Quick question: Is the average American more likely to vote against Barack Obama because he was close to a Harvard law school professor who advanced critical race theory or because, under his administration, unemployment has never been below 8 percent and gas prices have risen to as much as $6 in some places?

The Obama campaign is masterful at turning distractions to the advantage of the incumbent president and his reelection effort. Conservative backlash to the contraception mandate becomes the Obama campaign’s vehicle to rally the ire of liberals and to paint conservatives as extreme on social issues. The release of a video that underscores Obama’s radical past becomes a vehicle to rally the ire of liberals and to paint conservatives as extreme on racial issues.

By now, conservatives should know what happens when we discuss anything in terms other than freedom and the president’s failures as a president: The president uses our words to his political advantage, even if he has to lie to do it. Conservatives want to ban contraception! Conservatives think Obama will bring back racial discrimination against whites!

Ed thinks the Obama campaign’s use of Sarah Palin in a campaign ad is evidence that they don’t have a very savvy playbook. I disagree. Unless voters do a little research into critical race theory, the president’s connection to it and the full context of Sarah Palin’s comments, they’ll see the Obama campaign ad, think Sarah Palin is stupid and representative of the GOP at large, and either stay home on Election Day or vote Obama. That ad isn’t going to hurt Obama’s reelection effort, that’s for sure.

The Obama machine’s ability to distort and spin what conservatives say isn’t necessarily a reason not to engage in discussions about the morality of contraception or about critical race theory, though. The Internet is the perfect salon for such discussions — a place for us to hash out ideas … and not worry so much about what effect our discussions will have on the elections in November.

The campaign trail is not such a place. In the midst of all the distractions, the GOP candidates — and anyone who could be perceived as surrogates for them, including Sarah Palin — have to maintain strict message discipline. Fortunately, in her response to the Obama campaign’s ad against her, Sarah Palin, for the most part, did that:

“I’m not running for any office, but I’m more than happy to accept the dubious honor of being Barack Obama’s ‘enemy of the week’ if that includes the opportunity to debate him on the issues Americans are actually concerned about,” Palin wrote in a note on her Facebook page, posted late Monday. Palin was responding to a Web video fundraising for Obama that uses recent footage of Palin criticizing the president.

Palin also offered a challenge to Obama.

“I’m willing and free to discuss these issues with the President anywhere, anytime,” Palin wrote. …

Palin said it is an example of Obama’s “diversionary tactics” that “shows that our President sure seems fearful of discussing the economy, energy prices, and all the other problems people need addressed.”

At this point, if the GOP candidates really want to beat Obama, their every word and action should primarily be determined by this consideration, “Will this help me beat the president in the general election?” That sounds cynical, but it’s politics. Incidentally, it’s also why I marvel that so many people want to run for office.

What we need in the White House is a good president. What we need on the campaign trail is a good politician. Any one of the GOP candidates would be a better president than Obama; now’s when we need them to prove they’re all also better politicians.

Update: I was not saying that conservatives shouldn’t vet the president — or that the candidates shouldn’t attack the president for his failures. Just saying they have to be mindful of easily twistable sound bites. To some extent, sure, it can’t be avoided: Obama can and will use anything they say against them. But sometimes they make it way too easy for him. What Sarah Palin did in her response to the ad was perfect: She brought up all the issues O is ducking and also said we need to continue to tell the truth about his past. She just didn’t wade into issues that aren’t immediately comprehensible to the viewer. As I said above, there’s a medium for digging into the nitty gritty — and it’s not TV.