Everyone can hear it now. This Internet-driven, hyperactive presidential race is forcing accountability on two of the oldest tricks in politics: dog whistles and secret smears.
With a “dog whistle,” politicians use code words to signal unpopular stances to one target audience, while avoiding a backlash because the reference is lost on others. Many people miss President Bush’s layered language for evangelicals, from hinting that legal abortion is like slavery to his odd prediction that history will see Iraq as just “a comma.” (It only makes sense if you know the proverb, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.”) Code words don’t fool everyone, but from “states’ rights” to “welfare queens,” GOP campaigns have tapped racial resentment without facing widespread opprobrium. Secret smears run on a similar axis, enabling politicians to undermine an opponent without taking responsibility for the attack. But the times are changing.
From his race to his name, Barack Obama seemed like the perfect target for such coded attacks. Indeed, some Republicans were eager to run the old playbook on him. “Count me down as somebody who underestimates Barack Hussein Obama, please,” said GOP strategist Ed Rogers, speaking on MSNBC’s Hardball in the headier days of 2006. Yet Rogers, like the McCain campaign, underestimated not only Obama but a new media model that swiftly blasts would-be Swiftboaters.
Partisan and muckraking bloggers now fight political operatives’ efforts to keep unseemly attacks below the radar. Take automated “robo” phone calls, which often deploy the sharp attacks that campaigns don’t want exposed in the mass media. Previously, the calls were obscure, rarely drawing major media coverage, let alone sustained criticism. Now they can be recorded, uploaded and dissected in a single news cycle. Sites like TalkingPointsMemo and Daily Kos use crowd-sourcing by readers to track the attacks and pin them squarely on John McCain. Insider political sites, like Ben Smith’s Politico blog, also disseminate the audio recordings to media and political elites, converting a “targeted” message into a mass broadcast. And organized campaigns like the National Political Do Not Call Registry use the web, Twitter and e-mail to track and map every call.