Barack Hussein Obama

Mark Halperin, listing things McCain can do to beat Obama that Hillary can't:

5. Make an issue of Obama’s acknowledged drug use.

6. Allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama.


11. Emphasize Barack Hussein Obama’s unusual name and exotic background through a Manchurian Candidate prism.

Actually, people associated with Hillary's campaign - if not Hillary herself - seems to have tried all three of these angles, to little avail. There's an assumption out there that Republicans are just way better at gutter politics than Democrats, and so of course the GOP will be able to come up with some sort of brilliantly evil strategy that weaves the drug use, the race card, the Muslim card, the funny-outfit card, and all the rest of it together more successfully than the Clinton campaign did. But I really, really don't see how this is going to work. If there's any lesson of the Billy Shaheen fiasco, or Clinton's "Jesse Jackson" line, or the Somali-costume debacle, it's that you can't just "raise" these kind of issues without some legitimate explanation for why you're raising them; voters won't care, and the media will give you hell for it. The best the Clintonites could come up with was the justification Shaheen offered - that voters should care about Obama's drug use (or his skin color, or his Muslim relatives, or whatever) because Republicans will be able to exploit it in the fall. But that just kicks the ball further down the road. How will Republicans exploit it?

Look at at it this way: Any successful political attack needs to have some sort of valence - it can push all sorts of atavistic buttons, but ultimately it needs to go to an issue, or it needs to go to the opposing candidate's character. The Willie Horton commercials wouldn't have worked if they were just about Willie Horton's race; they worked because they were ultimately about Michael Dukakis's handling of criminal justice. Same with the (in)famous "white hands" ad that Jesse Helms ran against Harvey Gantt: Yes, it arguably played the race card, but it also hit Gantt on a hot-button policy issue, affirmative action, and linked his positions, by implication, to blue-collar economic anxieties. The GOP attacks on Al Gore and John Kerry, meanwhile - as a phony and a flip-flopper, respectively - worked because they painted both men as characterologically unfit to be President.

Now I'm sure McCain can find ways to attack Obama on issues, and I'm sure he can find ways to hit him on character. And there's probably a way to turn Obama's internationalism against him in a very general way, using his "world man" reputation as a foil to highlight McCain's more nationalistic persona. But I don't see how McCain could plausibly weave the race card or the Islam card into his attacks without coming off like both a bigot and a fool. Maybe there's some way for the GOP to plausibly raise Obama's drug use in the context of arguing that he's soft on crime, or raise his Muslim connections in the context of a debate over foreign policy and terrorism. (I assume that's what Halperin has mind with the "Manchurian Candidate" line.) Maybe some "Madrassa Veterans For Truth" will emerge to claim that Obama's lying about his Muslim past. Or maybe having right-wing talk radio hosts make Obama-Osama cracks will actually help McCain, rather than just make conservatives look like moronic frat boys. Anything's possible. But at the moment it seems as though going down the race-card path wouldn't be some brilliant machiavellian move on the part of the McCain camp, as Halperin suggests, but the purest sort of folly.

So when Jon Chait praises McCain for declaring the "Hussein" trope out-of-bounds, I'm with him. But I suspect that in addition to being a decent human being, McCain is savvy enough to recognize that if conservatives flog Obama's middle name from here to the election, it's likely to hurt his campaign far more than it helps it.

Update: Via Marc, I see Karl Rove concurs.