After months of largely respectful coverage and debate, there has been a slew of attacks in the last few weeks on Obama as unpatriotic and/or a Muslim that are being widely reported in the mainstream press.
Just consider some of what's happened:
-The AP ran a story with the headline "No hand over his heart: Obama patriotism questioned" quoting GOP consultant Roger Stone saying Obama is "part of the blame America first crowd." Obama was asked about the attacks on his patriotism during a press conference and CNN ran an online poll asking "Does [Sen.] Barack Obama show the proper patriotism for someone who wants to be president of the United States?" (via Media Matters).
-The Washington Times published a story with the headline "Military Fears 'Unknown Quantity'" which claims that "[m]embers of Washington's military and defense establishment are expressing trepidation about Sen. Barack Obama" (though, as Greg Sargent pointed out, only one person -- a retired general who now serves as a Fox News analyst -- is quoted expressing this sentiment). The piece also quotes a Pentagon official saying that Obama's victory would "give the Arab street the final victory, the best optics, and the ultimate in bragging rights. They win. We lose."
-The radio talk show host Bill Cunningham referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama" at a John McCain rally at least three times and then seven more times on "Hannity & Colmes". (McCain repudiated his attacks.)
-A picture was circulated of Obama in Somali dress that was attributed to Clinton staffers by Matt Drudge. Rush Limbaugh referred to it this way: "Obama dresses up like Bin Laden, and if you mention it, it's a scurrilous attack" (via Andrew Sullivan).
-Time Magazine's Mark Halperin offered a list of "[t]hings McCain can do when running against Obama that Clinton has been unable to do well or at all" that included "Allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama" and "Emphasize Barack Hussein Obama's unusual name and exotic background through a Manchurian Candidate prism" (via Brad DeLong).
-The Tennessee Republican Party issued a press release titled "Anti-Semites for Obama" that referred to him as "Barack Hussein Obama," linked him to Louis Farrakhan and other anti-Semitic figures, and showed the picture of him in African clothing.
-Jonah Goldberg falsely claimed that Obama's "campaign headquarters in Houston had a Che Guevara-emblazoned Cuban flag hanging on the wall."
Going forward, the question is whether the press will continue to give credence to these attacks. There was a critical period in 1999 when Republican agitprop claiming Al Gore was a liar found a receptive audience in the press. Very quickly, a largely phony narrative about his truthfulness was manufactured that played out all the way through the general election. Is this the equivalent period in the Obama campaign? It's hard not to be concerned.
Given the stakes, it's important to push back against this sort of fear-mongering and credulous media reporting. At the same time, though, we should be wary of attributing all the attacks on Obama to some sort of sprawling McCain-directed strategy, as Josh Marshall seemed to do:
Hopefully, everyone can now see the McCain strategy for running against Barack Obama. Yes, we have some general points on taxes, culture wars and McCain as war hero who can protect us in ways that flash-in-the-pan pretty boy Barack Obama can't.
But that's not the core. The core is to drill a handful of key adjectives into the public mind about Barack Obama: Muslim, anti-American, BLACK, terrorist, Arab. Maybe a little hustler and shifty thrown in, but we'll have to see. The details and specific arguments are sort of beside the point. They're like the libretto in a Wagner opera, nice for some narrative structure. But it's the score that's the real essence of it, the point of the whole exercise.
Now, a good deal has been made out of John McCain's repudiation of talk radio yakmeister Bill Cunningham, who led off for McCain at one of his rallies with the full run of Obama sludge. But don't be distracted or fooled. This is more like an example of what the digital commerce folks refer to as 'channel conflict'. You've got your multiple distribution channels. You've got the way McCain's selling the product. Broadcast. Broad and thematic about McCain. But you've got a number of other product channels to sell through, most of them a lot grittier, but no less essential for ultimate success.
Both can work simultaneously. In fact, in the kind of campaign McCain's running, they're both essential for success (see the 2000 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina). The key is just that the channels don't cross. Because that's when the trouble starts and they can begin to undermine or even short-circuit each other. And that's what threatened to happened here.
Don't insult your intelligence or mine by pretending that John McCain's plan for this race doesn't rely on hundreds of Cunninghams -- large and small -- across the country, and the RNC and all the GOP third party groups, to be peddling this stuff nonstop for the next eight months because it's the only way John McCain have a real shot at contesting this race.
If McCain really wants to repudiate this stuff, he can start with the Tennessee Republican party which dished all the slurs and smears about Obama being a Nation of Islam-loving anti-Semite, just today. And once he's done talking to the people who will be running his Tennessee campaign, we'll have a number of others he can talk to, like the head of his Ohio campaign, former Sen. Mike DeWine, who gave that Cunningham guy his marching orders.
Let's just not fool ourselves, not lie to ourselves about what's happening here and who's in charge.
However, Marshall -- who has recently acquired a penchant for asserting things he can't prove -- doesn't know that there is a "McCain strategy for running against Barack Obama" that tries to "drill a handful of key adjectives into the public mind about Barack Obama: Muslim, anti-American, BLACK, terrorist, Arab" and that McCain is "in charge" of it. The smear campaign against Obama is likely to be waged in a far more decentralized fashion than Marshall seems to realize. As the New York Times points out, "McCain clearly will not control all of the voices that could oppose Mr. Obama, from bloggers and talk radio hosts to other elected officials." Should McCain push back harder? Of course. Unfortunately, he has every incentive to sit back, allow the attacks to take place, and only criticize a handful of the most extreme and widely publicized smears (such as Cunningham's). That's loathsome, but it doesn't make him "in charge" of the whole process.