What Is John Brummett Talking About?

Columnist John Brummett pens several articles a weekly for the Arkansas News Bureau. His observations on Arkansas politics and culture, even when you disagree with him, are frequently engaging, amusing and even insightful.

Those qualities are nowhere to be found, however, when Brummett turns his attention to the national political scene—as he does in a daffy column today in which he excoriates the John McCain campaign and Republicans in general for the (increasingly successful, it appears) effort to portray Democratic contender Barack Obama as little more than an empty suit celebrity candidate.

Brummett’s beef: This line of criticism directed at Obama is a sheer fabrication foisted on a “pliable” populace, which these “Stepford voters” are now “regurgitating.” It’s all a “sinister” plot to “implant” this “negative characterization” in people’s brains. It’s mind-control, ventriloquism….and it’s working! Whither the Republic?

Most diabolical of all, Brummett suggests, is that “the Republicans always go straight at Democratic strength and turn it on its head.” Brummett is shocked by this discovery, but he shouldn’t be. Every strength, after all, contains a weakness—a fact that most people figure out around the time they realize that “rock” doesn’t always guarantee victory in a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”

In Obama’s case, his campaign and supporters, taking note of the candidate’s early popularity and aura of glamour, have packaged him as a rock star, a celebrity, something new and exciting. The sense of excitement has been one of Obama’s great strengths in the campaign.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the White House, and that’s that people started noticing that, uh, Barack Obama doesn’t have a whole lot to say outside of his gassy and grandiose set-piece speeches.

And, uh, you know, when it comes right down to it, he’s probably the single least accomplished candidate for president in…how long? Tell you what, let’s go back 60 years and look at both the Democratic and Republican tickets for every presidential election, and review the candidates’ backgrounds and qualifications. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Done? Yeah, Obama really doesn’t stack up so well, does he?

So the McCain campaign took note of these facts and ran with it. Created a couple of ads (here’s one), started picking up some earned media buzz and next thing you know, they had a message that, at least in the short term, is having some effect.

But here’s the thing, and this is important, because it’s the key to why these types of tactics are effective: They’re grounded in reality and facts, and in what people already are thinking. People buy in to the “Obama is just a hyped-up celebrity candidate” line not because they’re dupes, but because they already are having those doubts about Obama.

(Brummett also invokes the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign against John Kerry in 2004, which has become a watchword for liberals to be on guard for GOP “dirty tricks.” But the Swift Boat attacks were effective for the same reasons I outline here. They took facts about Kerry—notably, his post-war protest activities—and used them to tell a story about Kerry that was grounded in reality and facts).

If you want to persuade people, it’s much easier to do so if you work with assumptions that they already hold, which is what the McCain campaign did. There’s nothing “sinister” about it; this is pretty much basic Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” stuff, and Democratic campaigns use it just as Republicans do.

Wheres Rove with my talking points?!
"Where's Rove with my talking points?!"

Regardless of what Brummett thinks, people aren’t “reprogrammed” into believing that night is day by a few well-crafted talking points and TV ads. And in carrying on with these paranoid ramblings about “Republican mindcontrollers” and “ventriloquists” implanting false ideas in people’s minds, Brummett attributes far too much power and effectiveness to the people who craft the political strategies…and far too little to the people who cast the votes.

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