IF Barack Obama
gets his way, the Oxford English Dictionary will update its definition
of "distraction" by the end of the campaign: "Diversion of the mind,
attention, etc., from any object or course that tends to advance the
political interests of Barack Obama."
After his blowout win in North Carolina last week, Obama turned to
framing the rules of the general election ahead, warning in his victory
speech of "efforts to distract us." The chief distracter happens to be
the man standing between Obama and the White House, John McCain, who will "use the very same playbook that his side has used time after time in election after election."
Ah, yes, the famous distractions with which Republicans fool unwitting
Americans. Ronald Reagan distracted them with the Iranian hostage
crisis, high inflation and unemployment, gas lines and the loss of US
prestige abroad. The first George Bush distracted them with the notion
of a third Reagan term, plus the issues of taxes, crime and
volunteerism. After an interlude of national focus during two Clinton
terms, another Bush arrived wielding the dark art of distraction.
Forget "bitter," Obama must believe that most Americans suffer from an
attention-deficit disorder so crippling that they can't concentrate on
their own interests or values.
Obama has an acute
self-interest in so diagnosing the electorate. His campaign knows he's
vulnerable to the charge of being an elitist liberal. Unable to argue
the facts, it wants to argue the law, defining his weaknesses as
The campaign can succeed in imposing these rules on the race only
if the news media cooperate. Newsweek signed up for the effort in a
cover story that reads like a 3,400-word elaboration of the
"distraction" passage of Obama's victory speech. "The Republican Party
has been successfully scaring voters since 1968," it says, through
"innuendo and code." McCain "may not be able to resist casting doubt on
Obama's patriotism," and there's a question whether he can or wants to
"rein in the merchants of slime and sellers of hate."
the Obama rules in detail: He can't be called a "liberal" ("the same
names and labels they pin on everyone," as Obama puts it); his
toughness on the War on Terror can't be questioned ("attempts to play
on our fears"); his extreme positions on social issues can't be exposed
("the same efforts to distract us from the issues that affect our
lives" and "turn us against each other"); and his Chicago background
too is off-limits ("pouncing on every gaffe and association and fake
controversy"). Besides that, it should be a freewheeling and spirited
Democrats always want cultural issues not to matter
because they're on the least-popular side of many of them; they want
patriotic symbols like the Pledge of Allegiance and flag pins to be
irrelevant when they can't manage to nominate presidential candidates
who wholeheartedly embrace them (which shouldn't be that difficult). As
for "fear" and "division," they are vaporous pejoratives that can be
applied to any warning of negative consequences of a given policy or
any political position that doesn't command 100 percent assent. In his
North Carolina speech, Obama said the Iraq War "has not made us safer,"
and that McCain's ideas are "out of touch" with "American values." How
We could take Obama's rules in good faith if he never calls John McCain
a "conservative" or labels him in any other way. If he never criticizes
him for his association with George Bush. If he doesn't jump on his
gaffes (like McCain's 100-years-in-Iraq comment that Obama distorted
and harped on for weeks). And if he never says anything that would tend
to make Americans fearful about the future or divide them (i.e., say
things that some people agree with and others don't).
This is, of course, an impossible standard. Obama doesn't expect anyone to live up to it except John McCain.