In A PC Nation, How Will The GOP Run?
If Bill Clinton gets charged with using dirty, racial politics for calling an Obama position a "fairy tale," how in the world will serious questions be raised by McCain, old white guy that he is?
And with Cindy, his cute, blond, prototypical political wife by his side, how will McCain take on She Who Does Not Bake Cookies without being vilified for representing glass ceilings and old boys clubs?
Even if there were a line fine enough to appease the keepers of political correctness in the black, feminist and media communities, and there's not, the GOP will be charged with crossing it. There is no way the GOP can get to November without being called every "ist" in the book.
Because I make my living off of messaging strategies, I've been turning this problem over in my mind for about a month now. This morning, I see from Politico that I've not been alone:
Top Republican strategists are working on plans to protect the GOP from charges of racism or sexism in the general election, as they prepare for a presidential campaign against the first ever African-American or female Democratic nominee.(If you want a glimpse on the Left's take on the GOP's dilemma, which is both obscene and predictable, read the comments to this Kos post. hat-tip Jim)
The Republican National Committee has commissioned polling and focus groups to determine the boundaries of attacking a minority or female candidate, according to people involved. The secretive effort underscores the enormous risk senior GOP operatives see for a party often criticized for its insensitivity to minorities in campaigns dating back to the 1960s.
Politico quotes Jack Kemp, who's always been a pretty on-point message guy, saying:
“You can’t run against Barack Obama the way you could run against Bill Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry. Being an African American at the top of the ticket, if he makes it, is such a great statement about the country. Obviously you have to be sensitive to issues that affect urban America. …You have to be careful.”"Urban America?" Ooops! Kemp has been caught placing all blacks in urban settings, turning his back on decades of upward mobility which has seen blacks move to the suburbs in comfortable numbers. See how impossible this is?
The fact of the matter is, the GOP effort cannot be about, as Politico said, protecting the GOP from charges of racism or sexism. Those charges will come no matter what, so while it's important to prep messaging in order to avoid or reduce charges of racism in the campaign ahead, it's more important to develop a strategy for responding to those inevitable charges.
This will not be easy, which is why this passage troubled me considerably:
The McCain camp is only beginning to explore this dilemma, aides said.How could they not have started working on this? The nomination's been tied up since Romney stepped out, so they've lost several valuable weeks that should have been spent researching and planning.
McCain’s strategic team still lacks survey research on either of their likely opponents in the general election, inhibiting their capacity “to discuss it intelligently,” a top adviser said. The campaign is currently occupied with “getting our act together structurally.”
“But my basic thought on it is that McCain is not much of a negative campaigner anyhow,” the advisor said. “When he does get into debates with people it’s on issues, substance. So I don’t think we are going to have to train our candidate not to insult people.”
The excuse that McCain is "not much of a negative campaigner" shows the advisor is minimizing what the GOP will be up against. This will not be about how McCain campaigns; it will be about how he, his running mate and every GOP candidate and spokesperson will be scrutinized by the race- and sex-card players for anything that can be called a gaffe, and how those gaffes, alleged gaffes, false gaffes and made-up gaffes will be used by the Dems.
Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway has a good take on it: You can't allow the GOP to be "Macaca-ed." That means two things: First, you can't use words like "Macaca." And more important, you can't let any charges that you're a racist or a sexist stand.
You also can't look uncomfortable searching for the correctly PC word, especially if you're John McCain. When he's uncomfortable, he really looks uncomfortable, and in this case, that telegraphs that he's searching for an acceptable way to cover up his true (read: racist/sexist) feelings.
The correct vocabulary has to be memorized and drilled until McCain and those campaigning for him can instantaneously come up with the right word for the moment with a natural ease that reflects molecular-level comfort with the subject.
Race-card playing race-baiters (or sex-card playing fem-baiters) cannot be allowed to enjoy the immunity that's been extended to Jesse Jackson, the Irreverent Sharpton, or the flock of feminists. Perpetrators of such baiting need to be shut down in language that appeals to GOP and independent voters; forget appeasing the Dems. Here's a first take on such a message:
"This is a defining moment for [race/women] in America, and we all must stand up to those who are playing the tired and empty [race/feminism] card, trying desperately to cling to an America that simply is no more. I am sick of people who want to shame America and embarrass it globally for the sake of their selfish power. I will not allow them to redirect this campaign to the past when I am looking to the future, and neither should you. Tell them you're done with the dirty politics of division."And if a Macaca-like phrase ever slips a lip, the only credible response is to laugh, say "oops," and go to message: I am sick of people who want to shame America ....
It's not going to be easy; in fact, the road ahead would be a challenge even to an eloquent campaigner like Ronald Reagan. I'm not sure if McCain is up to the task. Ironically, Mike Huckabee, whose campaign has turned me off even though we're spiritual kin, is someone who could handle this message deck with ease.
There may be a place for him on this ticket after all -- a thought I had rejected for strictly political reasons until I began this analysis. Bringing evangelicals to the ticket didn't strike me as enough of a plus on its own, but bringing a good sense of humor and the ability to breeze through difficult messaging is a real plus.
Except that he's a white guy.
This is going to be tough.