Speaking of Halperin’s list, Ross notes that many of the tactics recommended to McCain were tried and did not succeed. This is basically true, but it is unclear whether the same attacks will have such limited impact in the general electorate, especially among voters who are relatively ill-informed and the late-deciding voters who remain “undecided” for an infuriatingly long period of time.* It is clear that Clinton’s surrogates were terrible messengers for these attacks, particularly when they framed it as a “concern” about what the Republicans could do later. Viewed entirely cynically as a matter of tactics, there were two problems with this approach: it tied the allegations back to the Clinton campaign in one way or another, which ultimately worked to her detriment, and it expressed these “concerns” in the least convincing way possible: “I’m not saying it’s a problem, I’m just saying that someone else might think it’s a problem.” Between the 527s and the usual suspects of the Smearbund working on different angles of Obama’s record and his associations (the latter have already been hard at work trying to demonise Obama’s foreign policy advisors), you will have relatively untraceable attacks on the one hand and potentially very damaging smear campaigns on the other that will keep coming back to the Wright-Farrakhan connection and Obama’s connections, such as they are, to Ayers and Khalidi. Informed voters typically scoff at these sorts of attacks, but they have a real and negative effect on the target. (Farrakhan’s “kind remarks” and his response to them last night are already causing Obama some trouble.)
Attacks work psychologically because they create negative associations with the candidate that weaken his support, and they probably work best among voters who have the least information about a candidate. Even once the attacks are proven to be false, the candidate never recovers all that support fully. The purpose of such attacks is obviously to sow doubt and uncertainty about trusting a candidate, to make it seem as if he is not what you thought he was, and so make you less likely to support him. Since Obama’s strength seems to be generating higher levels of turnout than usual, lines of attack that simply suppress turnout all together, rather than attempt to shift votes to the other candidate, are what we are most likely to see. The 527s are crucial to this, because McCain and his people cannot allow themselves to be directly linked to any of it. His campaign would need to not be directly involved with putting out any of these attacks, and McCain would make a point of repudiating them. The same recommendation goes for the Obama campaign about keeping its distance from pro-Obama 527s that will be trying to dig up and circulate whatever they can on McCain.
The problem with candidacies defined so completely by biography, as Obama and McCain’s candidacies clearly are, is that everything in a candidate’s biography then becomes more or less fair game, and the political incentives for using the candidate’s family and friends to attack him become very great. Far from having the most high-minded and respectful campaign in memory between two media darlings, we are probably about to embark on one that will be remembered for its bitterness and the sheer volume of third-party personal attacks made, because it is precisely in the candidates’ integrity and biography that their electoral strength resides.
*N.B. This post is intended as analysis, not advocacy.
P.S. Spengler is generally quite good on a lot of things, but he deploys some pretty sketchy psychoanalysis to make his point in this article (via Sullivan), which advances the Schiffren hypothesis to another level of paranoid. (Naturally, Schiffren was the one who linked to it.) But this Spengler piece is an extreme form of the kind of attack on Obama through his family and friends that you can expect to see more of in coming months. Critics will use his other associations with Rezko, more reasonably, to call his judgement into question, which is to strike at the thing that Obama proposes makes him most fit to be President. Referring to the Rezko deal he made a “boneheaded mistake,” you can see the negative ad writing itself: “Do we want a President who makes boneheaded mistakes?” And so on.