Silly Republican stunt

'By the end of the week, he’ll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys i

A quick thought on Obama’s massive rally in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, where he continued his economic offensive (it’s been working for him so far) and where he mocked McCain's efforts to paint him as a closet socialist by confessing to his Marxist leanings in Kindergarten.

The levity masks something that is deadly serious. This represents a real effort to push back against the McCain-Palin attacks, by reminding people that Obama is the one who is solidly in the mainstream on the economy, while painting McCain as another, more extreme George Bush.

As one Democrat noted, the Obama campaign is well aware that McCain's attacks on Obama as "redistributionist," as absurd as they are, continue to get attention in the national media. McCain's portrayal of Obama's economic plan as extreme leftism hadn't yet met with sustained pushback from the Obama team.

However, today's "kindergarten" and "peanut butter and jelly" hit seems like a pretty solid effort to get serious about defusing the "socialism" charge with a bid for the center on the economy and a reminder that McCain's views are the extreme ones.

“Because he knows that his (McCain’s) economic theories don’t work, he’s been spending these last few days calling me every name in the book,” Obama said, referring to the Republican’s dabbling with the word socialist.

“I don’t know what’s next. By the end of the week, he’ll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in Kindergarten. I shared my Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich,” Obama said with a laugh.

Turning serious, Obama added, “That’s his choice, that’s the kind of campaign he chose to run. But you have a choice too. The fundamental question in this election is not ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ We know the answer to that. The fundamental question is, ‘Will we be better off four years from now?’”

Obama is using gentle humour and some un-threatening imagery to do this. He's reminding folks that McCain's efforts to paint the basic and thoroughly uncontroversial government function of redistribution (not to say the proposed tax hikes on the very rich) as frighteningly Marxist or socialist is about as wild-eyed and radical as sounding the commie alarm about kids sharing toys.

The battle here is over who gets to define the centre, which in the real world is inhabited by Obama, and who succeeds in marginalising the other as extreme. Obama is probably the greatest public communicator in decades, so it's worth keeping in mind that beneath the jokes a very serious and high stakes game is often being played.

Not to dwell on the point but, it is of course, ridiculous, to even be debating the substance of McCain's arguments. The real significance of this episode is that this is yet another silly stunt from a candidate who is suffering badly from what might be called the "Seriousness Gap" between himself and his opponent.

Obama, by contrast, has consistently projected a level of seriousness in sync with the public mood, the challenges ahead, and the gravity of this historical moment. This is a key reason why he is ahead in the polls.