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Unleashing the Know Nothings…

One of the first things you do in an election when running a campaign is mobilize and secure your “base” — those voters who, by custom or inclination or even “reason” should be voting for you on election day. Ignoring that base — or assuming its turnout for you (or your candidate) — can be fatal. Thomas Dewey learned that the hard way in the 1948 presidential election…. Karl Rove and the Bush campaign understood and used that truism more than once, and applied it in the conduct of the Bush Administration’s business as well as in the elections.

The problem is that a candidate’s “electoral base”, like all other things, is a political construction — it needs to be “imagined” into existence and sometimes “shaped” (or re-shaped) before it can be targeted for mobilization. Certainly the raw material of disenchanted or indifferent potential voters must be out there, but the key task is giving them definition and cultivating a self-awareness. Not an easy task when talking about an imagined collective. The talent of folks like Rove is that of the sculptor confronting a huge ball of clay — they can see its potential and work their skills into an artistic form.

The problem is that often the more relevant metaphor is that of Dr Frankenstein who seeks to give life to a corpse with a brain transplant. Risky business that….

John McCain confronted his Frankenstein yesterday in front of live camera at a very public town meeting, and you go the distinct impression that it scared the hell out of him.

Against all expectations for this much acclaimed “honorable” man, McCain has signed off on a campaign approach that he obviously despised headed by individuals who had lowered the bar on what is acceptable and, in 2000, had lowered the boom on his initial campaign for the presidency. These are very smart and very adept operatives driven by the need to win — no matter what.

Much has been made of the recent turn of the McCain campaign toward attacking Obama, and from the perspective of the McCain folks this was the most effective way of confronting a situation where the best they have done is create a dead heat race in the polls. Ironically, in reality approaches that sustained that virtual statistical tie was their best chance for victory given the racism factor and the “Bradley effect” — but obviously they felt they needed to do something to bolster and assure their chances in November. And so they convinced McCain to gamble with the nomination of Palin.

The Palin trick worked for a while, although its stimulating impact on the fundamentalist base and the general electorate would inevitably wear off. But then came the economic meltdown and a perceived opportunity to leap ahead of Obama by stressing McCain’s leadership, etc — but that didn’t work.

And so the decision to unleash Dr Frankenstein’s monster, whose task it was to mobilize an electoral base that has been untapped in elections since the Nixon and Reagan years — the know-nothing crazies whose anger is visceral and somewhat uncontrollable. It is a group quite different from the American religious right who are restrained somewhat by their “Christian” ethical commitments and belief that anyone can be saved. But the know-nothing right know no bounds — their opposition is their mortal enemy, and the only option they have is to “savage” and eliminate the “traitors” and terrorists.

Nixon played to this group as the “silent majority” through media advertising and other indirect means, and Reagan took the same approach by demonizing liberals and fostering the birth of “Reagan Democrats”. In hindsight, however, Rove and company pretty much focused on the fundamentalist right in its campaigning and avoided the know nothings. They were there in the background, however, and emerged as a force through the efforts of demagogue populists like Dobbs and Limbaugh. As the defeat of immigration reform demonstrated to the Bush Administration and McCain, this untapped base could be effectively mobilized but impossible to control or restrain once unleashed. Even William Kristol recognized this and the problems it would cause.

The effort to explicitly mobilize the know-nothing right began with the discovery among McCain operatives the Palin was drawing huge crowds at rallies — something that they had not expected if you follow the comments of John McCain himself who seemed pleasantly surprised and somewhat amazed at how much difference her presence made in the size of the audience. Town hall meetings now became stadium events where more intimate style of McCain wandering around the smal stage gave way to podiums and teleprompters where the candidates and others who spoke focused on rousing the attending masses rather than speaking to them or exchanging views. For reporters the change was evident, and for McCain and his folks it was exhilarating. But it was also dangerous, for once the know-nothings are mobilized they cannot be restrained in their visceral enthusiasm.

As you watch McCain deal with the angry questioners in yesterday’s rally, you begin to see a look of sudden awareness. His efforts to generate some respect for his opponent — to actually defend Obama — led to boos from the very crowd that was there to support him. What he realized, however, is that they were not their to support him but instead to fight the enemy — to do the bidding of Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh. It is not the election of McCain, but the defeat — no, the utter destruction! — of Obama and his kind that energized the crowd. All McCain and Palin have provided are the vehicles and venues for bringing them together.

I have been wondering what has been going on in McCain’s head these last 12 hours or so since the rally incident. Will his reflections on this result in a change in a positive direction? Or will he conclude that “it is what it is” and allow his obsessive commitment to winning at any cost hold sway?

Ironically, a shift in direction — especially an explicit statement that his campaign was wrong and the need to return to a more respectable approach — might be just the boost he needs to halt his free fall in the polls and make the race more competitive. Certainly not doing so will make his position worse among the non-know-nothing crowd — those who listen to the Georgetown-cocktail-party conservatives like Brooks and WIll. His free fall would continue, and the unspoken but much feared dangerous behavior his campaign has unleashed would continue….

October 11th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments