For months, now, there has been an effort to frame the Democratic front-runner not just as a bad candidate, but as a potential violent threat to the American public. It is the familiar politics of violent rhetoric, which are being used in this election to undermine the candidacy of Barack Obama.
Last night this violent framing took on a new and disturbing dimension when George Stephanopoulos, co-moderator of ABC's candidate debate, asked a series of questions insinuating that Barack Obama may be politically aligned with a radical group called The Weatherman Underground--a 1960s violent political organization responsible for the bombing of federal buildings:
A gentleman named William Ayers, he was part of the Weather underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other buildings. He's never apologized for that. And in fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in The New York Times saying, "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough." An early organizing meeting for your state was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?
(George Stephanopoulos, Apr 16, 2008)
Of course, it is patently absurd to believe that Barack Obama or any candidate for President in either party has political allegiance to 1960s group of domestic terrorists. But the truth in this situation did count for much, unfortunately. Stephanopoulos question was the type of media stink bomb that fouls a candidate in the asking. Obama's answer, no matter how quick or good, could not have changed the outcome.
On the surface, Stephanopoulos' questions seems to be about 'patriotism,' the supposed organizing theme for that particular round of questions. In fact, it was not about patriotism at all, but was a trap. The question tried to put Obama in a situation where he felt the need to repudiate his connection with a man associated with political violence in the 1970s. Obama responded not by taking the debate, but by showing what was at stake when questions like Stephanopoulos' are allowed to stand unchallenged:
This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.
And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestably acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and m y values, doesn't make much sense, George...
So this is the kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow--somehow their ideas could be attributed to me--I think the American people are smarter than that. They're not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn't.
(Barack Obama, Apr 16, 2008)
It was a good answer. The issue is not whether he needs to answer for the past violent acts of one of his constituents, but whether or not the political debate can move forward in a productive manner in the face of this kind of effort to associate candidates with violence.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, should have said something very similar. She should have said that such questions are fundamentally debasing of the political system. She should have said that asking Barack Obama to deny his allegiance to domestic violence is an offense to the very institution of civil debate on which our entire system depends. Unfortunately, she chose to add to the violent framing, further implying that Obama was somehow aligned with The Weather Underground and implying, however vaguely, that Bill Ayer's violent views were somehow shared by her Democratic opponent for the nomination. That moment--her response--was the low point in the entire political career of Hillary Clinton.
Obama, for his part, was correct to assert his belief in the aptitude of the American people and in their ability to look past such cynical questions as that from Stephanopoulos. But even as the American voter is smart, they also look to their presidential candidates to help them articulate the issues more effectively than they might feel confident doing alone. Candidates, in other words, do not so much speak for the voters as they speak in ways that allow all of us to express our views more effectively.
In this respect, Obama forgot to emphasize why Stephanopoulos' question was so damaging to the debate, as well as why the general effort by the right to frame him in violent terms was damaging.
Obama might have said that, thanks to Stephanopoulos' question, the effort to convince voters that he poses a potential violent threat to America has taken on a third dimension. He might have said that the first two smears have already been well-established as (1) an email whisper campaign implying that he--by virtue of his name--is a covert terrorist loyal to America's enemies; and (2) in a media storm arguing that he--by virtue of some out of context statements made by his pastor--is an angry black man seeking revenge for the discrimination against African-Americans. He might then have said that Stephanopoulos' question introduced a third level in this violent branding of his campaign: a level whereby Obama--by virtue of the past political affiliations of one of his constituents--might potentially be a domestic terrorist, too.
Having said that, he could have paused and emphasized that all of it, of course, is lies. But worse than lies, he might have told the American people, the attempt to frame him in violent terms is a sort of politics so ugly and so sickening that Americans with good hearts and open minds are loathe to even think about it.
It is the politics of violent rhetoric, he might have said, the politics of convincing voters that your opponent is not just a bad choice, but a choice that may bring violence and suffering to the streets of America. It is the politics of winning elections by injecting false accusations and fear into the media that the very possibility of productive debate becomes impossible. It is the politics designed not to strengthen civil discourse, but to shut it down--to use marketing techniques to re-brand one's opponent in menacing and fearful terms.
The choice we face in this election, Obama might have said, is between that politics of violent rhetoric and fearful smears, and the productive, pragmatic, truly American politics of working together, solving the problems we face, and achieving our future.