It’s apparently a revelation to David Brooks, among other prominent pundits, that the dreaded Republican attack machine plans to reduce Barack Obama to an ugly caricature. It shouldn’t be, of course.
Certainly, Mr. Obama, in the past few weeks, has provided his probable autumn opponents with ample raw material to portray him as only the latest in a long line of culturally out-of-step Democratic presidential nominees. Since this tactic worked so smashingly against John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, Mr. Obama is now helpless to avoid becoming its next victim—or so the analysis goes.
“When Obama goes to a church infused with James Cone-style liberation theology, when he makes ill-informed comments about working-class voters, when he bowls a 37 for crying out loud, voters are going to wonder if he’s one of them,” wrote Mr. Brooks, a onetime Obama enthusiast, in a column titled “How Obama Fell to Earth.”
Add to that indictment Mr. Obama’s status as the “most liberal” member of the Senate (as determined, using questionable criteria, by the National Journal) and—voilà—the G.O.P. has its caricature: Barack Obama, the arrogant liberal elitist.
“A few months ago,” Mr. Brooks concluded, “Mr. Obama was riding his talents. … Now, Democrats are deeply worried their nominee will lose in November.”
Eh, not really. That logic fixates on all of the ammunition that Republicans have at their disposal against Mr. Obama. But it ignores the more basic question of whether voters, upon being exposed to the caricature, will actually buy into it.
In the case of Messrs. Kerry, Gore and Dukakis, the general public largely accepted the gruesome portraits rendered by the Republican Party: Mr. Kerry as the vain flip-flopper; Mr. Gore the serial exaggerator and all-around phony; and Mr. Dukakis the robotic and bloodless technocrat. And why did voters buy into it? Because, however unfairly, the public personalities of each of these men inclined voters to believe the worst about them.
But Mr. Obama, in his life story, in his words and in his general bearing, inspires more voters than not to believe the best about him, a rare and potent trait that almost always separates the winners from the losers in presidential politics. It was the confidence, optimism and all-around sunny sentiment that Ronald Reagan conjured that accounted for his “Teflon” veneer. Was it superficial? Yes. But it insulated him from sharp political attacks that would have sunk 99 out of 100 candidates. Bill Clinton, caricatured by the G.O.P. as a slippery and amoral charlatan in 1992, similarly demonstrated the power of personal appeal.
It’s worth noting that well into the fall of 1980, conventional wisdom had it that Reagan was doomed to be the next George McGovern or Barry Goldwater. He was, it was said, an ideological extremist whose far-out positions would frighten critical chunks of the electorate, thereby clearing the way for the unpopular Jimmy Carter to win a second term.
“Mr. Carter could have been beaten this year had the G.O.P. put electability ahead of ideology,” political scientist Bill Lunch wrote in a September 1980 New York Times Op-Ed. “But having chosen the latter, I believe they are in for a dispiriting repetition of the extremism syndrome.” That assessment from Mr. Lunch, who is now a widely quoted expert on politics in the Pacific Northwest, was standard fare at the time.
It was dead wrong. Reagan, caricatured by Democrats as a trigger-happy dolt and barely concealed racist, won 44 states and nearly 500 electoral votes. He succeeded not because voters suddenly adopted his ideological vision (item by item, they rejected most of it), but because they decided that they liked him. And once they reached that conclusion, the Democrats’ attacks—no matter how valid or painstakingly wrought—bounced right off him.