POLITICS

John McCain: Mr. Nice Guy Or Back Alley Mugger?

08/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Facing gale-force anti-Republican headwinds, John McCain must cut Barack Obama down to size in order to be competitive. But McCain's track record using negative ads has been and may still be problematic - if not disastrous.

On Wednesday, McCain escalated his assault with a new ad, "Celeb," showing Obama with photos of Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears and a voice-over intoning "he's the biggest celebrity in the world. . . but is he ready to lead?"

The Obama campaign "is focused on an enormous image of celebrity status," said McCain's manager Rick Davis in a conference call to reporters explaining the purpose of the ad. In contrast, Davis contended, McCain's heads "a political movement based on ideas and solutions for the American public.... We see him [McCain] more as a global leader than as a global celebrity."

The new ad follows McCain's July 22 charge that "Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign," and a recent commercial, "Troops," alleging that during Obama's overseas trip "he made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops," closing with, "John McCain is always there for our troops. McCain. Country first."

For McCain, negative ads have by and large been poorly conceived and minimally effective.

In 2000, his decision to go negative against George W. Bush was a crucial factor in McCain's eventual defeat.

On February 1 that year, McCain emerged as the 19-point victor in the New Hampshire primary, well-positioned to put a dagger through George W. Bush's heart in the South Carolina primary - the contest Bush was banking on to stem his hemorrhage. Within days of losing New Hampshire to McCain, Bush nosedived from being a 20-point favorite in South Carolina to a 4-point underdog.

In one of their more artful tactical displays, Bush campaign allies accused McCain of fathering an illegitimate black child (McCain had adopted a Bangladeshi orphan) and of abandoning the cause of Vietnam vets missing in action.

McCain, who is known for his temper, took the Bush bait, becoming visibly enraged as he roamed the state and produced a television commercial in which he personally accused Bush of twisting "the truth like Clinton. We're all pretty tired of that....Do we really want another politician in the White House America can't trust?"

For one Republican to accuse another of being like Bill Clinton was, at that moment, beyond the pale.

"Suggesting that Governor Bush is as dishonest as Bill Clinton is a disservice to our party and our principles," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer declared with all due righteousness. "Our nation has been through enough and John McCain's ad has gone too far."

By the standards of the GOP in South Carolina, John McCain had crossed over into the nether world. In a matter of a week, the Arizona Senator's bid collapsed. On February 19, 2000, McCain not only lost the South Carolina primary by 11 points, 53-42, but kissed goodbye to any chance of winning the Republican nomination that year.

In reaction to this history, there are a number of political strategists and observers convinced that McCain runs the danger of doing more violence to himself than to his adversaries when he goes negative, and that he is particularly vulnerable when his negative ads contradict his stance as a man of integrity who lives by a code of honor.

John G. Geer is a Vanderbilt political scientist who believes negative ads can be very informative and are often criticized too harshly, but that they can fail to deliver if not based on charges that have the ring of truth and that stick: "McCain has always been willing to attack, as he did in 2000 or 2008 against Romney in Florida. . . . but [now] the attacks may backfire because they are not credible. The 'troop' ad is technically true, but it is not a very effective ad. McCain is acting like any candidate who is behind: looking for some issue that gets you traction. He just does not have much to go on. McCain needs Obama to make a big mistake."

Alex Castellanos, one of George W. Bush's media mavens in 2000 and 2004, had a different take: "The problem is that 'advertising', i.e., anything that smells even faintly false, contradicts his persona," Castellanos said. "John McCain is the un-cola of politics, the anti-politician. And few things are more political than negative commercials that draw attention to themselves as 'advertising' designed to manipulate voters and not as 'information' designed to inform them. You can't be the un-cola and Coca Cola too."

Democratic media specialist Bill Carrick's analysis is very similar to Castellanos'. Carrick, who cut his political teeth in South Carolina, said:

"When your political persona and appeal are wrapped around the idea that you are not a typical politician, but an independent, above politics candidate, going negative can back-fire big time. John McCain's core message is he is a bipartisan leader who will bring the country together. As he becomes a more polarizing and partisan figure, the campaign is undermining his core message and persona."

Drew Westen of Emory University points to the way in which McCain's anti Obama ads could reflect back on McCain's integrity and character. Westen writes:

"See the ending to the latest McCain attack ads? 'John McCain: Country First.' I wonder who or what interests the other candidate could be putting first? Just like the ending to his first general election ad: 'John McCain: The American President Americans have been Waiting for.' Hmmm. What other kind of president could we have? Un-American? Anti-American? African-American?"

John Weaver, McCain's former top campaign strategist, was harshly critical in remarks he made to Marc Ambinder:

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. For McCain's sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop.

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