This is the week the new-style campaign turns old.
Early Monday morning the Obama campaign released a TV spot slamming John McCain for his involvement in the Keating Five scandal. The attack itself is a scandal. McCain was totally exonerated by the special counsel appointed for the case. But that hasn’t stopped Obama, who, of course, approved this message.
The ad appears to be part of a carefully planned drive to go negative on McCain without taking the wrap for going negative. Conventional wisdom holds that this year voters will punish the candidate who first attacks the other’s character.
So in four days of artful preparation and with happy help from the mainstream media, the Obama camp has positioned their smears as responses — well, not exactly responses, as Sarah Palin’s criticisms of Obama’s judgment for his relationship with Weather Underground founder and unrepentant radical activist Bill Ayers came after the Obama camp had hit McCain for showing “erratic” behavior in his role in the financial crisis.
But the MSM still bought the Obama he-hit-me-first line. From yesterday’s New York Times to this morning’s posts on Mark Halperin’s The Page blog and Politico.com, the Obama ad is being reported as “preemptive”, going after McCain’s character because McCain had planned to go after Obama’s. As Politco says, in addition to the Palin speeches about Obama and Ayers, the McCain campaign “intends” to air ads linking Obama to both Ayers and “money launderer Tony Rezko.” Rezko is the man who helped Obama pay for his Hyde Park neighborhood house. So, you see, all Obama is doing is prudently getting there first.
Yet also according to Politico, the Obama organization is moving on numerous fronts, not just in this morning’s TV ad. There is a 13-minute video, a new dedicated website where the video is posted and surrogates deployed to all the media outlets. In other words, this is a full frontal assault across the field of engagement. It almost certainly wasn’t cooked up only after Sarah Palin’s speeches late last week but in development much longer. The cries of we’re just responding are merely measure to minimize collateral damage.
And yet there is a tone in the Obama campaign’s counter-attack on Palin that suggests they believe their man is highly vulnerable on the matter of Mr. Ayers. We all know about their attempts to suppress documents regarding the relationship. But since the Palin speeches – and for the first time in weeks — they have played the race card. Palin’s attacks were “racially tinged,” they’ve charged. It is hard to see how the Alaska governor’s actual words support this view – but racism the biggest bomb in their accusation arsenal, so it looks as if they’ll use it whenever the McCain campaign gets too close to the Obama-Ayers connection. It is a good rule of thumb in politics: If someone over-responds when you hit him, hit him in the same place again. He is hurt, even if he’s trying not to show it.
At the same time, McCain must do more. He is down in the polls, but not because of Obama’s personal attacks, which have only just begun. With the exception of the Palin-Biden debate, the last few weeks have been all financial meltdown all the time in the media. The Democrats have been unrelenting in portraying the crisis as a product of decades of GOP deregulation. This is the opposite of the truth, of course.
The McCain campaign has left these charges largely unanswered. It has not said that the ones who are responsible for them, including Senator Obama, were also responsible for blocking Bush Administration and McCain attempts to reform (that is, to regulate) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It is widely believed that, had those reforms passed, there would have been no crisis.
Yes, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and major bloggers have detailed the facts. And in an amazing display of crossing from the dark to the lights side, Saturday Night Live did a dead on skit to that effect, too, this past weekend. But in driving a message home and giving it political salience, it matters what the candidates say, and Senator McCain and his organization have made little attempt to rebut and counter the Democrat’s attack. McCain needs to use Tuesday’s debates and follow up after to drive in this message.
So it’s gloves off time in the 2008 campaign. The polls have swung around wildly over the since mid-August. It’s a fair bet they’ll swing around a lot more before Election Day.