Archive for August 28th, 2008

Jewish Values and Going Negative

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

One of the things I have struggled most with throughout this primary campaign is how to square Obama’s obvious desire to run a positive, issue-oriented campaign, with the countervailing need in modern day politics to “go negative.” It’s something I’ve thought about more and more as the McCain campaign has taken the gloves off — going after Obama for being an elitist, for being a celebrity; running ads featuring dark images of terrorists with shady voiceovers about Iran, then insinuating that Obama feels Iran is only a “tiny” threat; starting a Web site dedicated to the fact that Obama is “not ready” to be president; using some of Hillary Clinton’s own footage for a 3 a.m. ad of their own. Some of these ads may be “fair” — certainly, a candidate’s readiness to be president is an issue — but there can be no disputing that all of them are “negative.” And can there be any doubt, especially if Obama is in the lead, that we will see Rev. Wright ads in the future?

I sat in on a focus group a few months back that was extremely eye-opening. A moderator was asking a group of Jewish swing voters questions about Barack Obama and John McCain — I watched from the other side of a one-way window, along with a few pollsters. (They knew we were there.) The moderator read a dozen verifiable, true positive statements about Obama. Then the moderator read a dozen verifiable, true negative statements about McCain. When responding to the positive statements (things like: Barack Obama has proposed a $1,000 tax cut for the Middle Class; Barack Obama says the security of Israel is sacrosanct, and he has the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Council), the voters were not uniformly impressed; many questioned the veracity of the statements. When responding to the negative stuff (things like: McCain has said he doesn’t know much about the economy; McCain has said he could envision a long-term presence in Iraq, much like what we have in Korea and Japan), the group got totally riled up. Angry. Indignant. Frankly, I did, too. The message I took home with me was a disappointing one: Going negative works. And it works, well.

Yesterday, the National Jewish Democratic Council hosted a square table discussion at the Convention Center downtown, focusing on “Practicing Politics With Jewish Values.” The room was packed to overflowing — in part because it was held next door to the room where Hillary Clinton had just addressed her delegates — many of whom filtered in after Hillary finished speaking.

I was particularly moved by the arguments made by Steve Rabinowitz, a kippah-wearing veteran of dozens of political campaigns, and former Bill Clinton White House aide, who currently runs the media messaging firm, Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications.

“I’m about very aggressive politics,” he began. He went on to say that he sees two kinds of acceptable messages — positive, and what he called “contrast” ads, where candidates drawn distinctions between themselves and their opponents.

He noted that Judaism prohibits Lashon Harah — or evil speech against someone else — citing Leviticus 19:16: “Do not deal basely with your countrymen.” Maimonides, he said, has an even tougher standard: you can’t tear down your opponent even if what you say is true. The very next line in Leviticus, though, has been interpreted by the sages to mean that we are not to “standy idly by” if the blood of our contrymen is being spilled.

“We have allowance for this in the text,” Rabinowitz said, “so we can both be aggressive political campaigners and not feel we are violating our Jewish ethics at the same time.”

“For me — Obama’s political and intellectual blood is being spilled.” (In particular, participants spoke of the smears against Obama — that he is a Muslim, for instance, who attended a radical madrassa as a youth.)

After the event, I went up to Rabinowitz and asked him to expound on his argument. Where, I asked, is the line in “contrast” advertising. He said, without hesitation: the personal attack. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, teaches that “a controversy for heaven’s sake has lasting value, while a controvery not for heaven’s sake will not endure.” “Heaven’s sake,” in this case, is a controversy about Torah or law — substance, as opposed to style.

“For me,” he said, it means “I can’t attack McCain on his age or his temperament, his mental competence, his wealth, his personal-life.” But on the issues — like how to best support Israel — contrast ads are fair game.

Certainly, though, the McCain side has already hit Obama on his personal life — noting that he has an aquaintance who was once a member of the Weather Underground, for example, or painting him as a Harvard elitist. This, I said, even as McCain has seven houses, and flies around the country in his wife’s corporate jet. I have to admit, I said — I’ve felt damn good when Biden has hit McCain for his wealth and extravagent, 30,000-foot life style.

“The biggest sin in politics is hyprocrisy,” Rabinowtiz said. “Corruption is bad, but hypocrisy is worse. It you are corrupt, and you campaigned against corruption — it’s worse.” (Eliot Spitzer comes to mind.)

“Is pointing out that someone is a hypocrite a personal attack — even if it’s true?” he asked. “That’s what I’m still conflicted about.”

“Defending Obama is no problem,” he said. “Counter-attacking — that’s the dilemma.”

I suppose if I’m looking for something definitive, I’m in the wrong religion.

I have to say, though, that I was struck by the fact that we were having this conversation at all at the Democratic National Convention. Dan Shapiro, one of Barack Obama’s top liasions to the Jewish community, was in the room for the conversation. After listening to the discussion, he noted the value of “intellectual inquiry”; the value in “acknowledging the gaps in one’s knowledge”; the value of “intellectual curiosity” for leadership.

I left with the sense that the Obama campaign will, and should, continue to hold itself to a higher standard –even as it pushes and questions the boundaries — as this campaign moves into its next phase. The campaign will not — it can not — stand idly by. It will draw contrasts, big time.

This work begins in earnest in just a few hours.

Barack Obama is Ready to Lead America

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

It’s 1:17 a.m., and I’m just back from the Pepsi Center, where Barack Obama was nominated to be president, and Joe Biden, vice president. I’m tired, in one way, but in another, more awake then I’ve felt in a long time.

Today, there was something in the air downtown. An excitement that started building early in the day. You could sense it. It was as if the history of the moment — the formal nomination of the first black man for president of the United States — was, at last, eclipsing the cynicism.

Outside the convention center, for several blocks, vendors were doing a brisk trade in Obama merchandise, surrounded by masses of delegates and tourists and gawkers. They sold Obama playing cards with Bush and McCain as the jokers. “Yes We Can” umbrellas. T-shirts with images of Obama’s face and slogan after slogan: “Run DNC,” “McCan’t 2008,” “Barack The Vote.” Someone shook a tambourine. Someone else sold flashing novelties, beads, hats, and flags. Dozens of folks wore stickers that read: “Make Out Not War.”

There was a police presence, leading into the arena, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Columns of black-clad officers, guns ready, visors raised, standing in the streets, and on black SWAT trucks, ready, word had it, to block thousands of protestors from disturbing the proceedings. Weaving between them, rushing the arena, I felt my heart beat kick up a notch.

I arrived just as Melissa Etheridge was singing her God Bless America medley, which included verses from The Times They are a Changing, Give Peace a Chance, and Born in the USA. Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war vet, declared: “It is time for Barack Obama,” then left the stage to the chorus of “Eye of the Tiger,” Rocky Balboa’s old anthem.

You just had this sense — a sense that the Democrats were going to bring it; a sense that all the naysayers were about to be proven wrong. On Monday, we were criticized for not going after McCain hard enough, for “wasting” the day. On Tuesday, when we picked apart McCain — did not the governor of Montana seem to love every minute he spent chewing out McCain for his nonexistent energy policy? — we were criticized because Hillary did not exactly say that Obama was “ready” to lead. And today, all the newspaper reports assured us, Clinton was coming into the whole affair angry that he had been asked to speak about foreign affairs. Come to think of it, we were told, he was still furious at Obama, at how he was treated during the campaign. Watch out, we were assured — because a jilted, angry Clinton will never stay on message.

I don’t know. Maybe we didn’t believe the hype. Maybe we knew Clinton well enough, after all those years fighting for us — and fighting against the right-wing that claims superiority in this country — to know that he would not let Obama down; that he would not let us down. Maybe that’s why, when he finally took the stage, we cheered him as if we would never get another chance to cheer him or anyone else, ever again. Maybe we wanted to thank him — 20,000 of us, on this, Barack Obama’s night. To let him know that we don’t always buy what we are force-fed on TV. “Stop it,” he said — trying his best to quiet us. “Stop.” Be we wouldn’t. Every single person stood. Everyone of us waved an American flag. “Settle down,” he said, “we gotta get this game started.” But we wouldn’t. I don’t know how long it went on. It felt like a few minutes, the affection the pouring down from the highest bleachers even as it rose from the floor, rolling like thunder. We were telling him something he already knew — that our country has been hijacked, and that he could help us get it back.

And help, he did. “Last night, Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama,” he said. “That makes two of us. Actually — that makes 18 million of us.”

What? Where was the ambiguity? The thinly-veiled disdain?

“Everything I have done as president … has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job.”

“A long, hard primary tested and strengthened him. And in his first presidential decision” — selecting Joe Biden as VP — “he hit it out of the park … Barack Obama is ready to lead America.”

“Most important of all,” he said, “Barack Obama knows America can not be strong abroad unless we are strong at home … People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

More wild cheers, and the spontaneous refrain: Yes we can … Yes we can … Yes we can.

“Yes you can,” Clinton said. “But first you have to elect him.”

“The Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief,” he said. “Sound familar?”

And then he finished, and U2’s “Beatiful Day” struck up, and the camera flashed to Hillary and Chelsea, standing, cheering with the rest of us.

It’s truly been amazing, being here for all of this. And blogging about it each day afterwards has helped me come to terms with what it all means. Yesterday morning, I wrote about how our best politicians teach us to be brave. As Bill Clinton showed tonight, they teach us something else, too — something that has to do with the incredible power of burying the hatchet. Of forgiveness, and moving on. We think of our politicians as selfish and egocentric and cynical. Hypocrites, who would do anything for power. But think about the example they set for us when they put personal animosity and rancor aside, and publicly embrace those who have hurt them and cost them the most. Even when it runs against their own interests.

It’s healing and unifying and cathartic. Everything they promised us it wouldn’t be.