If Barack Obama gets his way, the Oxford English Dictionary will have updated its definition of "distraction" by the end of the campaign: "Diversion of the mind, attention, etc., from any object or course that tends to advance the political interests of Barack Obama."
After his blowout win in North Carolina last week, Obama turned to framing the rules of the general election ahead, warning in his victory speech of "efforts to distract us." The chief distracter happens to be the man standing between Obama and the White House, John McCain, who will "use the very same playbook that his side has used time after time in election after election."
Ah, yes, the famous distractions with which Republicans fool unwitting Americans. Ronald Reagan distracted them with the Iranian hostage crisis, high inflation and unemployment, gas lines and the loss of American prestige abroad. Then, the first George Bush distracted them with the notion of a third Reagan term, as well as the issues of taxes, crime and volunteerism. After a brief interlude of national focus during two Clinton terms, another Bush arrived wielding the dark art of distraction.
Forget "bitter"; Obama must believe that most Americans suffer from an attention-deficit disorder so crippling that they can't concentrate on their own interests or values.
Obama has an acute self-interest in so diagnosing the American electorate. His campaign knows he's vulnerable to the charge of being an elitist liberal. Unable to argue the facts, it wants to argue the law -- defining his weaknesses as off-limits.
The campaign can succeed in imposing these rules on the race only if the news media cooperate. Newsweek signed up for the effort in a cover story that reads like a 3,400-word elaboration of the "distraction" passage of Obama's victory speech. "The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968," it says, through "innuendo and code." McCain "may not be able to resist casting doubt on Obama's patriotism," and there's a question whether he can or wants to "rein in the merchants of slime and sellers of hate."
Here are the Obama rules in detail: He can't be called a "liberal" ("the same names and labels they pin on everyone," as Obama puts it); his toughness on the war on terror can't be questioned ("attempts to play on our fears"); his extreme positions on social issues can't be exposed ("the same efforts to distract us from the issues that affect our lives" and "turn us against each other"); and his Chicago background too is off-limits ("pouncing on every gaffe and association and fake controversy"). Besides that, it should be a freewheeling and spirited campaign.
Democrats always want cultural issues not to matter because they are on the least-popular side of many of them, and want patriotic symbols like the Pledge of Allegiance and flag pins to be irrelevant when they can't manage to nominate presidential candidates who wholeheartedly embrace them (which shouldn't be that difficult). As for "fear" and "division," they are vaporous pejoratives that can be applied to any warning of negative consequences of a given policy or any political position that doesn't command 100 percent assent. In his North Carolina speech, Obama said the Iraq War "has not made us safer," and that McCain's ideas are "out of touch" with "American values." How fearfully divisive.
We could take Obama's rules in good faith if he never calls John McCain a "conservative" or labels him in any other way. If he never criticizes him for his association with George Bush. If he doesn't jump on his gaffes (like McCain's 100-years-in-Iraq comment that Obama distorted and harped on for weeks). And if he never says anything that would tend to make Americans fearful about the future or divide them (i.e., say things that some people agree with and others don't).
This is, of course, an impossible standard. Obama doesn't expect anyone to live up to it except John McCain.