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Why Obama's 'enemies list' is attractive -- and wrong

New revelations about what amounts to an “enemies list” compiled and shared by the Obama campaign – a list reminiscent of the one compiled by the Nixon White House during the ’72 re-election campaign -- are both totally understandable and deeply disturbing. And by understandable, I do not mean excusable, but something to which people should be paying attention and from which we can learn.

The fact that those behind this list expect it to work to their advantage is a given. They are doing this because they think it will help them win. 

The real question is why would a list which plays on the details of Romney supporters’ personal lives get any traction in voters’ minds? Why are the details of donors’ families and finances which are totally unrelated to the campaign be relevant to people?

The answer comes down to a single word: transparency. And let’s be clear, transparency in politics is a good thing. One might even say that political transparency is one of freedom’s greatest guarantors. And if this latest list was about meaningful transparency, I would actually favor it. 

But it’s not.

The new enemies list is not about helping people get a better and clearer picture of the candidate and his views. It is NOT about the kind of transparency which all of us should demand from both our elected officials and our government. 

This list is nothing more than ugly voyeurism pretending to be about transparency. It is the political version of bad reality TV, inviting strangers to see details of other people’s lives and based on that limited view, make decisions about who they are.

With details about people’s marriages, and claims about who is “against America” – the list substitutes ad hominem attack for substantive criticism. This list simply provokes the kind of anger and suspicion which invites reprisals from those who it attacks, and sends us even further down into the gutter where we seem to want our politics to play out.

And let’s not miss the all-out weirdness of the Obama campaign, turning a biblical mandate on its head and doing unto others as has been done to them. Having been subjected to a variety of attacks about his identity and that of key political allies and supporters, often by self-proclaimed “truthers,” Team Obama Tweeted each and every name on the list from "@TruthTeam2012." 

Are they kidding? Do they have no memory of what they and their candidate endured so unfairly and for so long?

In fact, the emergence of this list is painfully ironic in light of many of the attacks now President Obama endured as candidate Obama. And like the worst of those attacks, the Obama enemies list plays on one of the oldest and ugliest traditions in politics, one which President Obama decried regularly in his first campaign: guilt by association.

Rather than focusing on the real differences which divide President Obama and Governor Romney – differences about which good people disagree, and about which we need to talk as a nation – this list suggests that the measure of a candidate can be taken by measuring a few of the people around him. Even if the portrayals of those on the list were accurate, the premise is wrong.

Again, it works, to the extent that it does, because people want to know more. I get that desire and I support the pursuit of its fulfillment. 

In this case however, people who pay attention to this list are satisfying a legitimate hunger for information with irrelevant details. It’s like handing junk food to a starving person. Of course they will eat it – they are starving! But the person feeding them is hardly making them healthier and may actually make them quite sick.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.