Is it smart politics to go after the president's kids, to drag them into the public arena?

I'm asking that question, after having just viewed the NRA's new web ad. Granted, the gun-fetish behemoth is seriously agitated about Barack Obama's imminent attempts to make it just a teensy weensy bit more difficult for nutjobs to commit mass slaughter, so maybe that explains the decision to post an ad that sets a new standard for scurrilous discourse.

But forget the NRA's amorality. Let's just talk about the ad's questionable utilitarian value, and whether it is wise public relations to get so personal. Will the ad help or hurt the NRA's efforts to rally Americans to its cause? Will the ad attract or repulse the NRA's conservative Democratic allies who have buoyed its cause for so long on Capitol Hill?

The 30-second spot is a nasty piece of work that violates an unwritten Washington rule of public debate; colloquially speaking, the rule is, "Say whatever you want about me, but leave my family out of it." But now the NRA has gone there:

"Are the president's kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he's just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security....Protection for their kids, and gun-free zones for ours."

The NRA ad is aimed squarely at the emotions, which explains why it's so devoid of intellect. For starters, the ad is predictably fact-challenged. It implies that Obama is unalterably opposed to school security, when, in truth, he has merely said that enhanced security is not a panacea, that curbing gun access also must be part of the solution (Obama, last week: "I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools." The italics are mine.)

And what is the NRA insinuating, anyway? That the president's daughters don't deserve Secret Service protection? Or that the president's daughters are no more endangered every day than the average kid down the block? Or that the nation's 100,000 schools should all be guarded by sentries with Secret Service skills? I doubt the NRA even gamed out all the ignorant implications. The gun manufacturers' front group just wanted to get personal, to hit Obama where it hurts most.

That's where the NRA has exacerbated its PR problems. Some prominent conservatives have already seen the ad and pronounced themselves nauseous.

David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, focused this morning on the ad's "elitist" reference: "The NRA's sneering references to the president's family are beyond the pale. As the makers of the NRA ad should know, and probably do know, the First Family has come under years of racially coded attack for their 'uppityism,' as Rush Limbaugh phrased it. This latest attack ad looks to many like only one more attempt to inflame an ancient American wound." Indeed, he wrote, "a president's family should not be subject to political criticism. That rule was honorably upheld in the case of the Bush daughters, who grew into fine young people, and the rule should be same for the Obama daughters - especially if it's true, as has been widely reported, that this first family has faced a unique degree of threat." (Hence the title of his piece: "The NRA Guns for Sasha and Malia".)

Meanwhile, Joe Scarborough, the conservative Republican ex-congressman, was succinct on the air this morning. Referring to the NRA, he asked: "What's wrong with these people?....These people are causing serious damage to (the NRA) brand and, more importantly, to the Second Amendment."

His remark about the NRA "brand" would appear to be true. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll charts a big disconnect between the NRA and the American mainstream; landslide majorities support virtually all the gun reforms that the NRA is determined to squelch (universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, you name it).

The thing is, a hefty 55 percent of Americans also like the NRA's idea about putting armed guards in all the schools. Which again prompts the question: Is the NRA making life harder for itself, does it risk alienating some of that 55 percent, by going after the president's family - which is a heckuva lot more popular than the NRA? What is the point of engaging in bad public relations?

Actually, there may be a method to the madness. The NRA doesn't care a whit about mainstream opinion. It expects to be widely condemned for its daughter ad, for breaching the unwritten rule of public discourse. It will merely cite the condemnations as proof that the "elitists" are protecting their "elitist" president, and it will trumpet that argument in the gun-fetish community in order to raise more money and rally more support.

Remember, an animal with sharp claws is most dangerous when cornered.

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