a "TDS strategy memo" from William Galston, Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira on suggests how Democrats can fight back.
As the McCain campaign has rolled out its new, “Karl Rove style” personal attack on Barack Obama, Democrats have begun to feel a very familiar sense of frustration.
On the one hand, for many Democrats the “high road” taken by the Barack Obama campaign in replying to the attacks until several days ago did not seem adequately aggressive. At the same time, the DNC and other third party Democratic attacks on McCain’s close financial ties to oil companies and other lobbyists and his subservience to the policies of the Bush administration seem somehow to be glancing blows that do less damage to his personal image than do his attacks on Obama.
There is a reason for this. One fundamental element of the Karl Rove approach is to focus the most visceral and aggressive attacks on the opposing candidate’s character and personality rather than his policies. The recent Democratic attacks on McCain criticize, sometimes very bitterly, his positions and actions, but the Republican attacks on Obama are directly aimed at impugning his character.
In the past, Democrats often felt that focusing one’s attacks on an opposing candidates’
character was inappropriate — that politics should be about issues and policies, not personalities.
But repeated muggings by the Rove Republicans have made many, if not most, Democrats now quite willing to respond to personal attacks in whatever way seems required.
The more difficult problem is that McCain is not, at first glance, an easy target for attacks on his character. His youthful military experience as a pilot and POW and his well-cultivated media reputation as an occasional “maverick” in the 80’s and 90’s present no obvious vulnerabilities. Current characterizations of him as old, ill-tempered, easily flustered and prone to blundering, while certainly true, are also essentially trivial. Comparing McCain to “The Simpsons’” Mr. Burns or to a clichéd grouchy grandpa simply has no meaningful political effect.
But, in fact, McCain is actually profoundly vulnerable to a powerful, aggressive and damaging attack on his character. McCain’s actions in recent weeks have provided compelling evidence for three genuinely disturbing propositions about his character, core values and integrity.
1. That John McCain has become desperate to win this election and is willing to
sacrifice his deepest principles and his personal honor in order to do it
2. That the John McCain we see today is only a pale, diminished shadow of the
man he once was in his early years.
3. That John McCain is allowing men he once despised and held in complete contempt to manipulate him and tell him what to do – to literally put words in his mouth and tell him what to say.
At first glance these statements are so strong that they sound almost defamatory. But each is supported by McCain’s recent actions (as described below) and they fit together into a single coherent narrative of ambition overcoming integrity and moral character.
Here is how this narrative can be presented in the format of a typical TV spot format
John McCain says this election is about character — and he‘s right.
In the 2000 presidential race the Bush campaign — led by Karl Rove — viciously attacked John McCain’s wife and child — they said his wife was a drug addict and that the child he and his wife adopted from an orphanage was actually his illegitimate Black daughter. On election night, his wife was in tears.
Back then, McCain was disgusted. He said there was “a special place in hell” for rumormongers like these people. He made a promise to his family and to his supporters that he would never run a dirty campaign like that. Never.
But early this year John McCain hired Charlie Condon, the very same man who was behind those vicious smears to run his South Carolina campaign. And then several weeks ago he brought Steven Schmidt — leading protégé of Karl Rove and master of the political hit job — on board to be his campaign manager and write the talking points for the new negative campaign against Barak Obama.
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