-flag; freedom; peace; principle; truth" and describe Democrats with words like "anti-flag; anti-family; criminal rights; welfare; traitors; endanger; bizarre; radical; sick; corrupt."
It was nasty for its day. But the GOPAC memo was subtle compared to the language used now on radio talk shows, websites and even cable news channels:
"Muslim! Black! African! Osama! (Oops, sorry.) Hussein! Terrorist! Muslim!"
It's startling, but shouldn't be. It's just an extension of the GOPAC playbook. To try to defeat the cultural strategy, and perhaps even turn the strategy against the Republicans, Obama can fight back in three ways.
Study Bill Clinton
By 1992, Nixon's political heirs thought they had mastered the game so thoroughly that they would never lose the White House again. Republicans had won five of the last six elections, and their only loss—they could plausibly argue—was the fault of Watergate. Four years before, they had crushed Michael Dukakis by rolling out the stereotype: How can he love America? He's against the Pledge of Allegiance. How can he keep you safe? He furloughs dangerous black criminals. How can he protect America? He looks small and silly in a tank. How can he be for you? He's a liberal, elite Harvard graduate from Massachusetts.
But when they tried to put Bill Clinton in that same box, they failed. Clinton deflected the typical charges on race and crime with his support of capital punishment, welfare reform, and his Sister Souljah moment. The Republicans scored some culture hits by emphasizing Clinton's support for gays, and charging that he hated the military. But the cultural strategy ultimately failed against Clinton because Republicans were never able to convince people that Bill Clinton looked down on them.
In fact, Republicans undercut their cause and betrayed their own elitist leanings when they made the mistake of calling Bill Clinton "Bubba," and when they made fun of his affection for Big Macs. Clinton never looked down on any group, and people knew it. So the charge of elitism failed, voters listened to him, and his economic message came through.
Highlight the Messenger
In 1999, I approached one of Al Gore's high-level communications people and said, "We're doing all these ‘message events.' Why don't we try a ‘messenger event?' Why don't we find the kind of venue, topic, setting, format, atmosphere that highlights Gore at his best and most likable? People don't vote for issues; they vote for a candidate. Let's show them the candidate." The person said, "Good idea." (That's Washington slang for "get lost.")
Six or seven years later, a lot of my friends who saw An Inconvenient Truth were saying: "Did you see Gore? He's totally different. He should run for president." And I thought, "Gore is not different. Gore is immutable. That was a messenger event."
Obama has to perfect his messenger event. For Obama's most passionate supporters, his best event is a stirring speech to a packed hall. But he needs an event that shows him at his best and most likable to those voters most susceptible to the ultural strategy. This is the race within the race—because Republicans are eager to reach that same audience with the "cultural" message so they decide they don't like Obama before they listen to him.
Appeal to John McCain's honor
At the top of this piece I said that Obama isn't running against McCain; he is running against Nixon. Of course, he's running against Nixon's strategy. But he's facing candidate McCain—and that's a lucky thing. When it comes to employing a divisive cultural strategy, John McCain is no Richard Nixon. According to presidential historian Richard Reeves, Nixon "gloried in cultural warfare, dividing the nation geographically, generationally, racially, religiously. He believed that was what all politicians did."
Not McCain. In his heart, McCain is the anti-Nixon. He called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." He said the Swift Boat attacks were "dishonest and dishonorable." More recently, McCain denounced a radio talk show host who appeared at a McCain rally and called Obama a "hack, Chicago-style Daley politician" and repeatedly used Obama's middle name, "Hussein."
Immediately after the rally, McCain told reporters: "I apologize for it. I did not know about these remarks, but I take responsibility for them. I repudiate them. ... I will certainly make sure that nothing like that happens again." The talk show host later complained that "McCain threw me under the bus" and said, "I've had it up to here with John McCain."
Well-timed appeals to John McCain's sense of honor could inspire the proud senator to denounce some of the nasty tactics that are necessary to drive home a negative Democratic stereotype. This could alienate some of the people on McCain's side, and that could undercut the cultural campaign against Obama.
If Obama uses these three approaches, he could fight to a draw on culture and win on policy. But he might achieve an even bigger gain than that. The Nixon heirs are trying to fight a culture war when the culture is changing—and there is a small chance that the cultural strategy that has worked for Republicans in nine elections may flip in this election and start working against them. Here's how: Working class Democrats were appalled in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the war protestors' contempt for Vietnam veterans, and they switched their voting habits to get away from "those people." Today, Republicans may be in danger of the same thing in reverse.
As the heirs of Nixon find repulsive new ways to say, "He's not one of us," they may inspire voters to support Obama so they can say: "I'm not one of them."
Tom Rosshirt worked as speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton. He is a partner at West Wing Writers, a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm.