Sunday, May 23, 2004

When hard-nosed political investigation crosses over into stalking

A number of other blogs have covered one of the more amusing and recent tasteless Republican political escapades: the virtual stalking of Illinois U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Barack Obama by a videophotographer working for his Republican opponent, Jack Ryan.

According to that initial article,

"For the past 10 days, U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama hasn't been able to go to the bathroom or talk to his wife on his cell phone without having a camera-toting political gofer from his Republican rival filming a few feet away ... Justin Warfel, armed with a handheld Panasonic digital camcorder, follows Obama to the bathroom door and waits outside. It means Warfel follows Obama as he moves from meeting to meeting in the Capitol. And it means Warfel tails Obama when he drives to his campaign office."

Eventually, Ryan's campaign got enough heat for this that they finally apologized and pulled Warfel back a bit. But it still makes one wonder -- what would have been the proper response by Obama's campaign? Even though what Warfel was doing was probably technically legal, there comes a point where you really have crossed the line into bad taste. And then what? Well, it seems that there three possible responses from Obama's perspective.

First, he could have arranged for the same treatment for Ryan -- what I call the "tit for tat" treatment, very predictable, very generic and very boring. And it would have given Ryan the ammo to poke fun at Obama: "Whoa, dude, what a clever comeback. Did you think of that all by yourself? Man, talk about a bottomless pit of originality." In short, a pretty feeble comeback and almost certainly not worth the trouble.

The second option would have been the "sort of tit for tat" response, with humor thrown in. Obama could have arranged for close-quarters surveillance of photographer Warfel. Now wouldn't that have been amusing? Warfel stalking Obama, and someone stalking Warfel. It's not clear it would have solved anything, but it would definitely have made the news and made Obama's point in a way that would have everyone chuckling and realizing what sort of dork Ryan was to start this in the first place. But there's a third response, and it's one not to be considered lightly.

Obama could have, as they say, "gone nuclear". Ryan wants to play with video surveillance? Fine, responds Obama, and sets observers to follow Ryan's family members -- his wife and kids. Photographers stake out positions outside the childrens' school and outside the wife's place of work. They film video, they take pictures, they follow slowly along in cars as the kids walk down the sidewalk, and so on. All perfectly legal, and all totally unnerving.

Tasteless? You bet. Frightening? Almost certainly. Effective? Without question. While this is obviously an extreme reaction, its advantage is that there is no rebuttal in terms of a similar but slightly-stronger reply. It's not like a slowly escalating arms race, in which each side ups the ante just a bit each time. Doing it that way just drags things out as one side after the other ratchets the response up a single notch at a time.

Going nuclear, on the other hand, ends it. Immediately. It's an absolutely blunt and unambiguous way of saying, "You want to screw around like this? Let me show you just where this is going to lead. Now, do you still want to play this game?"

It's a drastic approach and, as I said, not one to be considered lightly. But given the Republicans' generally sleazy approach to, well, pretty much everything, sometimes it's the only language they understand.

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