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Swiftboating Obama on the Cheap

Swiftboating Obama on the Cheap

Analysis by Bill Berkowitz

OAKLAND, California, Sep 25 (IPS) - In 2004, the so-called Swiftboating of Sen. John Kerry's U.S. presidential campaign changed the course of history by helping defeat the Massachusetts senator, and the tactic appeared to become an instant blueprint for future political campaigns.

Given the success of the Swiftboating formula -- a high-impact, mediagenic group of storytellers (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) clamping on to one very hot-button issue (Kerry's military record), combined with the financial largesse of opponent George W. Bush's super-wealthy backers (more than 45 million dollars was put in play), and a message spread by savvy and experienced public relations outfits and advertising enterprises to a controversy-hungry mainstream media -- it was anticipated that it would be in play again.

This time around, however, Swiftboating has morphed into serial attacks on the cheap.

Released late last month, Floyd Brown's latest book, "Obama Unmasked: Did Slick Hollywood Handlers Create The Perfect Candidate?", co-authored with Lee Troxler, has not created the buzz of others, like Jerome Corsi's "The Obama Nation" and David Freddoso's "The Case against Barack Obama" -- both of which are still on The New York Times best-seller list.

Nevertheless, the book has given the veteran political operative a vehicle for raising money for his various enterprises; groups that are primarily focused on attacking Sen. Obama.

While activists with serious time on their hands, some technological skills, and the ability to produce coherent copy either on a website, blog, or My Space/FaceBook page, have become political players, political action committees, 527's, and 501(c)(4)'s -- groups with access to professional copywriters, PR spinmeisters, legal teams, direct mail firms, e-list brokers and that have longtime relationships with the mainstream media -- still have a leg up on info-everyman.

Despite a constrained financial landscape, there is still room for the political wizardry of Floyd Brown, who pridefully takes credit for the controversial Willie Horton ad that helped destroy the 1988 presidential campaign of Gov. Michael Dukakis. For months Brown has been searching for a "tipping point" issue and foraging for donors.

Early on in the campaign, in the hope of finding that "tipping point", Brown tested two themes -- Obama as Muslim and Obama as prevaricator. He told the New York Times that the "Swift Boats achieved the tipping point" and he "was part of a team that reached the tipping point in 1988 [that helped put the kybosh on Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign]. In 1992, we didn't reach it. We might not this time. But that doesn't mean we're not going to try."

In his first foray into the presidential campaign, Brown's National Campaign Fund prepared a TV advertisement called "Victims", which criticised Obama for being too easy on gang murderers. The goal of the ad was to "draw a parallel between Obama's weakness on gang violence and the war on terror", Brown explained.

Hillary Clinton's campaign was unsuccessful in raising Obama's "negatives", Brown told Time magazine. "It is absolutely critical that Obama's negatives go up with Republicans."

Time reported that copies of the ad were "e-mailed to between three and seven million conservatives this week, with a plea for more funding to further spread the message.

Brown operates several entities: The National Campaign Fund (NCF), and its website, Citizens for a Safe and Prosperous America and the Legacy Committee PAC -- three 527s under the control of he and James V. Lacy. Brown also runs Excellentia Inc., a consulting company specialising in new media, and philanthropy for conservatives.

For months, the NCF has solicited funds from supporters to run a series of 30-second anti-Obama advertisements in selected battleground states.

"There is not a moment to lose," Brown's website warned. "Obamaniacs in the media and at-large know that when enough Americans see our newly release Expose Obama commercial they will start asking the pivotal question: 'Was Barack Hussein Obama a Muslim?'"

Brown's ad closes with: "Maybe it doesn't matter if Obama were a Muslim back then, but it does matter if he is not telling the truth about it now."

Brown and his wife Mary Beth Brown -- who has penned admiring biographies of former president Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- write a weekly column for The Cagle Post, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Early Federal Election Commission filings for Brown's groups found that a large portion of it was committed to fundraising, going to an enterprise called Response Dynamics Inc. (RDI) -- a direct mail company headed by Ron Kafner and David Kunko. Kafner's RDI served Brown during the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988.

The Legacy PAC is the 527 of the Reagan Legacy Foundation, a group fronted by conservative radio talk show host Michael Reagan, the adopted son of former President Ronald Reagan. Brown is president of the foundation, James Lacy is its treasurer, and Mike Kelly is its vice-president.

Lacy is the co-founder and managing partner of Wewer & Lacy, LLP and the cofounder in 1978, along with the late anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis, of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Kelly was co-founder of Premiere Radio Networks, the syndicator of right-wing radio talk shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

Michael Reagan has used his radio programme and website to bring in donations to the Legacy Committee PAC: "Right now the United States of America is facing devastating problems that threaten to bring our great nation to its knees, and the Legacy Committee is dedicated to solving those problems before disaster strikes...You and I are in immediate danger... Please also be sure to include your generous contribution of 50 or 100 dollars to the Legacy Committee. Your generous 50 or 100 dollars is urgently needed to fight to protect our nation from this assault from within."

As of earlier this month, Brown and company have generated significant donations, but not close to the amount of money s raised in 2004. This time around, however, millions of dollars is not the requisite for attacking Obama.

By strategically linking his various organisations to direct mail and telemarketing professionals, Brown has laid the groundwork for a final push. Myriad attacks on Obama -- consolidated under the banner of "character" and including such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage -- may not provide the powerful national campaign frame as did the Swift Boat attack against Kerry in 2004, but it could resonate in those states and regions where race, religion, guns and Islamic terrorism can be successfully conflated.


Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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