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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How to Attack John McCain–What Would Rove Do?

[Editor’s note: This is the first item of a two-part series on Democratic communications strategy by James Vega. It was originally published on August 6, 2008]
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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 45-60 second TV spot


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.
It’s sad to watch, McCain’s willingness to humiliate himself by hiring the same gang of people who horribly insulted him and his family. It shows that he has become so desperate to win this election that he is willing to sacrifice his principles and his personal honor in order to do it
Let’s face it. A real man would have said to those people – “Get the hell out of my office before I throw you out” the minute they walked in. A person would not have to be a tough guy like John Wayne to say that. A gentle, decent man of character would have told them the same thing.
But what did John McCain say about Bush’s dirty politics gang?
He said: “I had to get over it … it was a long time ago”
It’s sad, genuinely sad
John McCain – he’s no longer the man he used to be.

This is an extremely harsh and bitter judgment of John McCain character – so much so that it would obviously not be appropriate for the official Obama campaign to embrace it — but it is important to note that it is not a dishonest smear. It is a psychologically and morally reasonable judgment of McCain’s character based directly on his decision to surrender his career and political destiny to men whose behavior and values he once considered revolting and intolerable.
For this precise reason, this judgment will resonate with many ordinary voters. They will have the following very simple, common sense reaction — “I’d sure as hell never hire and take orders from the same people who viciously slandered my wife and my children. I may not be a famous politician or a big shot, but I have more character and personal integrity than that”
This basic narrative and approach can be presented in a wide variety of ways and through a large variety of media. Below, for example, is a more satiric and ironic way of raising these issues, one that could be designed for and circulated via YouTube or similar internet channels.

Camera focuses on puppet that looks like John McCain with strings rising above him. The puppet says
“I’m John McCain and I approved this ad”
Camera pulls back to reveal larger puppet manipulating the McCain puppet. It says:
“I’m Steven Schmidt, McCain’s new campaign strategist. I wrote that new negative ad
I was trained by Karl Rove. He gave me the nickname “the bullet”
Camera pulls back once again to reveal an even larger puppet that looks like Karl Rove which is pulling the Schmidt puppets’ strings. It says:
“I’m Karl Rove and I wrote the political game plan that Steve Schmidt is using this year – it’s the same plan I have used for every Democrat for the last 20 years. Gore, Kerry, Obama, the candidate changes but the plan is always the same. Just call them weaklings and cowards. Go negative, early and hard”
McCain said he was different – but let’s face it, he’s got the same old gang pulling his strings.
Is he McCain or McPuppet …Look at the people running his campaign, and then make up your own mind.

6 comments on “How to Attack John McCain–What Would Rove Do?

  1. cvh1789 on

    I like James Vega’s ideas. Maybe MoveOn would make the commercial.
    Go after the “Country First” slogan and turn it against him. Detournement, the Situationists called this practice.
    Is it Country First to let oilmen run the gov’t for their own private profit?
    It seems like a good strategy to emphasize that Obama’s relative youth (and familiarity with computers) makes him better suited to deal with the 21st century than McCain, who thinks that war is the answer to everything.
    There are some songs by progressive folk singers and rock stars that actually address contemporary politics. Neil Young has written several, the Stones did one about neocons. Attack neocons…!

  2. cvh1789 on

    What about attacking the recent history of the Republican Party? Photo of Nixon, stamped with “resigned in disgrace, 1974” (or whatever); photo of Agnew, VP, “resigned after charged with fraud”; a headline stating Reagan’s low approval ratings while he was president; Bush nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court & telling Brownie he did a Heckuvajob; McCain as a member of the Keating 5; Condi Rice talking about the August 2001 memo entitled “Bin Laden determined to strike within US”; Cheney, saying “So?” when he’s told the American people oppose his views. In fact, Lots of Bush and Cheney! Voiceover: “The Republican Party. How low can it go?”

  3. Stan_1036 on

    Rove tries to redefine the opponent’s strength. Here’s another way to redefine McCain’s strength as a POW.
    “The man is unstable. On impulse, he picked an unqualified vice-presidential candidate, and now he’s surprised to find her mired in personal scandal. His out-of-control temper is legendary in the Senate. He wanted to invade Iraq before 9/11. He wants to bomb Iran and fight Russia. We honor his sacrifice as a tortured prisoner of war, but a dangerous powder keg like John McCain has no place in the White House.

  4. LeoinNYC on

    Better lines — the candidate can say things as simple but demolishing as: “John McCain was a great warrior but that’s not what America needs right now — America needs judgement and vision and someone who undeerstands the struggles of the 21st century.” It’s a twofer — get him on “old” and also use the military thing to box him in to being a one-trick pony that American’s don’t want right now.

  5. LeoinNYC on

    I like your thinking about how to respond and there is a lot of good stuff in there but I must respectfully disagree with some key points. I don’t actually agree that this is how Rove would attack McCain were he trying to do that, nor do I think that these would be very effective general election ads.
    The ads you propose attack McCain’s reputation as a “man above politics” but McCain is already doing your job for you there — why waste resources pointing out what the media is going to point out for you? And more specifically, I don’t think that telling undecided general election voters — the most disaffected and jaded voters there are — that a politician will do anything to get elected is a winning strategy. Nor do I think it’s what Rove would do.
    The key to Rove’s strategy is to attack candidates directly at their strongest point. If he were attacking McCain he would find a way to turn his war record into a negative, as he did with Kerry. Democrats have traditionally steered clear of their opponents apparent strengths, which is what Obama seems to be doing now. Every goes out and praises McCain’s service and then talks about domestic policy. But remember that when Clinton ran a successful campaign to unseat H. W. Bush he subtly turned Bush’s popular win in the Gulf War into more evidence that Bush was more concerned with grand foreign strategy than with the problems of everyday Americans.
    This is what we need to do with McCain. He is running for the job of “Commander-in-Chief” and always refers to that, while playing up his military background with bellicose talk about what he would to to our “enemies.” But Amercans are weary of war and once again more concerned with their paychecks. The line should be:
    “America doesn’t need a General [or Admiral or whatever] it needs a President.”
    Surrogates should refer to McCain as “John Bomb-first-and-ask-questions-later McCain.” And the candidates should, at every opportunity, conflate McCain’s experience with his aggressive posture with language like, “We all admire John’s service but experience in war doesn’t give you the judgement to make peace.” (Actually that kind of sucks but I’m sure smarter people can come up with a better line that expresses the same sentiment.)
    And that’s Obama’s stance — Judgement. Judgement vs. experiece. Cheney, Rumsfeld: experience. Obama: judgement. McCain: Experience: Old: War-mongering. Obama: Judgement: Young: Focussed on Americans’ problems.

  6. montanadave on

    This strategy is exactly what we must do. Please let your readers know if anyone picks it up. I’d like to contribute money to that effort. Thank you!


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