Mudslinging will damage McCain’s brand—but it may be the only way he can win.
By John Heilemann
Illustration by André Carrilho
On the morning in March when Barack Obama was preparing to give his speech on race in Philadelphia to try to contain the fallout from the Jeremiah Wright imbroglio, I was having breakfast in Washington with a member of John McCain’s inner circle. The topic at hand was whether McCain was licking his chops at the prospect of facing Obama in the fall—whether he relished the idea of running negative against the hopemonger on questions of his patriotism and, er, otherness. My McCainiac source noted that his boss had “demonstrated admirable restraint and respect for Obama in the last few weeks,” citing McCain’s rebuke of the Tennessee GOP when it issued a press release that invoked Obama’s middle name and featured that photo of him in Somali tribal clothing, calling it “Muslim garb.” “McCain has drawn a bright line and said that’s unacceptable,” my companion said. “It’s a genuine reflex: He really wants the campaign to be civil.”
The following night I was drinking with a big-time Republican operative who’d worked during the primaries for a rival candidate. When I floated the notion of the Good McCain, this person snorted. “He didn’t have a problem calling Mitt Romney a phony in New Hampshire or comparing George W. Bush to Bill Clinton in South Carolina in 2000,” he said. “McCain is a tough guy. He’ll do whatever he needs to do.”
Until last week, it was an open question which of these visions of McCain bore a closer relation to reality. But with the weeklong string of attacks uncorked by the Arizona senator and his people during Obama’s trip abroad and in its aftermath—some brutal, some mocking, but all personal and focused on Obama’s character—we now have an inkling of just how deep in the mud McCain and his people are willing to wallow in order to win in November: right up to their Republican eyeballs.
As countless fact-checkers and tsk-tskers have maintained, the broadsides were a blend of distortion, innuendo, and outright slander. But that doesn’t mean they (and their inevitable successors) won’t prove effective, especially against an opponent with so little experience under ruthless and relentless fire. Before Obama hurled himself into the presidential scrum he’d never been hit with a negative ad—a point often raised by Hillary Clinton’s people. And though they made sure Obama lost his negative-spot virginity, the ads they ran against him were patty-cake compared with what he faces now. Hence the questions on which the general election may turn: Will Obama be capable of withstanding the pummeling the McCain forces have begun to unleash? Or, as Hillary privately predicted, will he crumple like a paper doll?
For those not keeping score, a quick review of the McCain campaign’s lunge for Obama’s jugular. First, its new slogan: “Country first,” with its inverse insinuation that Obama puts something else (i.e., his own ambition) ahead of the nation. Second, McCain’s accusation that Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” Third, the McCain ad “Troops,” which claims that Obama, while in Germany, “made time to go the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops—seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” And, finally, the ad “Celeb,” with its intercut images of Obama in Berlin, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears.
The strategy behind all this isn’t hard to discern: Drive up Obama’s negatives and render him unacceptable to pivotal voting blocs. Thus the depiction of him as too young, too feckless, and too pampered to be president. (In almost every shot in the McCain ads, Obama is smiling flashily, whereas McCain is pictured as weathered, sober, staring hard into the distance—a clever bit of jujitsu, using Obama’s pretty mug against him.) Thus the portrayal of him as precious, self-infatuated, and effete: “Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand ‘MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew—Black Forest Berry Honest Tea’ and worry about the price of arugula,” wrote campaign manager Rick Davis in an e-mail announcing “Celeb.” And thus the emphasis on Obama’s rock-star persona, designed to engender envy and contempt among the swath of Middle America for which hipness is no virtue but a sign of pretension.
The racial undertones of this assault are subtle but undeniable, as Obama himself suggested when he asserted last week that his opponents are trying to make voters “scared” of him because he “doesn’t look like the other presidents on the currency.” They’re most glaring in “Troops,” which features footage of Obama sinking a three-pointer in Kuwait, despite the fact that the shot took place at a military base, which undermines the ad’s argument. But the spot’s deeper aim is to foster an unconscious simile: Obama as a blinged-up, camera-hungry, NBA shooting guard, Allen Iverson with a Harvard Law degree. Am I reaching? Consider this: Would the ad have featured footage of Obama on a golf course draining a hole-in-one? “No, it wouldn’t,” laughs a GOP media savant. “The racial angle is the first thing I thought of when I saw that ad. It fits into the celebrity stuff, too.” (For McCain, that impolitic, pro-Obama Ludacris track was manna from hip-hop heaven.)