Washington Matters


When Distractions Serve a Purpose



Barack Obama and the angry supporters of his who think the recent line of questioning he has faced on everything from the "bitter" remarks to his friendship with an ex-Weather Underground bomber are an unfair and ultimately damaging distraction are right. So what? Politics ain't beanbag. And neither is running a superpower -- and responding effectively to the unfair and unexpected may be the most important part of the job description.

That's why Obama's tactic of using the attacks against him as prima facie evidence that politics as usual will forever prevent genuine solutions to social problems and foreign policy dilemmas is only half of an effective response. Obama's biggest problem since the word of his "bitter" remarks spread is that he simply hasn't come up with a clear, forceful explanation and response. While Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos clearly spent too much time probing at Obama's gaffes during the debate, they were right to pursue his comments and attempts to clarify them since Obama had not settled the matter -- and still hasn't.

Compare this flap to the one over his pastor, the Rev. Wright. Obama gave a clear explanation and response and used the opportunity to deliver a powerful speech on the role of race in America and American politics. That has enabled him to say in effect, that you can believe him and agree with him or not, but that picking at the issue won't bring any greater clarity and will detract from the issues that matter most to voters. But that tactic simply won't work without a credible explanation to point to.

Newsweek's Michael Hirsh has written an analysis that points out how Obama's troubles reflect a seemingly genetic Democratic trait. Just ask Jimmy Carter (cardigan sweater), Michael Dukakis (tooling around in a tank) and John Kerry (Swift boat). Hirsh praises Obama's early analysis of the war and how that view is now widely accepted conventional wisdom -- as well as to how little difference that might ultimately make. In a column bluntly titled The Democrats' Wimp Factor, Hirsh argues that the questioning of Obama's patriotism and the Democrats' collective ability to put those questions to rest (or actively raising them themselves, as Hillary Clinton has done) demonstrate a chronic weakness to define themselves on national security issues.

Hirsh is right ... but I would add that any candidate who can't turn a serious challenge on virtually any issue, but especially defense and security for Democrats, into an opportunity is not ready for prime-time. There are explanations for Obama's comments about working class white Americans that would also shed greater light on his attitudes and his programs -- and potnetially allow a stronger connection with those voters. He just hasn't found them yet.




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