St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Obama's very own 'Willie Horton' ad

“I’m Barack Obama, and I approved this message.”

Those words may be the most damning of this contentious presidential campaign, the ones that cost Obama my vote. They appear at the end of a disgusting, ageist attack ad released this weekend by Obama for America.

In a campaign susceptible to appeals that are racist (against the African America Democratic nominee), sexist (against the female Republican vice-presidential nominee and, earlier during the Democratic primaries, against Sen. Hillary Clinton) and ageist (against the 72-year-old Republican nominee), we hope and expect that the candidates seeking to lead our nation will take the high road and avoid appeals that tap into those taboos. Regrettably, it took less than a week of national polls showing Obama trailing Republican John McCain for the Obama campaign to become desperate enough to tap into the ageist taboo.

The Obama ad, called “Still,” pokes fun at McCain’s inability to use a computer or send an email message, which is a common trait among older Americans. The ad is particularly distasteful when applied to McCain, whose Vietnam War injuries reportedly prevent him from using a keyboard. To drive home the point about McCain’s age, the ad shows an old photo of McCain in a 1970s haircut, as well as 1980s relics like a disco ball, a Rubrics Cube and a primitive shoebox-size portable phone from that period. The ad was released on the heals of another, more subtle, Obama ad which, while properly deriding McCain’s gaffe about not knowing much about economics and the similarity of McCain’s policies to those of unpopular President George W. Bush, did so with a parody of a bubblegum-era song, designed to highlight McCain’s age.

Why would Obama risk offending senior voters, including heretofore supportive senior voters like the Oracle? The ad’s purpose was to rally Obama’s base of younger supporters, who, resentful of old “deadwood” who they perceive as interfering with their own careers in the workplace, often revel in deriding older people. It was an intentional wedge designed to further the most significant demographic cleavage of this election, young vs. old. This is similar to the reputed Hillary Clinton strategy during the primaries, mostly implemented by Bill Clinton, of burning bridges to their former African American supporters with racially tinged appeals to white voters (e.g., derogating Obama’s victory in South Carolina by noting that Jesse Jackson had also won there, thereby dismissing Obama as “the black candidate” appealing primarily to black voters). Just as Clinton consciously sacrificed black voters to appeal to more numerous white voters, Obama now consciously writes off senior voters to appeal to more numerous younger voters.

“Still” reminds me of the notorious 1988 “Willie Horton” ad. It portrayed Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis as weak on crime by noting that Horton, a convicted felon who had been released early from prison pursuant to a Dukakis policy while governor of Massachusetts, had gone on to kill people after his release. The charge was both accurate and relevant, but the ad featured a large photo of Horton, who was African American. (The victims were white.) The ad succeeded in appealing to race-based fears of white voters and was roundly criticized for doing so. Similarly, Obama’s “Still” ad, while accurately reporting McCain’s computer illiteracy, was transparently designed to appeal to the ageist instincts of the targeted younger voters.

One significant difference: The “Willie Horton” ad was produced by a state Republican Party committee, not the presidential campaign of George Bush, even though Bush took the heat for the ad. “Still” was produced by Obama for America and approved personally by Obama.

Up until now, the campaigns of both Obama and McCain have been careful to let so-called “surrogates” do the real dirty stuff in the campaign, so that the intended message gets out, while allowing the candidate to disassociate himself from any negative blowback. For example, when the controversy broke about McCain being unable to recall the number of homes his wife owns, former Rep. Martin Frost (D-TX) was dispatched to the talk show circuit to contend that this McCain gaffe demonstrated that McCain was losing his mental facilities and was too old for the job. A cheap (and dirty) shot, but not directly attributable to Obama. But now, Obama himself has bought into making fun of McCain’s age.

I’m not one to let a single candidate mistake disqualify an otherwise compatible choice, but unfortunately, these ads reinforce consistently ageist messages from Obama supporters and surrogates that have permeated the web and the airwaves ever since McCain emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. I foresee generational warfare that culminates in newly empowered Gen-Xers and Millennials tiring of paying for my generation’s Social Security and Medicare benefits and cutting us off.

My one-time support for Obama is waning. Maybe I should vote for “the old guy” on the Missouri ballot, 74-year-old Ralph Nader.