By now, most of you have surely seen the latest version of John McCain’s celebrity ad that asks what remains if you “take away the crowds and the chants.” The answer: Barack Obama’s connection to the (unpopular) Democratic Congress and its tax-and-spend mentality. The GOP has used ads like this for years, but in the past decade, the liberal icons who were invoked were Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy - both known enough nationally to be effective boogeymen. But McCain can hardly invoke Clinton (not after this or this) and Kennedy this year, and this ad has fallen back on Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, Pat Leahy and… Byron Dorgan.
I hope my North Dakotan readers forgive me, but even I would have been entirely incapable of recognizing Sen. Dorgan from his picture. I cannot imagine that most TV viewers would know who Dodd and Leahy are, and since the ad doesn’t provide any subtitled names I doubt many will be able to identity Harry Reid either. It’s hard to understand what devoting the McCain campaign hopes to accomplish by devoting so much of the ad’s visuals to tying Obama to old white men few will recognize.
With the Palin media frenzy continuing, however, the McCain campaign has bigger fishes to fry and they have already moved to a new ad that is sure to get a lot of attention (though Politico’s Martin is skeptical as to whether the ad will actually air that much):
It is quite extraordinary for a presidential campaign to cut an ad contrasting its vice-presidential candidate to the other party’s presidential nominee. That is not a comparison voters usually make when choosing their ticket, but given how much criticism Palin’s qualifications have attracted, the McCain campaign wants to give her more credibility. The ad argues that if voters are comfortable with Obama’s experience they have no reason to have any doubts about Palin.
But it is primarily the change argument that this spot is designed to push. There is no defense of Palin’s executive experience here and her management of thousands of state employees; what the ad highlights is her “credentials as a reformer.” In what is the GOP’s usual argument, Obama is dismissed as an empty suit blinded by fame and whose reputation as an agent of change is nothing but “empty words.” Obama is just more of the same, the ad claims, “liberal” and into big oil. The ad goes on to put forward Palin as the true agent of change who has not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk.
Focusing on change over experience is a risk for the McCain campaign, as Hillary Clinton was not able to wrestle the change argument away from the Illinois Senator. Simply put, voters think of Obama when they think of change and McCain when they think of experience. Joe Lieberman made a strong case yesterday for why McCain is both simultaneously - a steady leader at a time of crisis, and a maverick who would break away from the Bush agenda - but will that be enough? When the time will come for voters to make their decision, they will compare Obama and McCain (not Obama and Palin) and the Arizona Senator can’t afford to have them think about who the true agent of change would be.
That said, the McCain campaign deliberately chose a strategy of change when it picked Palin last week, and it is surely not escaped them that the focus of the coverage she has receiving have shifted from a criticism of her degree of experience to one of her reformist credentials. (extreme conservatism, earmarks, AIP, troopergate). The Obama campaign is doing its best to shift the conversation there by being increasingly proactive about attacking Palin.
For the first few days, they mostly stayed away, content to let the press do its job. But some Democrats might be getting nervous that the media frenzy might backfire among women. The McCain campaign is doing its best to encourage such a backlash, as GOP leaders have been stepping up their attacks on Democratic sexism. This spot continues the GOP’s new strategy of introducing more or less subtle attempts at gender wars: TPM notes that the lines about Palin are read by a female voice, those about Obama are read by a man.
The more the criticism Palin receives is focused on her personal life, the more this backlash is likely to take place and the Obama campaign is now trying to prevent that. They feel that there are enough political topics on which Palin can be discredited that they ought to stir the conversation in that direction. That is exactly what Obama spokesperson Bill Burton is trying to do in this statement: “What she needs to do, however, is explain her reformer credentials in light of the revelations that she supported the Bridge to Nowhere and hired a big lobbying firm to win her small town millions in earmarks.”
Today’s ad is a response to the coverage Palin is getting, and as such it is a reactive ad. The Palin pick was designed to shake up the race, but it looks like McCain has lost control. Even The View demands to know more about Palin, whom multiple articles are now saying has been “secluded.” Articles like this stunning piece by Howard Kurtz will do nothing to change that narrative, and neither will the Washington Post’s revelation today that Palin was not subjected to a lengthy face-to-face interview before Wednesday, a mere day before McCain finalized his choice.
Today, the AIP is about to be replaced by a new controversy as the most damaging skeleton in Palin’s closet. The press is now zeroing in on controversial comments that were given at Palin’s church in Palin’s presence just two weeks ago by the leader of Jews for Jesus, David Brickner. And so the slow drip of news continues, distracting the McCain campaign on a day that is meant as a celebration of Palin. If nothing else, this story will make it more difficult for Republican groups to use Jeremiah Wright in the next few weeks. To their credit, the McCain campaign has shown no sign it will go there, but independent groups and state parties have.
Here again, we need to remember that voters will contrast Obama to McCain, not to Palin, so that the Palin-Brickner connection will not protect Obama when Wright comes up. After all, Obama and Wright have a long relationship and nothing indicates that Palin had anything to do with Brickner nor Jews for Jesus prior to that sermon from August.
But the parallel between the Brickner story and the Wright story is hard to miss. In fact, any story devoted to one will now probably have a brief paragraph mentioning to the other - and that has the potential of bringing back Wright just as much as it has the potential to embarass Palin. The McCain campaign certainly pounced on the occasion: “If the Obama campaign wants to have a debate about who was in church for what sermon, that’s not an argument we’re going to shy from,” said a McCain spokesperson. The last time the McCain campaign made such a statement was over housing two weeks ago. Soon after, Tony Rezko made a comeback. Are we about to see more of Wright?
Update: Well, in case we had any doubt that the McCain campaign is aiming at gaining among female voters by pushing a backlash against the coverage Palin is receiving, Republican women put on a giant show today at the convention center, blasting the Obama campaign and the press for their “smear” campaign against the Alaska Governor.