"Teeth of terror sinking in
The bite of the she-wolf"
--Megadeth (chorus from the lyrics of Shewolf)
At a time of extreme economic crisis at home and two wars abroad, John McCain is gambling that an attack mounted by Sarah Palin on Barack Obama's tangential ties to 1970s radical bomber Bill Ayers will reverse the Arizona Senator's steadily diminishing prospect of victory on November 4.
This strategy carries high risks.
First and foremost, a number of experts in the field doubt that when the economy has been on the brink of collapse, when the situation in Afghanistan is worsening, and the debate over the US war in Iraq has intensified, negative campaigning is an effective political tool. Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer, who has studied attack ads and found that they can be politically useful under certain circumstances, says that in the case of Palin's offensive, "unless [the McCain campaign] hits on some new, credible theme, voters are likely to view these attacks as desperate."
Geer said he expects "the campaign will get very nasty. McCain is a fighter and if anyone thinks Obama will not continue to respond, they forget he cut his political teeth in Chicago." Geer warned that "the public wants to know what these candidates will do once in office. So too much negativity will not be useful to either candidate."
Robert Y. Shapiro, a Columbia political scientist, argues that "negative ads have a better chance of working in low-information contexts, but the current campaign is beyond that, with the possible exception of genuinely undecided voters in key states who are becoming engaged late in the election." Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, he said, "are old news and will seem trivial compared to what looks like a genuinely enormous economic crisis and two wars in progress -- with no end in sight."
Furthermore, if the current campaign devolves into a dispute over the candidates' ties, past and present, McCain has a host of liabilities. These include not only his involvement with Charles Keating, the godfather of the savings and loan scandal, but the dominant role of over a dozen top Washington lobbyists and influence peddlers have in running the McCain campaign, raising money, and performing other key duties - men and women whose very presence conflicts with the claim that they are mavericks who can change the insider culture of Washington.
Public opinion and polling expert Nate Silver writes on his 538 website:
It may be quite difficult for McCain to attack Obama in this fashion without significantly damaging his own brand. The chart below presents a smoothed curve of each candidate's net favorability ratings since the first of the year:
What's interesting is that, with the exception of the past couple of weeks, McCain's and Obama's ratings have been fairly strongly correlated, tending to rise and fall together. This is not to say that negative campaigning doesn't work -- it sometimes does -- but it works at diminished efficiency, because you may be giving back 50 cents on the dollar by harming your own approval scores.
If the McCain campaign brings up William Ayers -- or Jeremiah Wright -- it will almost certainly be seen as attack politics. This might seem to be stating the obvious. But remember that this wasn't the case during the primaries. The Wright and Ayers stories were instead driven by actual news -- ABC's reporting of Wright's inflammatory sermons, for instance -- and were largely not pushed by the Clinton campaign. So unless McCain's oppo research team is sitting on some fresh news about Obama's ties to Ayers or Wright, the stories are liable to be reported as a typical partisan attack, which will impeach their credibility in the public's eyes and reduce their staying power.
Regardless of these strategic issues, Palin has found her voice — a purring growl as her jaw snaps shut.
The Alaska governor told voters in Englewood, Colorado, on Saturday morning that she had been "reading my copy of today's New York Times and I was really interested to read about Barack's friends from Chicago. Turns out, one of his earliest supporters is a man who, according to The New York Times, was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, 'launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol'."
Palin smiled as she stuck in the knife in and continued as she twisted the blade: "These are the same guys who think patriotism is paying higher taxes. This is not a man who sees America as you and I do - as the greatest force for good in the world. This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country. This, ladies and gentlemen, has nothing to do with the kind of change anyone can believe in - not my kids and not your kids."
Palin has taken the lead in McCain's strategy of focusing on Obama's tangential connection to former 1970s Weatherman William Ayers (Obama was 8 years old when Ayers set bombs) and on Obama's relationship with Tony Rezko, a Chicago fundraiser and developer convicted of fraud and bribery earlier this year.
McCain's "advisers signaled they will spend the final weeks of the campaign on offense, bringing up Obama's personal relationships" — the kind that have provided fodder to conservative talk radio and caused trouble for Obama during the Democratic primaries, Fox News reported, quoting McCain adviser Nancy Pfotenhauer: "Before people pull that lever in November, they have a right to know, and we have a duty to tell them, who Barack Obama is — and to shine a light on some of those fairly liberal and sometimes downright troubling relationships that he's had."
For Palin herself the current strategy could possibly be a win-win option. If her attacks are successful in pulling McCain out of his nosedive, she would get the credit. If they do not work — the more likely scenario — she could come out even further ahead because she will be seen as loyal to the conservative movement and could have a shot at securing their support for a GOP presidential nomination in the future.
National Review's Campaign Spot has already begun promoting a Palin for President bid in 2012: "She's a natural saleswoman. She certainly saved her prospects for national office in 2012, if she so chooses." And Mark Steyn declares, "All I know is that the McCain campaign should have her out on the road and doing every interview she can over this final month."
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Katie Couric, in her CBS interviews, missed "a lot of things...in terms of an opportunity to ask what a VP candidate stands for, what the values are represented in our ticket," Palin recently told Carl Cameron of Fox News. And just what was it about the values represented by the McCain-Palin ticket that Palin wanted to talk about?
I wanted to talk about Barack Obama increasing taxes, which will lead to killing jobs. I wanted to talk about his proposal to increase government spending by another trillion dollars, some of his comments that he's made about the war that, I think, made -- in my world disqualifies someone for consideration as the next commander in chief, some of the comments that he's made about Afghanistan, what we're doing there, supposedly just air raiding villages and killing civilians.
Officials of both the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee are reinforcing Palin's comments with a barrage of press releases and commentary designed to keep the themes she is raising alive in the public mind.
In an email to reporters headlined "Obama-Ayers Ties Take Center Stage," the RNC's Alex Conant declares, "With a month to go, America begins to learn about Obama's close ties to an unrepentant terrorist despite Obama's efforts to lie about the relationship." Conant provides links to stories about Bill Ayers in the mainstream press, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and five networks.
Obama, speaking in Ashville, North Carolina on Sunday, countered:
Senator McCain's campaign has announced that they plan to 'turn the page' on the discussion about our economy and spend the final weeks of this campaign launching Swiftboat-style attacks on me. Think about that for a second. Turn the page on the economy? We're facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and John McCain wants us to 'turn the page?'....Senator McCain and his operatives are gambling that he can distract you with smears rather than talk to you about substance. They'd rather try to tear our campaign down than lift this country up. It's what you do when you're out of touch, out of ideas, and running out of time.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds then issued another release that declaring:
The last four weeks of this election will be about whether the American people are willing to turn our economy and national security over to Barack Obama, a man with little record, questionable judgment, and ties to radical figures like unrepentant domestic terrorist William Ayers. Americans need to ask themselves if they've ever befriended an unrepentant terrorist, or had a convicted felon help them buy their house -- because those aren't smears, those are true facts about Barack Obama.