July 31, 2008, Washington, DC – By launching a series of TV ads that ridicule Senator Barack Obama and question his readiness to be president, Senator John McCain has made a strategic decision to go directly negative much earlier than usual in the presidential race.
The McCain campaign hopes that the ads will define Obama before the presumptive Democratic nominee can fully introduce himself to voters – a classic campaign tactic. But the taunting commercials also risk backlash if they are seen at odds with McCain’s repeated pledges to run a civil campaign on the issues.
Independent analysts have said that several assertions in the ads are based on questionable claims or outright falsehoods. In the TV spots, McCain suggests that Obama is responsible for rising gas prices and that Obama canceled a trip to visit wounded troops because he couldn’t bring the media along – assertions strongly disputed by the Obama campaign.
Yesterday, McCain pushed his strategy to a new level, trying to use Obama’s popularity against him. The Arizona Republican unveiled an ad that mocks Obama’s appeal by saying he is “the biggest celebrity in the world,” showing him speaking to 200,000 people in Berlin last week, and comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
Obama told voters yesterday in Springfield, Mo., that McCain was trying to scare them into thinking that “he’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name . . . he’s risky.”
Asked later about McCain’s ads, Obama said, “I do notice that he doesn’t seem to have anything very positive to say about himself, does he? He seems to only be talking about me.”
Nonetheless, the ads have drawn Obama’s attention.
At the Springfield town hall meeting yesterday, Obama disputed McCain’s assertions that he would raise taxes, joking that he was a distant cousin of local legend Wild Bill Hickok and declaring, “I’m ready to duel John McCain on taxes right here, quick draw.”
The McCain campaign saw that as yet another opening, saying Obama would rather “run for the hills” than accept McCain’s challenge to debate him in town hall meetings.
Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to McCain, explained yesterday’s ad by saying that it pointedly asks: “Do the American people want to elect the world’s biggest celebrity, or do they want to elect an American hero, somebody who is a leader, somebody who has the right ideas to deal in a serious way with the problems we face?”
But John Weaver, a former McCain adviser who resigned from the campaign last year, said yesterday that the ad was “childish,” that such attacks diminish McCain, and that his campaign is a “mockery.”
“For McCain to win in such troubled times, he needs to begin telling the American people how he intends to lead us. That McCain exists. He can inspire the country to greatness,” Weaver told the Atlantic magazine, in a comment quickly noted by the Obama campaign.
During and after a week in which Obama garnered massive publicity for his overseas tour, McCain initially attacked Obama for not supporting the surge of additional US troops in Iraq. But that tactic looked backward and was blunted by Iraqi officials indicating that they were in general agreement with Obama’s proposal to withdraw US troops in 16 months. McCain said he could abide by such a timeline if “conditions on the ground” were acceptable.
McCain’s new strategy has become evident with the attack ads. Besides the ones on gas prices and wounded soldiers, another accuses Obama of voting “against funding the troops.” The ad launched yesterday, besides mocking Obama’s celebrity, concludes with the assertion that Obama wants to import more foreign oil and raise energy taxes.
The Obama campaign has walked a fine line in trying to decide whether to respond directly to the attacks or ignore them.
With one limited exception, Obama had not used an ad to respond to the attacks. Instead, he has preferred to issue statements and memos, to rely on the media to debunk McCain’s assertions, and to generally bemoan McCain’s negative tack as “old politics.”
Last evening, Obama responded in a TV ad of his own. “He’s practicing the politics of the past,” the announcer says in the spot, before citing media accounts that label some of McCain’s attacks as false.
“John McCain, the same old politics, the same failed policies,” the announcer says.
Obama is well aware of the lesson of the 2004 campaign, when Senator John F. Kerry did not initially respond fully and forcefully to attacks against him by Navy veterans who questioned Kerry’s actions during the Vietnam War. Kerry has said his failure to deal with the charges immediately was a mistake.
Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said yesterday that the campaign “is unwilling to let false attacks go unanswered,” but is trying to focus on Obama’s proposals.
“That is the careful balance,” he said in a telephone interview. “You need to respond to the McCain campaign’s false negative attacks but also make sure you are talking about the issues central to Senator Obama’s candidacy.”
The Wisconsin Advertising Project, which monitors campaign ad spending nationwide, reported yesterday that of the $48 million worth of ads the two campaigns have aired since Obama clinched the nomination in early June, 90 percent of Obama’s ads have been positive and mostly about himself, while about one-third of McCain’s commercials referred to Obama negatively.
A CNN poll released yesterday said 22 percent of registered voters believed that Obama was attacking McCain unfairly, while 40 percent said they believed McCain was attacking Obama unfairly.