McCain's Unhappy Warrior
Sloppy attacks are not the path to victory.
John McCain attacked Barack Obama both at home and abroad this week. One attack was smart. One wasn't. On Iraq, McCain pressed Obama over his opposition to the troop surge—the strategy that has reduced violence in Iraq and led to modest political gains for the al-Maliki government. This was smart. The topic is on McCain's issue turf, potentially puts his opponent at odds with the American generals who executed the surge, and makes Obama look like a hidebound pol who won't absorb new facts that contradict his predetermined conclusions. McCain's dumb attack came in a television ad that blamed Barack Obama for high oil prices. You might have thought the cause of the oil-price hike was war, SUVs, OPEC, speculation, and global demand for oil. Nope—it's Obama. By this standard, he should also answer for the Starbucks closings and the dent in my Honda.
McCain is attacking too much and indiscriminately. The barrage undermines his brand, takes time away from telling voters what he might do for them, and looks awfully old-timey in a year when voters want a new brand. He should go on the offensive, yes, but in targeted forays.
There is a debate in Republican politics—and inside the McCain campaign—about what's plaguing the GOP contender. A central question is just how much time McCain should spend attacking his opponent. Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in the National Review argue that he needs to get more aggressive in raising doubts about Obama, whose advantages put him in a position, they fear, to run away with the race. Other longtime McCain allies argue for an almost opposite approach. One suggested McCain ignore Obama for a month so that McCain can spend time explaining to voters where he'd like to take the country.
Perhaps McCain could go after Obama more often and more vehemently, as the goaders would have it, if he were better at it. But most of the time he's not. When he's angry, he can be withering, but that's usually in private. Plus, he's not angry that often. When he attacks Obama on tax cuts or energy, he sounds as if he's phoning it in. Voters get nothing to grab onto or legitimately fear. For McCain, who likes to have fun campaigning, the negativity doesn't look as if it's all that fun.
When McCain is drawing contrasts with Obama on the surge or foreign policy, by contrast, he sounds as if he believes it. He starts to approximate the happy warrior his advocates gush about. A debate over the surge also has potential to play well for McCain because it targets Obama's vulnerabilities while highlighting McCain's strongest selling point. McCain is running on his personal story of physical and political sacrifice. His support for the surge is a pretty good proxy for that message of putting country first. It was an unpopular stand, and he stood by it. Obama is weak on the surge because it has worked better than he predicted it would, which is why his campaign cleaned up his past comments from his Web site. This gives McCain an opening to talk about Obama's judgment.
But if McCain is going to make his surge argument stick, voters need to trust him. His "straight talk" reputation will have to be as sturdy as possible. The gas-prices ad—and the equally disingenuous one on tax cuts—dismantles that reputation. In 2000, McCain said that spinning is lying. By that standard, these claims are what? Double- lying. Super lying?
Despite what editorial writers say, voters generally don't mind attack ads that much, particularly on the subject of oil exploration, which is politically popular. But McCain is a special case. He has less room to exaggerate claims about Obama's tax plans or to invent Obama's culpability for high gas prices, because he calls himself a straight talker. Obama has the same problem, of course. He's not the straight talker he claims to be, either. Beyond his policy reversals on FISA and campaign funding, his campaign also engages in the garden-variety shuffle. Most recently, aides tripped up during Obama's foreign trip when they tried to claim that his speech in Berlin was not a political event—never mind that a campaign ad crew would be there. But while Obama may be offering a sort-of version of old-style politics, McCain, in his fumbled attacks, displays the genuine article. In a year during which voters want change, he's offering examples of what they want change from.
McCain's wild pitches also take time away from addressing the main complaint about his campaign, which is that he lacks a story to tell. In 2000, it was easy for voters to figure out what John McCain had to offer them. He was a reformer. At town halls, he would answer almost every question by talking about the corruption in the campaign-finance system. For an undisciplined politician, he was relentlessly on message because he had the message in his gut. Even if people weren't listening to the specifics about soft money and lobbyists, his general claim to challenging the system and the entrenched interests seemed sincere.
Now it's Obama who benefits from this phenomenon. It's harder to know what McCain stands for. He's for the surge and remedying global warming, yes, and for allowing states to drill for oil off the country's coastlines. But those are data points, not an arc. The criticism I hear from inside and outside the campaign is that McCain lacks a line that tells people where he's going to take them if he's president.
McCain's aides insist that the senator often talks at length without mentioning his opponent, and they blame the press for covering only the negative comments. As the latest sign of their frustration with the media, the McCain campaign released a video titled "Obama Love" delineating the press infatuation with Obama. This perceived tilt in coverage inevitably goads the McCain staffers to go after Obama more. As one top aide put it, since they don't believe the press is pressing the Democratic nominee the way it should, the campaign has to do the press corps' job for it. Maybe. But if McCain staffers are doing our job, given the claims in McCain's latest ad, they've adopted Weekly World News' standards.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of John McCain on this page by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images, on Slate's home page by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.