28 August 2008

Candidate McCain vs. Senator McCain: John Kerry and Joe Biden Revitalize the Case Against McCain

Much has been made of the McCain campaign's ability to control the argument over the past four weeks. By going brazenly negative, Steve Schmidt & Co. banked on putting the high minded Democratic candidate for change on the defensive and against the ropes. The past month has seen Obama faced with three bad choices: pass on the negative attacks, explain himself in response to negative attacks, and launch similar, negative attacks.

Obama has passed through all three of these phases and weathered a substantial amount of the storm. Passing on the negative ads infuriates Democrats who fear another Swiftboating in the offing. Explaining himself in response to the ads only focuses the electorate on the original smear (and as the old adage goes, if you're explaining, you're losing). Launching negative ads tit-for-tat against negative ads leaves Camp Obama susceptible to (valid) arguments that the candidate for change is running the same old political campaign as every other Washington insider and White House hopeful.

Last night at the Pepsi Center, Obama's options changed. The most effective agent for change that I've heard this entire season took the stage in the form of John Kerry.

Maybe there's something about losing presidential races. As I listened to Kerry speak, I found myself enamored with his sensible lines and his graceful and commanding oratory--qualities I don't remember hearing from 2004 as much as I remember the wooden mannerisms before the camera and the dangerously imperious tone that defined Kerry's style. Just as Al Gore has enjoyed a popularity boost since losing the 2000 election, and as Hillary Clinton appears remarkably poised to fill large shoes in the Democratic party without winning the nomination, perhaps John Kerry found himself last night on the edge of something grand after surviving the abyss of disappointment. Whatever Kerry's role will be, he provided the assault that Barack Obama clearly needed against John McCain.

Kerry dissected McCain's remarkably inconsistent history on almost every issue McCain has ever expressed an opinion on by splitting McCain down the middle.

I have known and been friends with John McCain for almost 22 years. But every day now I learn something new about candidate McCain. To those who still believe in the myth of a maverick instead of the reality of a politician, I say, let's compare Senator McCain to candidate McCain.

By dividing the John McCain who's been in public office these past 26 years and highlighting the John McCain who's running for the presidency, John Kerry tapped the potential to point out all McCain's ridiculous flip flops without going negative.
Candidate McCain now supports the wartime tax cuts that Senator McCain once denounced as immoral. Candidate McCain criticizes Senator McCain's own climate change bill. Candidate McCain says he would now vote against the immigration bill that Senator McCain wrote. Are you kidding? Talk about being for it before you're against it.

Let me tell you, before he ever debates Barack Obama, John McCain should finish the debate with himself. And what's more, Senator McCain, who once railed against the smears of Karl Rove when he was the target, has morphed into candidate McCain who is using the same "Rove" tactics and the same "Rove" staff to repeat the same old politics of fear and smear. Well, not this year, not this time. The Rove-McCain tactics are old and outworn, and America will reject them in 2008.

This line between Senator McCain and Candidate McCain is one the Obama Camp and the DNC need to ride all the way to election day. It's a great rhetorical device, perhaps the slickest I've heard all year, from any camp. What's more, it cuts to the heart of the debate against John McCain: at the end of the day, his policies are empty and not a soul in the country knows where the supposed maverick stands on any single issue, except perhaps his desire to confront nations with might before diplomacy and to add to the ultra conservative ranks of the Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade.

John Kerry did another thing last night that the Obama camp needed from a surrogate. He took away the McCain campaign's free ride on the patriotism bulldozer.
[T]he candidate who once promised a "contest of ideas," now has nothing left but personal attacks. How insulting to suggest that those who question the mission, question the troops. How pathetic to suggest that those who question a failed policy doubt America itself. How desperate to tell the son of a single mother who chose community service over money and privilege that he doesn't put America first.

. . . No one can question Barack Obama's patriotism. Like all of us, he was taught what it means to be an American by his family: his grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line in World War II, his grandfather who marched in Patton's army, and his great uncle who enlisted in the army right out of high school at the height of the war. And on a spring day in 1945, he helped liberate one of the concentration camps at Buchenwald.

This election is a chance for America to tell the merchants of fear and division: you don't decide who loves this country; you don't decide who is a patriot; you don't decide whose service counts and whose doesn't.

Emphasis mine. These last lines were possibly the most powerful lines spoken all night, though several veterans and the wife of a Marine also spoke eloquently about Obama's commitment to the troops and to this country. John Kerry nailed it, though, because he didn't simply stand up for Obama, he stood up for every American. The Repulican party may choose to ignore that message during the campaign season, but the Democrats now have the language they need and the surrogates they can count on to stand up day after day and say "The Republican attack machine of Karl Rove and his disciples is telling America who counts and who doesn't. A whole nation of independent and proud Americans is going to see right through that tactic come election day."

Joe Biden took his turn last night, of course. While I generally think Biden is a much better speaker off the cuff than from prepared remarks, and while I think his speech fell flat last night compared to some of the others we've heard through the convention, Biden did his share to level the playing field as well. Last night, Joe Biden took the following message to the country: "The choice in this election is clear. These times require more than a good soldier; they require a wise leader."

This will be an important point to watch in the development of the Obama/Biden campaign. Quietly, Joe Biden just took John McCain's single most understood strength and flatly said it's not enough. Karl Rove is known for saying that the strength is the target. Take away a candidate's perceived strength, and all that's left to focus on are the weaknesses. Joe Biden effectively said that John McCain is a patriot and a hero, and has suffered terribly for love of country. But frankly, that doesn't make a president.

Look for the Obama camp to role out the ads featuring all McCain's antics and temper tantrums, and then quietly reiterate these lines that Biden and Kerry drew last night. And, of course, let's not forget Bill Clinton, who electrified the crowds, delivered a hell of a great speech, and gave me goosebumps when he urged us all to remember that the world has always been "more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." Maybe an ad featuring John McCain's "bomb Iran" jig, followed by a dark screen with Clinton's simple quote and a stamp from the Obama/Biden '08 committee, would go over well among the undecideds.

The beauty of the coming months may just reveal that John McCain brings enough of his own negativity to the mix that Obama doesn't have to go negative to attack the guy.