We Are the "War Room" that We Have Been Waiting For
By Al Giordano
Last summer, former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis offered some sage advice to his 2008 successor in an interview with the New York Observer: To utilize a grassroots precinct-level organization not only in the traditional manner of getting out the vote, but as a message machine to beat back the kinds of smears that he and other previous nominees knew all too well:
"I'm talking about every precinct," he said, "with a precinct captain and six block-captains that make personal contact with every single voting household. And I mean starting a year in advance. I'm not talking about parachuting in with two weeks to go. That's baloney. And these people are people who've got to be from the precinct, of the precinct, look like the precinct and talk like the precinct."
The way he tells it, this was the missing ingredient in his 1988 effort-a powerful and utterly economical tool that, if properly deployed, could have blunted the Bush campaign's character-assassination-by-paid-media, and one that could spare Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama his ultimate fate.
True to his technocratic roots, Mr. Dukakis has the idea of replicating, on every street, avenue, and rural route in the country, the kind of personal relationships that once powered big-city political machines-with precinct captains calling on their neighbors every few weeks, asking them about their concerns, talking up their candidate and following up on any questions they might have. Mr. Dukakis' vision is rooted in good government-making sure, for instance, that a neighbor's concerns about school vouchers are satisfactorily addressed.
That kind of personalized operation early on, Mr. Dukakis believes, can keep voters from believing the worst when the Willie Horton and Swift Boat campaigns begin.
"There's a chemistry there, which is hard to describe unless you've done it," he said. "Otherwise, it permits your opponent to paint you as something you aren't. It happened to me. It happened to Kerry. They tried to do it to Clinton. They'll try to do it to anybody."
Obama - beginning in the Democratic primaries with the "kitchen sink strategy" of the Clinton campaign - bore the brunt of bizarre accusations thrown at him that weren't ever attempted on Caucasian candidates before him: a whisper and anonymous viral email campaign about his religion caused 13 percent of Americans to believe, four months ago, that Obama is Muslim (a difficult falsehood to fight back against without creating blowback from those that will then accuse that to do so is to perpetuate the very bigotry it's based upon). This month, the same Wall Street Journal-NBC poll shows that number reduced to eight percent, while more Americans tag Obama as a Christian than ever before.
This progress sure isn't due to the non-existent clarity in the commercial news media (when even the nominee's purported friends - for example, at The New Yorker - are so prone to go off message). It's occurred because the Obama campaign has largely heeded Dukakis' advice and harnessed its grassroots organization to fight back from the bottom up. They've done it with the Fight The Smears website, where supporters get the talking points to respond to email falsehoods and other attacks.
The direct mail flyer, part of which is posted above, produced by the AFL-CIO and sent to 600,000 of its members in key battleground states, is an excellent example of utilizing organization to do the fact-correcting job that the news media simply doesn't do, or doesn't do well.
Jed calls it "the best anti-smear message of the campaign" to date:
In late June, Professor Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton (mindgeek at Daily Kos), penned a New York Times op-ed describing how debunking falsehoods by repeating the falsehoods can in fact strengthen the original falsehood. Consequently, the best way to spread the truth is by leading with the truth to debunk the smear. For example, emphasize that "Barack Obama IS a Christian" instead of saying what he is not...
As you can see, instead of answering each smear in the negative, the mailer instead poses questions that can be answered positively. In this fashion, the flier is reinforcing who Barack Obama actually is instead of who Barack Obama is not.
You - and any neighbors, co-workers or relatives are walking around with false impressions in their heads - can see the whole flyer here. (The next logical step would be if folks on the grassroots level simply took that .pdf to the printer and made even more copies to distribute on the ground.)
The Howard Dean campaign showed in 2004 that the Internet could be utilized to raise millions of dollars in small donations, ending dependence on the "influence donors" that so destroyed the Democratic Party in recent decades. In 2008, the Obama campaign mastered that technique, and now pioneers its use as a messaging sword for those small donors and grassroots volunteers to make false rumors die the death of a thousand cuts.
Politics has thus evolved from the centralized "war room" of the 1990s to a decentralized one that exists in a million or two homes right now, of which bloggers and independent media are a new kind of precinct captain that needs no orders from headquarters nor permission to take initiative. We saw that at work last weekend in the rapid response from the bottom up to the McCain campaign's false claims in a television ad about Obama's European trip. Only four days later, the McCain camp has backed down.
And that's a large reason why the Chicken Little proclamations that we so often read and hear elsewhere - the petulant demands from armchair campaign managers that the Obama fight back in specific ways - are so silly: Surrogates almost always make the better counterpunchers and anybody with a modem or a network of friends or neighbors is now as much of a surrogate as the big names that can garner mass media attention. When you can do something yourself, it's just plain infantile to call upon daddy or mommy - or the presidential candidate or political leader upon which you project that role - to do it for you. Hopefully, one of the lasting results of 2008 will be the emergence of the more grown-up form of political activism in which rather than calling on others to do things for us we simply do it ourselves.
Update: The Obama campaign is using a martial art technique with this new ad now on the air, turning McCain's recent attacks back at him: