So McCain Can't Send An Email -- Reagan Rode A Horse

10/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The new Obama spot that mocks McCain for being so out-of-touch that he can't send an email is another miscalculation. McCain's narrative has nothing to do with being a cool, with-it, tech-savvy counter-Luddite who spends his free time on Slashdot. In fact, the Republicans know enough NOT to attempt to reinvent their candidate as a born-again technophile who fires off midnight BlackBerry messages to Steve Schmidt. That would be fake and wrong, like watching your parents try to pull off a karaoke version of Jay-Z.

If swing voters are drawn to McCain it's precisely because of his authenticity, his leadership aura, the invitation to trust that spring out of his personal story. So why draw a comparison between Obama and McCain on lines that have already been established, that only re-convince the already-convinced, and that make the campaign appear petty, jejune, and even disrespectful? And remember, it is only people on the coasts who believe that technological sophistication is inexorably bound up with self-regard.

The commercial is smug, and that's dangerous, because it ignites all the smugness (and arrogance) cues that Hillary created and McCain is reinforcing. The archetype of the young guy mocking the old guy for being behind the times is a sitcom default that will backfire because it reinforces so many of the values that people are finding increasingly attractive in McCain. That includes his steadfast adherence to the sound of his own drumbeat, and his reluctance to jump on the bandwagon (like his support of the surge) -- all components of the appealing maverick image.

McCain's handlers are studiously consolidating his mythology, and in doing so are looking very much to Reagan and the strength that derived from his cowboy persona. It wouldn't have helped to taunt Reagan because he knew more about riding horses than the workings of the internal combustion engine, and it won't help to skewer McCain because he can't download Adobe Acrobat.

People want a president who naturally inhabits a set of attributes and personality characteristics that have come to be associated with the office. Being able to send an email isn't a presidential prerequisite. What's important is that a president recognize the importance of technology, and that he surrounds himself with those who are personally familiar with the QWERTY keyboard. In fact, the image of Obama hunched over his keyboard could end up being that much baggage, just as President Carter was mocked for worrying about who was playing on the White House tennis courts.

Even more worrying, Obama crammed the email bit into the same commercial where he goes after McCain for admitting he doesn't really understand the economy. By linking these thoughts, the Obama campaign is squandering their opportunity to drive home the desperate situation of the American economy. What should have been a focused comparative spot on the seminal campaign issue ended up being an unfocused attack on McCain's out-of-touchness.

Obama needs to say that the economic crisis was created and fanned by Republican incompetence, and that a pro-corporate Republican who admits his ignorance of economic matters is only going to perpetuate further.

And he needs to say it and say it and say it again. Bill Clinton (younger then than Obama is today) defeated the last president of the World War II generation -- Bush 41 -- because he made a better argument about an economy that wasn't nearly as bad as this one. It was an implicit, not an explicit, generational comment, and guess what, it worked.