The Name Game

I wanted to weigh in, at least to a degree, on the flap over Karl Rove’s little country club shot at Obama. Tas already hit the story up, and was suitably flip regarding it, but Rove’s less than subtle entrance into this race as a less than objective observer I think is the beginning of what will be one of the key things to watch over the next five months.

To be honest, I didn’t have anything, at least initially, deep or insightful regarding Karl Rove’s characterization of Obama as a country club elitist. Rove said,He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” My first reaction was to frown all indignantly and think, “What’s he talking about? That’s what Karl Rove gets PAID to do.”

But other people have come with far more clever and interesting ways of deconstructing Karl Rove from a sheer disparaging point of view.

And I wish I could be as fearless as some when it comes to this guy, but the fact of the matter is Rove still worries me. Until there is absolute, positive, indisputable proof that Karl Rove’s tactics have gone the way of the dodo, I will forever remain skeptical that we can tough talk our way through Turdblossom’s style of politicking.

Especially now, given that this particular moment in time is exactly when Rove has the potential to do irrevocable damage to the Obama campaign. This because the prime focus of the campaign between now and the convention will be definition.

This is why Obama’s early money advantage is such a significant deal. By playing far more media markets for longer, he is able to drop the kinds of resources necessary to establish an early and positive definition for himself.

But with all this talk about definitions, it’s important, I think, to at least take a look at what the positive and negative definitions the candidates are trying to employ for themselves and each other (and their surrogates, and unaffiliated supporters, too).

At least until August, the following characterizations of the two candidates will be at constant war with each other:



  • youthful
  • energetic
  • change-y, not Bush, not anything remotely like Bush, if Bush did it, than Obama won’t.
  • Post-partisan
  • Post-Racial
  • Intelligent
  • Transparent
  • Focus not so much on ideology as he does on general good governance and mutually beneficial compromise.


  • naive
  • inexperienced
  • crazy black man
  • the student of crazy black men
  • unpatriotic
  • anti-American
  • Soft on Terror
  • Elitist, out of touch
  • too unknown, and unvetted
  • too liberal

John McCain


  • Foreign Policy/National Security guru
  • Strong on Terror
  • classic low tax Republican
  • in touch, understands the common man
  • experienced
  • Different from Bush. Not as different from Bush as Obama, but different enough that we don’t have to worry about McCain being McSame
  • post partisan
  • willing to buck the party line, and make hard compromises even if they aren’t politically popular


  • Flip flops to woo the conservative base.
  • Old
  • Not as well versed in foreign policy and National Security as his reputation would suggest
  • Disastrous on the economy.
  • Terrible for women’s rights, reproductive freedom, etc.
  • Too similar to George W. Bush nearly down the line.
  • Temperamental to a critical fault
  • absent minded
  • insignificant/stands in the way of true change
  • too connected to lobbyists

These are merely abridged lists, but you get the general idea, and these do cover some of the bigger points. I’ve omitted some of the grosser suggestions, such as Obama being a Muslim, or McCain being a misogynistic wife beater, but then again I have standards.

The point is, this is the key dynamic that plays out over the next few months; who wins the name game by defining their opponent and themselves on their own terms?

But I saw something interesting that I think may turn that dynamic on its head. is an interesting website that I’ve been slowly getting to know recently. On Friday I had the pleasure of being inteviewed by Vipul Vyas from the site, and we had a great talk (and I’ll post the link to it when they publish), but that’s off on a tangent.

What caught my eye was that as I was getting a feel I ran across the following little graphic:

If this little pie chart is correct, Obama is getting nearly 75% of share of stories regarding the presidential election compared to only 25% for McCain. That, folks, is saturation.

There have been two things I’ve been kind enough to point out for our friends on the right. The first is be careful regarding how viciously you go after Obama; he’s not John Kerry, and he’s not likely to let much go by unanswered. Further, he has displayed thus far the kind of political awareness and raw leverage to redirect many attacks back at his opponents, and use those attacks to feed into his overall political narrative.

The other thing that I’ve mentioned several times in the past is that conservatives need to start learning how to build a positive case for McCain. When you look at the data provided with the pie graph above, an interesting thing that jumps out at you is that while Obama is getting three fourths of the media share, right now that conversation appears to be dominated by the right.

This may seem like a good thing for McCain, but I don’t think so, not at least when we take into account the proportions of the coverage.

If the right dominates the storylines, and McCain is running at least within shouting distance of Obama as far as story count is concerned, then yes, that’s good for McCain. But if McCain becomes media invisible, I wonder if the tone of the coverage matters much.

In other words, what we may be looking at is a situation where the dominant story of the pre-convention portion of the general election is one in which the predominant choice for the electorate will not be between Obama and McCain, but between Obama and himself, whether he is good or he is bad.

While this is sure to stir up controversy, it’s going to stir up more attention Obama’s way, and away from McCain. He’s going to have plenty of time where he is the focal point of the election, and all of this before he gets to take the stage in Denver.

And let us not forget what is often described as Obama’s single strongest point; his ability to give a speech (I happen to not agree with this, and believe that he has other strengths that far outstrip his rhetorical abilities, but there you go).

Thus, whether the buzz is good or bad regarding Obama doesn’t matter, we’re in any news is good news mode, particularly if it sets Obama up to deliver a 2008 speech that is akin to the speech he delivered in 2004.

In truth, it will be not unlike a dynamic I noticed around Hillary Clinton for a while last year.

Hillary Clinton, who had been demonized for years by the right, had the benefit of incredibly lowered expectations, and we would see this from time to time in the polls. The effect was simply that, after having radio and tv personalities describe Hillary as the Devil, as long as she didn’t have horns when she took the stage a lot of people would think, “Hey, she isn’t THAT bad.”

To my way of thinking, as long as the Obama campaign can weather the negativity, the more the better between now and the convention. It will continue to deepen the contrast between the caricature of Obama  and what he is able to present himself when he delivers his acceptence speech.

Meanwhile, if news trends continue in the direction they are, by the time we hit the Republican National Convention McCain will have drifted further into obscurity, will be suffering from a major publicity deficit, and frankly, doesn’t have the rhetorical skills and abilities to electrify a crowd to compensate.

So the same warnings still stand for those folks who have decided to make their strategy 100% negative against Obama; spend some time defining your candidate, and attack Obama at your own risk.

(edited by DrGail)

2 Responses to “The Name Game”

  1. George Sorwell says:

    Don’t you think Obama has gotten more news coverage because he was in a contested race for his party’s nomination until just a few weeks ago–for several months longer than McCain?

  2. DougL says:

    Wait, a couple of months ago, the story was that the extended primary battle between Obama and Clinton would be a boon for McCain, who, supposedly would have more time to concentrate on the general election. Maybe that didn’t work out so well after all.


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