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.


Anonymous Matt said...


I am a big fan of your takes but I have to say your reaction is grossly over the top on this one. A few reactions:

1. A huge part of the ad was about how long McCain has been in DC and the irony of him pretending to be a change agent after 26 plus years and 8 years of Republican destruction.

2. The issue that this ad drives at is not that McCain is old but rather that he doesn't understand the high tech global economy that we need to harness to get our country back on track. Not using a computer has nothing to do with age and everything to do with being out of touch with the world today. I know plenty of people in their 70's, 80's and even 90's who are are avid online users.

3. To the extent that the ad is about age, McCain himself is responsible for its interjection with his cynical selection of Sarah Palin. Now everyone I know is very, very interested in not only McCain's age but his health. Frankly those I know who are over 70 are more concerned than anyone about the risk of President Palin.

4. Its hard to believe your outrage is so strong given the unprecedented garbage coming out of the McCain campaign over the past ten days. They are shameless.

Willie Horton is WAY over the top. Team Obama is going to have to play hardball to win this thing. I didn't love the ad either but not because I was offended by it but rather because I thought it was way to soft. We should win this election on the issues and by reminding voters that Republican's gutter politics and governance are driving this country into the ground. Stay with us Oracle. We all need to be united for the next 55 days.

September 14, 2008 at 9:36 PM  
Blogger Clark said...

Matt is 100% correct. And let me add that despite what right-wingers are claiming, McCain is perfectly capable of using a keyboard - he stated in July that he was in the process of learning how to use the internet, and that he constantly used a Blackberry.

September 15, 2008 at 1:09 PM  
Blogger St. Louis Oracle said...

So, Clark, was Obama lying when he said McCain didn't know how to use the internet?

September 15, 2008 at 8:42 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

McCain - I'm an illiterate who has to rely on my wife

Not that you can trust a word that he says but here he is admitting it himself.

September 16, 2008 at 7:41 AM  
Blogger Clark said...

McCain said he was learning - that implies that he does not already know. It also implies that McCain has the physical capability (whether through voice recognition software or his own hands) of operating a computer if he chooses to.

September 16, 2008 at 12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oracle-I'm disappointed we haven't heard from you about Sarah Palin who has been busy shooting moose while her daughter has been shooting . . . . You make a good point about Obama-I'm suprised that both candidates are startign to take the lwo raod when there are obvious difference between them that should decide the

September 17, 2008 at 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Joe Biden was sworn in as a senator in 1973. How can someone who has been in the halls of the Capitol building for 35 years claim to be an "agent of change"?

September 19, 2008 at 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oracle, you wont be alone in voting for Nader in November :)

September 21, 2008 at 7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally I like cleavage, just not between young and old

October 13, 2008 at 7:04 PM  

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