Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why Attack the Community Organizer?

It took me a while last night and this morning to wrap my mind around the mocking line of attack that both Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani pursued in their speeches an evening ago. I mean, why, after a night of extolling the virtues of service, would you attack another person's service? Why indeed. I get the need to attack. That's politics. Everyone does that. I also understand the need to strike back after what Republicans found to be an unnecessary series of attacks on their nominee's choice for vice president after the Alaska governor's roll out last Friday. After all, Bill Clinton's campaigns' modus operandi was rapid response to attacks. That may not remove the fact that last night seemed a petty response, but pettiness in the face of pettiness is just tacky. Regardless, that's politics as well.

So why go after Obama on his experience as a community organizer? Why go against what, on its face, is your best interest? Yes, it fires up the Republican partisans, but it also fired Democrats up as well. But the question is, "How did it play among the independents and undecideds?" Here's where we start to answer the why of this particular line of argument. If both Palin and Giuliani look petty in making the argument, this likely backfires with those independents and undecideds. As one of our loyal readers, Rob, pointed out time and again during primary season -- at least in our discussion group meetings here at UGA -- the candidate or candidates perceived as negative lose. It happened to Romney in Iowa against Huckabee and in later primaries against McCain. And it happened to Hillary Clinton in her battle against Barack Obama. If that logic extends to the general election, then Palin, Giuliani and the McCain campaign have fundamentally misread the mood among the electorate. But does that logic extend in this case? During the primaries, the crowd was made up mostly of partisans. The general election brings in a completely new swath of voters or potential voters. I would argue that yes, this segment of the electorate would be turned off by an attack perceived as petty. Partisans already dislike the other side and expect the attacks. But independents and undecideds, while likely expecting the attacks, don't particularly like them. The point is that they may be turned off and have their mind changed. Whereas, with partisans, they'll be turned off but will have already made up their minds anyway.

But the question remains: Why attack Obama's past as a community organizer, especially when that could come back to haunt you and your party among the most crucial portion of the electorate in this election? Well, I think it all depends on this perception of pettiness. And that is affected by who this message was intended for. Yes, there was a lot of "red meat" in both Palin's and Giuliani's speeches last night. That played to the base of the Republican Party. But if we focus on Sarah Palin and the context of not only her but the speech as well, we can begin to see where the GOP was headed last night.

Fire up the base?

Appeal to independents and undecideds?

Huh? Why did you just write all that only to come to that conclusion? Good question. Palin's speech was about her background, her small town background. It was about life as a regular American. Fine, that appeals to independents and undecideds, but how is this attack in any way appealing to those folks? Well, it likely wasn't appealing to all independents and undecideds, but it was targeted at as many of them as the GOP could get to. And much of that is dependent upon how the concept of "community organizer" is defined in people's heads. If you tuned in to the Democratic convention a week ago, you learned about this aspect of Obama's life. In fact, I'm sure that most people could easily parrot the line, "He could have written his ticket to Wall Street but chose to be a community organizer instead," with relative ease -- with as much ease as they could tell you that John McCain voted with George Bush 90% of the time or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, put country first. But even if someone could tell you exactly what a community organizer is based on what they heard last week, I doubt that in most cases it is something most voters can relate to. Folks from urban environs can relate to it, but folks who have a background similar to Sarah Palin's may find it a stretch. So Palin can "get away with it" because she spent the first third of her time last night explaining what her background was and getting people to relate to her and her vantage point. To people in her corner, at least background-wise, community organizer is something of a foreign concept, nevermind the service aspect of it. [Incidentally, coming from Rudy Giuliani, this line of attack is somewhat disingenuous, given his experiences in New York. He likely knows very well what a community organizer is. But he was the keynote speaker. He can fire up the crowd and the base without it being overinterpreted. That's the role of a keynote address...or can be.] Soldier, people get. That's a concept that people can grasp. But community organizer is a concept that is as unknown to people as Sarah Palin was just a week ago.

Now, does that make it okay to attack that experience? I don't know. But does a pretty good job of drawing "community organizer" out as a foreign concept. And once you've accomplished that, mocking becomes a much more palatable enterprise. Granted this interpretation is vulnerable to the "politics of division" rebuttal from the Obama campaign since it cuts across an urban and not urban (I won't say rural because the suburbs and exurbs fall in between and may or may not gravitate toward the argument.) divide. And of course that brings with it some racial undertones that I won't get into here. At the same time, though, it is worth bringing up.

Among persuadables, did this work? Again, I can't say for sure, but it is a clever way to potentially peel off some of them at the margins. Nate Silver Sean at FiveThirtyEight mentioned in his wrap-up post to the evening (and especially the Palin speech) that the Democrats outnumber Republicans and that firing up both bases is somewhat counterproductive. While that's true, all the McCain campaign has to do is persuade enough of these small town, average Americans to swing a state like Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, or Ohio, or Michigan or Pennsylvania to win the election. Now getting from A to B in that is easier said than done, but I can see how they are trying to get there with that speech last night.

*For the record, I thought Palin was fantastic last night. The bar was lowered due to the firestorm surrounding her because of and since her selection, and that helped, but she did a great job for someone who was thrust into the spotlight only five days earlier. She passed the first test, but she will still have to withstand direct questioning from the media and/or in the debates. For that, stay tuned.

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Map (9/3/08)

A Follow Up on the 50% Mark: The View from 2004

Obama Cracks 50% in the Daily Trackers. What Does It Mean?


Robert said...


Good points. I don't think that Guiliani planned to attack the community organizer bit, but the crowd piked up on the line and he played the crowd. Palin obviously went after Obama on that point. I expect Biden to say something like the following (either in one of his stump speeches or in the debate):

"I don't know how it is in Wasilla, but in many cities and towns, large and small, citizens feel that local governments don't listen to them and they can't get the services they need. It's hard to fight city hall! Community organizers listen to the needs of citizens who are ignored by their mayors and councils and help them get what they need. Upon graduation Barack Obama passed up more financially rewarding options and went to Chicago to help give a voice to their citizens who were not being heard. If you feel like your city hall doesn't listen to you, amybe you could benefit from a community organizer."

I think she did well. Obviously she will be the attack dog, but will she have credibility outside the social conservatives in the Republican party? The moderates are realtively quiet (with some very notable exceptions), but that doesn't mean they are happpy about it. We will find out soon if she is appealing to moderates. I think there was sympathy for her and her family before the talk, but pushing her family, including her future son-in-law in everybody's face will get old real quick, particularily if she pushes parts of her social agenda.

Teen-age pregnancy is a serious problem in this country, and it seems to me that the Republicans are treating it rather cavalierly. GWB like JEC were going to have morally superior administrations. In my recollection it wasn't until the second GWB term when we heard "Well at least he isn't as bad Bill Clinton!" I stopped hearing even that after Alfredo Gonzalez. Already we are hearing "Well at least she's not having an abortion!"

One other observation to last night. I know that McCain is 72 years old, but it wasn't until I saw the ticket on the stage last night that he looked like an old man. Part of the problem was his inability to raise his arms, but it was very pronounced. I never got that impression when he made all those speeches with Cindy by his side. Was it just me or someone else notice it as well?

Anonymous said...

Actually Rob, David Plouffe from the Obama campaign had this to say in an email that came into my inbox at 4:30 this morning*:

"Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin specifically mocked Barack's experience as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago more than two decades ago, where he worked with people who had lost jobs and been left behind when the local steel plants closed.

Let's clarify something for them right now.

Community organizing is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies."

The short and sweet version, but he beat Biden to it.

...for now.

On the old thing: I haven't really talked to a whole lot of people about last night yet. However, after her introduction last week, I had several people who came to the same conclusion on the age discrepancy. I don't know. It doesn't bother me. And I don't think it is an issue unless 1) He pulls a Bob Dole and falls or something or 2) Her amateurism shows and exacerbates the perception that she may not be qualified to be second in command.

*For disclosure's sake, I get email from both campaigns.

Robert said...


That is a good response from Pouffe. I agree that any falling down by McCain or gaffe by Palin will exacerbate the situation, but he just looked last night like he was just not up to the job. It is the first time I had that impression. I thought Rudy's speech was a good one, but I had to laugh when he accused Obama of being part of the Chicago machine. I'm glad that his hands were pure in avoiding machine politics in NewYork.

The other thing that struck me last night was the sterling example of family values set by Judith Guiliani, Cindy McCain and Bristol Palin in a row together and Newt Gingrich nearby.

Anonymous said...

Two other (and completely irrelevant, mind you) notes from last night:

1) McCain's mother does not look 96. She must be in unbelievably good health. I have started factoring that in to my thinking about McCain on the subject.

2) In taking the "kids at the convention" torch from Obama's family, the GOP/Palins may have taken the cake last night. NBC's camera caught the youngest Palin daughter -- holding the baby after Dad had passed him off in order to stand and wave when Sarah recognized him -- smoothing the baby's hair with her hand. She then proceeded to lick her hand and continue smoothing his hair. For those of us with kids, it was an awesomely hilarious, yet human, moment. My wife, who walked in the room around that time asked, "I wonder who she's seen doing that?"

I didn't pay too much attention to McCain last night. I suppose I was trying to get over the fact that he was copying Obama's move from a week ago. That was an oddly handled moment. I had turned over to PBS to hear their panel's thoughts at that point, and Mark Shields kept pausing after every sentence and even said that he was anticipating something else happening.

...but it never came. I just thought that was odd. He came out to basically say, "Isn't she great?" and that was it. Why not just let her have the stage and not risk looking like a copycat by coming out?

Robert said...

I saw the licking incident and loved it too! I don't even have kids.

I thought the McCain appearance was handled poorly as well. Did anyone hear as to why the woman was dragged out? It looked like she was flashing the peace sign. I believe that you have to use both hands simultaneously, Nixon style, for it to be the victory sign.

Anonymous said...

I missed that moment. But here's a short rundown of what happened:

10:45 p.m. A pair of Code Pink activists just got to the very edge of the stage and were a moment away from apparently running on stage, right by the Kentucky slot on the floor next to a host of McCain's most senior staffers.

Secret Service men grabbed them at last minute and literally dragged them out.
--Paul Kane

And here's Code Pink's web page: They're women against the war.

Wow. How did they get in there?

James Rowen said...

I put this up on my Wisconsin blog today, fyi:

Janet said...

I found Palin's tone incredibly offensive. She doesn't have the political clout to be that snarky and condescending. I expected her to be charming, and to take some shots, but she was downright rude -- the contemptuous comments about community organizers, and then one line I haven't heard mentioned much today -- her reference to "after he's done parting the waters and healing the planet." That was a snarky, disrespectful attack that completely turned me off. I wonder how many other independents will be offended by her sarcasm, and how much she actually energized the left (see evidence of fundraising success today by obama). Time will tell. McCain was stiiiiifffff tonight.