[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]
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.