As the GOP convention gets under way a day late today, Team Obama must be truly worried about things, if Chris Matthews’ unhinged behavior over the last 36 hours is any indication. But the egregious Matthews is just one small symptom of a larger asymmetry between the two parties.
The Team Obama theory was that they could destroy Romney over the summer with vicious attacks calling him a tax cheat, a murderer, and even a carcinogenic agent. (Get ready for a nasty whisper campaign against Romney’s religion before this is over.) The Left thinks they are merely borrowing the Republican tactic of “Swift-boating,” or, even better, the Willie Horton card (aka, the maxed-out “race card”). The Left considered both the Swift boat attack that helped do in John Kerry in 2004, and the Willie Horton ad in 1988 that helped do in Michael Dukakis, to be below-the-belt, out-of-bounds, unfair, etc. Matthews brought up both Ronald Reagan and the “welfare queen” story again with Newt Gingrich, who throws it back in his face quite effectively. And liberals conveniently forget that the person who first brought up Willie Horton against Dukakis in 1998 was Al Gore in the New York primary.) Hence, there’s no reason why Democrats shouldn’t use made-up, below-the-belt attacks on Romney now. And yet after all this Romney is dead even with Obama. Not the place Team Obama expected to be.
The Left never understood—still doesn’t—why both the Swift boat attack on Kerry and the Willie Horton furlough had such traction with Americans, and why they were no mere mud slinging. The Horton ad is especially instructive. It has had a long shelf-life. In 1990, Sam Donaldson interviewed Horton on ABC’s Prime Time Live, and concluded his interview with the question: “If [Bush campaign manager] Lee Atwater should walk through that door tomorrow and say, ‘Mr. Horton, I think I did you wrong,’ would you forgive him?” This kind of thinking, George Will noted at the time, “encourages in the Democrats the soothing belief that their party’s problems are in the nuts and bolts of the machinery and not in the party’s mind.” Pathetic. Likewise, the Swift boat attack exposed the hypocrisy of an anti-war hero trying to make himself into a war hero. Most people won’t fall for that. The point is: both the Swift boat attack on Kerry, and the Willie Horton ad, exposed weak spots in liberalism that liberals refuse to confront, while the simple mid-slinging against Romney, unconnected to larger issues, is having limited effect. (Back in 1988, the only establishment figure person who dissented from the liberal line was the Washington Post’s Meg Greenfield, who wrote of the Horton issue that “Many Democrats seem unwilling or unable to think about violent crime as a matter of public policy.”)
Likewise the Left’s outrage over Romney making a joke the other day in Michigan about his birth certificate. “Dog whistle!”, the Left is screaming. As James Taranto points out in Best of the Web today, the people hearing this whistle are . . . liberals:
You can tell this was a dog whistle because different groups of people heard it totally differently. CBS’s Jan Crawford noted on Twitter that there were “two reactions to his birth certificate joke: reporters gasped–and a crowd of thousands laughed and cheered.” The crowd heard the straightforward meaning: It was a joke and an applause line. The watchdogs of the press heard the whistle, and so did other lefties. To judge by this MSNBC clip, and this one, it drove them into a mad and wonderfully entertaining frenzy. . . The thing we adore about these dog-whistle kerfuffles is that the people who react to the whistle always assume it’s intended for somebody else. The whole point of the metaphor is that if you can hear the whistle, you’re the dog.
Just right. And we can expect liberal howling at the moon to grow louder as election day approaches. Remember when Bush beat Kerry in 2004, and the Left said it was somehow the revenge of William Jennings Bryan? (Garry Wills wrote this in the New York Times—yeah, it left me a bit confused, too, since Bryan was a populist Democrat, but hey, any “sophisticated” way of making fun of evangelicals is fair I guess.) Just wait till Obama loses; you ain’t heard nothing yet. That “thrill” in Matthews’ leg from 2008 will turn into a thrombosis.