With all the shakeups since he entered the presidential race, it’s been hard to know who’s running John McCain’s campaign… but I’m gradually becoming convinced that it’s Wile E. Coyote. Consider this story from the New York Times today:
After spending much of the summer searching for an effective line of attack against Senator Barack Obama, Senator John McCain is beginning a newly aggressive campaign to define Mr. Obama as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency.
. . . The moves are the McCain campaign’s most full-throttled effort to define Mr. Obama negatively, on its own terms, by creating a narrative intended to turn the public off to an opponent.
. . . Mr. McCain’s campaign is now under the leadership of members of President Bush’s re-election campaign, including Steve Schmidt, the czar of the Bush war room that relentlessly painted his opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, as effete, elite, and equivocal through a daily blitz of sound bites and Web videos that were carefully coordinated with Mr. Bush’s television advertisements.
The run of attacks against Mr. Obama over the last couple of weeks have been strikingly reminiscent of that drive, including the Bush team’s tactics of seeking to make campaigns referendums on its opponents — not a choice between two candidates — and attacking the opponent’s perceived strengths head-on. Central to the latest McCain drive is an attempt to use against Mr. Obama the huge crowds and excitement he has drawn, including on his foreign trip last week, by promoting a view of him as more interested in attention and adulation than in solving the problems facing American families.
You can imagine the high-fiving in the McCain camp: "Yessss! We’ve applied the Rove handbook perfectly! We are suuuuper geniuses!" Um, except for a few problems. First, just because your attack is aimed at your opponent’s strength doesn’t mean it makes sense — and even McCain’s own allies and former close advisers are agreeing that the "celebrity" angle is simply ridiculous.
Second, by their own desperate personal attacks, the McCainites have created their own unflattering narrative, which the Obama campaign is quickly using to define them, unveiling a site today called the Low Road Express. Strategy honcho David Axelrod twists the knife a bit further in the NYT story I quoted above:
“When people are struggling, when they’re trying to pay their bills, when they’re concerned about their fundamental security, I don’t think they have much tolerance for Britney Spears and Paris Hilton,” Mr. Axelrod said. “I think they understand times are more serious than that, and they thought John McCain was, too.”
As Axelrod implies, a negative frame has to be in tune with the public’s sense of the election. Calling John Kerry a "flip-flopper" may be effective in saying he’s too indecisive to lead a nation in 2004 that had just been plunged into war in Iraq and was emerging from the shadow of September 11th, and when it might have been enough to paint George Bush as more likable than Al Gore back when the national had as few visible pressing problems as it did in 2000… but things are different now.
And that’s where I think the frontal assault on the crowds turning out to see Obama will really backfire. As I’m sure Barack himself will point out soon, they’re showing up because times are so difficult, and they so desperately want a change for the better — and a candidate who will rise above divisive campaign tactics and tired policy approaches to really solve their problems.
John McCain wants to argue that this is a bad thing? That people shouldn’t hope, that they should be ashamed of wanting something better? Um, yeah, good luck with that approach.