Monday, August 18, 2008


If Barack Obama loses this election,* lots of political junkies, cultural commentators and op-ed pundits are going to say that the GOP's strategy of painting Obama as a "snob" or "elitist" worked.

Then they're going to over-analyze the situation and try to figure out what is it about Obama that makes people find him snobbish. That would be misguided.

When Republicans call Obama "elitist" or "a snob", it's not because they find him elitist or snobbish. It's so they can plant a seed of doubt in voters' minds.

Don't believe me? Go up to a Republican who says Obama is a snob, ask probing questions about why Obama is a snob and why McCain is not, apply some good old-fashioned critical thinking to the responses you get, and just see where the conversation goes. My guess: raised voices followed by the Republican leaving in a huff. People don't appreciate nerds who try to hold them to the literal meaning of everything they say.

Planting that seed of doubt is highly effective. Lots of political junkies and commentators think the average American voter is an idiot, but that's not exactly true. The average American voter has more going on in his life than keeping track of which politician said what, whether attack ad X is factually accurate, or whether his subconscious impression of Barack Obama can be rationally justified or not. Like it or not, following politics just isn't a high priority for most people.

Back in 2000 I was confused by all the Republican attacks against Al Gore calling him an exaggerator. Gore was running for President! Calling him an exaggerator, or even a liar, was like accusing him of breathing oxygen! Did any Republican with a mental age of more than six think Bush wasn't an exaggerator? I should have realized that the literal meaning of the GOP attacks was not important. What was important was creating the seed of doubt in a voter's brain.

This is why I enjoy likening political attacks to the insult "poopyhead".** "Poopyhead" has no literal meaning. Calling somebody a poopyhead doesn't mean anything. When the GOP calls Obama a snob, they are calling him a poopyhead. When they called Gore a liar, they called him a poopyhead.

On the national level, Republicans are much better at responding to this than Democrats.*** When Democrats said Bush lacked the experience, and knowledge, and maybe the sheer brainpower to be President, Bush took those criticisms and made them part of his image. I strongly suspect many of his "Bushisms" were deliberate. Heck, I'm totally open to the interpretation that Bush provoked the "Bush is stupid" criticism as part of a Rovian master plan to win over the hearts of working-class Americans suspicious of liberal elites.

I'm not sure whether it's a better idea for the Democrats to just focus on improving their responses to "poopyhead" insults, or if they should descend into the muck and focus on calling John McCain a poopyhead.


* Obama has slid a bit in the polls in the past two weeks or so, and I'm seeing the beginnings of panic in some Democratic blog comments. It's premature. Some Dems just enjoy bemoaning upcoming defeats. It's possible McCain will win. It's always been possible McCain would win. Whether he actually wins will largely be decided by what happens between now and November.

** If you find the word "poopyhead" distasteful, try the alternative "cooties". Republicans are saying Obama has cooties.

*** This doesn't seem to be true in local races, where cunning and scheming ability appear evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats. Recent Virginia electoral history shows a Republican running an astonishingly clumsy campaign (Allen '06), as well as a Democratic campaign flat-out outsmarting their Republican opponents (Kaine v. Kilgore '05).