On the reaction to the columns for Obama's speech

Bloggers are criticizing the press for discussing this, but such things are the reason the actual issues become less important, and that's not solely the media's fault.

Published August 27, 2008 8:26PM (EDT)

Clearly, War Room's readers disagree with my having even discussed the columns that are being set up as the backdrop for Barack Obama's big speech tonight. That's fine -- I really do like hearing readers' opinions, even when you're disagreeing with me, which is, let's face it, pretty much always -- and it's not surprising, given the general reaction on the left side of the blogosphere to this.

At Talking Points Memo, for example, Josh Marshall wrote, "I don't want to get in the way of reporter colleagues who can't help getting spun by their Republican sources. But we do all know that virtually every American civic building is based on Greek Revival architecture, right? And that the Obama backdrop actually looks like -- whether intended or not, I don't know -- the Lincoln Memorial."

Seems like a pretty good theory. After all, Obama is speaking on the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legendary "I Have a Dream" speech. Moreover, Obama has tied himself to Lincoln in some ways, such as the idea for a Lincoln-style Cabinet made up of rivals, and of course they share a home state. But even if the stage is meant to evoke the Lincoln Memorial, well, that still doesn't make it a good idea. The Republican tag on Obama is that he and his campaign are too arrogant, too self-aggrandizing, too into the grand image of Obama before he has actually been elected president (or, in their narrative, accomplished anything at all). True or not, it's a message that has taken hold with voters. Setting Obama up to look like MLK, or really anyone holding high office in Washington, will play right into that.

I've actually been meaning to talk about this for a few days, ever since I got into a lengthy discussion about the focus of the convention with some friends who wanted to see more discussion of issues by the Democrats speaking at the convention. And obviously, readers want to see us (by which I mean the media generally, including myself) talking about real issues instead of silly things like set design.

I'd like that too.

But it's time for liberals to start living in the real world. The Democrats have already won this election cycle on the issues. But presidential elections themselves are not won or lost on the issues. If they were, then Al Gore would have been inaugurated as president in 2001, John Kerry would have beaten George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama would be walking away with this thing right now. Presidential elections ultimately come down to a choice between two candidates, and because of that, more so than in any of the other elections we have in this country, the outcome hinges to a large extent on voters' perceptions of the candidates as individuals. You can blame that solely on the media if you want, and there's no doubt the media plays a large role in it. You won't hear me denying or defending that. But the blame doesn't go solely to the media, and arguing that it does without making strategic changes simply hasn't gotten Democratic presidents elected recently. (As for the most recent Democratic president -- obviously his election and reelection had a whole lot to do with who he is as a person, especially as a campaigner.)

This year, John McCain's camp has been very successful at distracting from the issues -- on which, it knows, its candidate loses -- by creating doubt about Obama himself through messages that paint him as a celebrity or a false Messiah instead of a leader. The Obama campaign has to know that the McCain camp will attempt to turn Thursday night's speech (and more specifically what will no doubt be a huge and wildly enthusiastic crowd) against Obama. It's a standard strategy by now: Turn your opponent's strength into a weakness. Yes, the McCain camp will always find a way to make these kinds of arguments, and it'll scrape the bottom of the barrel if it has to. But in this case, right now, it looks like the Obama campaign is about to give its opponents a real helping hand.

Update: By the way, I should note that Republicans have used similar set designs in the past. In fact, as Politico's Ben Smith notes, President Bush did something quite similar in 2004. That doesn't mean the McCain camp won't use this against Obama, and it doesn't mean that the counter of "Bush did it too" will have any impact. Sorry, folks. No one ever said politics was fair.

Update II: Readers were asking for images of the columns; I've added video below.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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