McCain's message: Be afraid of Obama. Be very afraid.
DAYTON, Ohio—Who says John McCain doesn't have a tight campaign message? At his rally here Monday, the message was clear and pithy: Boo. In three acts, McCain presented the Obama Horror Show. If Obama is elected, your taxes will go up, you'll be unsafe from foreign threats, and, especially if Congress goes Democratic, you will be forced to endure an era of unchecked liberalism. Obama aides have long argued that their candidate offers hope while McCain offers fear. Judging by the balance of messages both candidates are giving voters before Election Day, it's hard to disagree.
The minute McCain took the stage at a high-school gymnasium in Dayton, he unspooled the chain of nightmares Obama would unleash after the inauguration. McCain heralded "Joe the Plumber," as he has for the last two weeks, to make the case that Obama's tax policies are aimed at redistributing wealth. He also pointed to a 2001 interview in which (so the McCain campaign says) Obama claimed one of the tragedies of the civil rights era was that it failed to redistribute wealth. "That is what change means for Barack the Redistributor," he told a crowd of about 2,000, which didn't fill the gym. "It means taking your money and giving it to someone else."
Since McCain has been labeling Obama a redistributor, it was certainly convenient that Obama used a version of that word in a sentence in an interview seven years ago. But it's hard to see how the new attack is going to change the bleak political landscape for McCain.
One reason his attacks are not effective is that Obama's remarks are simply not very subversive. Reading them in context, and trying to keep from napping, it's clear that when Obama talks about redistribution, he's not talking about taxing the rich to give handouts—as McCain would have us think. Obama's talking about the Supreme Court's reluctance to force school districts to spend money to provide equality in schools. Later in the same interview, when Obama again discusses redistribution, he also talks about the complexities of school funding after Brown v. Board of Education.
With so little time left, McCain needs clear and effective critiques. So far, his tax attacks have been ineffective. Polls show that, over the last month, voters nationally and in key states like Virginia have come to trust Obama more on the question of taxes. Making hay of a seven-year-old quote about the civil rights struggles of a previous generation is not going to change the dynamic.
In Dayton, McCain also questioned Obama's readiness to face a foreign crisis, as he did last week, and raised the specter of Democrats controlling the White House and Congress. "Can you imagine an Obama, Reid, Pelosi combination?" he said to scattered boos.
Though the central thrust of McCain's argument is about the danger of an Obama presidency, the McCain pitch is not all negative (just as Obama's "closing argument" of hope for the future uses the McCain-Bush boogeyman). McCain makes an affirmative case for his policies—promising to cut taxes, reduce spending, and buy up mortgages to keep people in their homes. His closing oration is a call to restore America's greatness that is generally positive. It's even rousing, especially by McCain standards. When McCain says, "I'm an American, and I choose to fight," it sparks the crowd. He's just got to hope that the mix of fight and fright does enough to help him come from behind.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of John McCain by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of McCain on Slate's home page by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.