Barack Obama will be leaving for Europe in a few days, owning the international stage and attempting to seize the advantage on Iraq. Once Obama is overseas, it will be seen as bad form for McCain to attack his opponent, so the Republican is unveiling his national security-related criticisms before Obama’s departure. (In fact, McCain will devote next week entirely to the economy.) Today, the McCain campaign released its very first attack ad:
While it is not particularly brutal or negative, the ad does goes through a number of accusations. First, one that was first used by Hillary Clinton in a late spring debate: That Obama has not held hearings on Afghanistan. At that debate, Obama was clearly not expecting that new charge and offered a very weak response, saying that he had become the chairman of the subcommittee in 2007 and was campaigning ever since — which was, of course, exactly the point Clinton wanted to make. Now, Democrats have a much better response ready thanks to Joe Biden. As I reported this morning, Biden rose to Obama’s defense about this issue, noting that the Foreign Relations Committee was holding hearings on Afghanistan and that there was no reason for Obama’s subcommittee to do the same.
The ad’s second charge - “he hasn’t been to Iraq in years” - is one McCain can voice for only one more week, and I am doubtful it has the potential to be particularly effective. Third, “he voted against funding our troops,” the ad warns, before accusing Obama of changing his positions: “Obama is changing, to help himself before president.” McCain, on the other hand, puts his “country first” and has “always supported our troops.” The ad makes no mention of any particular measures McCain might have supported, and this is a subject Democrats are looking to use against McCain by blasting his votes against veteran benefits.
Overall, the ad seeks to exploit Obama’s national security inexperience but it does not seem to me to be as effective as it could be. It lacks a unifying theme: None of the anti-Obama talking points are particularly precise and they aren’t coordinated enough for the ad to make a lasting impression. It also does not set a clear narrative to the contrast between Obama and the Arizona Senator. The opposition it suggests (consistency versus opportunism) is only supported by one of the four accusations thrown at Obama (”he is changing to help himself”).
Unlike the RNC’s contrast ad on energy and prior statements made by the McCain campaign, the pragmastism v. ideology is only vaguely hinted at here. That is surprising considering how fond McCain is of the argument that Obama has his Iraq policy set before he even hits ground in Iraq. This is a theme that has a lot of potential considering the attributes voters find attractive in McCain.
And I also question the effectiveness of the ad’s first accusation. In a spot that makes only four charges, should the lack of hearings on Afghanistan make the cut? Will voters even know why Obama should have held a Senate hearing on Afghanistan? Are they familiar enough with the fact that Obama chairs a Foreign Relations subcommittee in which he might have had the authority to hold hearings on Afghanistan? This seems like too long a point to explain for it to be powerful in 30-second advertising.
Seeking to hold Obama accountable on what the GOP sees as his foreign policy mistakes, gaffes and weaknesses, the McCain campaign also distributed a 16-page document to the press that will accompany Obama on his trip. The document contains questions to be asked to Obama, a list of quotes outlining Obama’s “evolution on Iraq” and his “evolution on troop funding” as well as talking points describing Obama’s weakness on Afghanistan and Israel (including a section about his “blunders with the Jewish community”). This is a fairly exhaustive look of the GOP’s anti-Obama foreign policy talking point, so it is definitely worth taking a look at.
Simultaneously, the McCain campaign faced its own controversy today when a campaign surrogate, Bud Day, described the war on terror as a crusade against Muslims: “The Muslims have said either we kneel or they’re going to kill us. … I don’t intend to kneel and I don’t advocate to anybody that we kneel, and John doesn’t advocate to anybody that we kneel.” Contacted by TPM, the McCain campaign is refusing to disavow this comment.