THE BLOG
08/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Didn't the Obama Campaign Foresee McCain's Troop Smear?

Right now, the blogosphere is abuzz about John McCain's new ad smearing Obama for not visiting wounded troops in Germany. The McCain claim that Obama canceled because he couldn't bring reporters with him is utterly false, but the failure of the left and the Obama campaign to immediately and aggressively shoot down the growing Pentagon-fed narrative that Obama deliberately "snubbed" wounded troops has proved to be highly damaging.

After news of the ad broke Saturday, the Obama campaign managed to issue a rebuttal to the claim about it wanting to bring along the media for the visit, but it still hasn't shot down the other smears that have emerged or forcefully challenged the Pentagon's politicized role in spreading lies and misleading statements designed to damage his campaign.

Spokesperson Linda Douglass said: "We told military officials explicitly that Senator Obama had absolutely no attention of bringing any members of the media or photographers in with him to visit the wounded warriors. In all of our communications with the military, we stressed that this was to be a private visit by Senator Obama."

What's remarkable, of course, is that Obama was supposedly immunizing himself against national security smear ads by reversing himself on FISA, but no one in his campaign staff had the foresight to to ask, "How's this headline going to look:`OBAMA CANCELS TRIP TO WOUNDED SOLDIERS'?" when deciding how to handle the visit to the military hospital.

The AP reported earlier on Saturday:

Republican John McCain's campaign on Saturday sharply criticized Democratic rival Barack Obama for canceling a visit to wounded troops in Germany, contending Obama chose foreign leaders and cheering Europeans over "injured American heroes."

Obama's campaign called the accusation "wildly inappropriate." His spokesman has claimed that the visit to a military hospital in Germany was scrapped after the Pentagon raised concerns about political activity on a military base. Earlier, though, the campaign had said Obama decided the visit might be seen as inappropriate politicking. However, the Pentagon said the senator was never told not to visit.

A new McCain ad that began airing Saturday in selected markets also chides Obama as disrespectful for making "time to go to the gym" during his European visit while at the same time canceling the visit with wounded troops

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Right now, in the "balanced" mainstream press, it's being portrayed as just differing points of view -- one from the straight-shooting, patriotic Pentagon officials vs. that anti-war political opportunist, Barack Obama.

But amid all the blogosphere's handwringing and complaints about McCain's low blow -- sadly reminiscent of the weak response to John Kerry's Swift Boating -- there is still no effective counter-punching from the Obama campaign targeting McCain or going after him in TV ads. And as the lies about this incident spread, there still hasn't been a clear, compelling story offered to to the press about the Pentagon's double-dealing and partisan sabogating by GOP-appointed flacks. And there's been little said of McCain's serial flip-flopping or other character and political weaknesses (from sexist hostility to women's rights to his callous ignorance on the economy) by allied progressive groups with the money to buy TV ads, even if Obama's campaign wants to take the high road.

The main line of attack could be that McCain is an unprincipled opportunist who also doesn't really care about -- or know how to respond to -- the economic problems Americans are facing. You can hear more by listening to our interview on the D'Antoni and Levine show with Cliff Schecter, the author of The Real McCain, recently Amazon's #1 political book, about the flip-flopping that marks McCain's approach to politics, along with disturbing examples of McCain's hot-tempered personality. On top of all that, as readers have noted in the comments section, he's got a far worse record than Obama does for looking out for veterans' interests, as these rankings show:

*(IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS FOR AMERICA)
- John McCain "D"
- Barack Obama "B+"

* VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA
- John McCain voted "AGAINST" this group 15 times
- Barack Obama voted "AGAINST" this group ONLY "1" time

* DAV (Disabled American Veterans)
- John McCain has a 20% rating
- Barack Obama has an 80% rating

All these weaknessess -- flip-flopping, ignorance about the economy, failing to support the troops with the services and programs they deserve -- can be used in a counter-attack against McCain.

Apparently, though, Obama's campaign has asked independent 527-style groups to refrain from negative campaign ads targeting McCain, but there shouldn't be unilateral surrender in the air wars that lie ahead.

Pentagon officials, especially a GOP flack named Bryan Whitman, are behind the ongoing anti-Obama spin that his campaign declined the visit because he couldn't bring his campaign staff or reporters with him. Here's how he works, as noted by Americablog. Last February, Whitman sought to discredit Barack Obama's true story about an American captain who told him about his under-manned platoon in Afghanistan that didn't have enough ammunition or Humvees -- and ended up relying on weapons they captured from the Taliban. Americablog then notes:

Fast forward to July of 2008: Which Pentagon political hack is right smack in the middle of the latest manufactured controversy about Obama's visit to the troops in Germany -- a political controversy being pushed by "The Pentagon"? That's right. Bryan Whitman. Yes, apparently when the press talks about "The Pentagon" they mean Bryan Whitman -- and Whitman was quite happy to stir the pot on this one:

The Pentagon said on Friday that it did not prevent an Obama visit.

"Nobody denied Senator Obama the opportunity to visit our wounded being cared for at Landstuhl. Obviously, as a sitting senator, he has an interest in that and can certainly visit in an official capacity," said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon, who added that there are "restrictions on what you can do as a candidate for political office, that stems from trying to maintain political neutrality and not have the military involved in politics."

"The senator's staff was informed of the limits on what the military can do with respect to a political campaign and how we could support a senator's visit to Landstuhl and, quite frankly, I expected them to have the visit," Whitman said.

Quite frankly, no one should believe anything Bryan Whitman says on behalf of "The Pentagon." He's a GOP political operative who has done a lot of Bush, Cheney and Rummy's dirty work from his press perch at the Pentagon for years. The guy has no compunction about engaging in politics. And, he's the one pushing this latest fake controversy. In February, Obama was right. Whitman was wrong. Same now.

The issue was muddied further while the Obama campaign waited at least a day to clarify that the scheduled visit was blocked by the Pentagon, and was still offering as late as Saturday a weak response that the candidate had, as Obama said, "a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political," and, initially, that it would be "inappropriate" to spend campaign funds to make that hospital visit.

Such responses are politically lame and tin-eared. The immediate response should have been a tough-minded assertion that they were blocked by the Pentagon, seemingly for partisan political reasons. The Obama camp, after making clear that Obama wanted to visit , should have forcefully said the Senator's planned meeting with wounded troops was blocked because of a last-minute invoking of rules by the Pentagon designed to thwart his visit, apparently for political reasons.

If the Pentagon continued to stand by its misleading claims designed to smear Obama, the issue could be framed by his surrogates this way: "Who're you going to believe: the Pentagon that lied about Iraq's WMD and the derring-do of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch -- or a candidate for President, Barack Obama, who was right about Iraq all along?"

Now a new right-wing and Pentagon spin is emerging: an ego-crazed McCain military advisor, infuriated that he couldn't accompany the Senator because he was a campaign staffer, torpedoed the visit, but the source for this story, is, once again, "Pentagon officials," i.e.
no doubt, Bryan Whitman. NBC's First Read presents this latest improbable tale, again sourced primarily to the Pentagon:

In his official capacity as a sitting US senator, Obama has every right to stay in touch with America's men and women in uniform. According to Pentagon officials [emphasis added], the problem was that Obama's request to visit Landstuhl included two members of his campaign staff -- retired Major General Jonathan S. Gration and Jeff Kiernan. US military officials in Germany informed the campaign the two political operatives would not be permitted on base.

Pentagon officials say Gration was the campaign's point of contact at Landstuhl in arranging Obama's visit and "got torqued" when he was told he would not be permitted to join Obama. It was Gration who later suggested to reporters that the Pentagon short-circuited Obama's visit.

Of course, it the story is true, that an unpaid military advisor's personal pique led Obama's top advisors to recommend scrapping the visit to see wounded soldiers, then Obama has indeed been ill-served by his staff.

But more likely, NBC,in the rush for an online scoop, felt free to tell only one side of the story, and either failed to get the Obama camp's version of events or the Obama campaign failed to communicate its version of a fast-growing PR disaster, perhaps hoping it would go away. And we've yet to see a detailed, accurate independent news account of what actually happened.

But Obama, with relatively little objection from the mainstream media, has already been portrayed by the McCain campaign as a genocide-favoring traitor seeking to gain office by losing a war -- while willing to ignore wounded troops although finding time to work out in a gym. And what's Obama done except to express "disappointment" at McCain's comments in an interview with Brian Williams?

That won't be good enough either for Obama or his progressive allies in a hard-fought, close campaign.

UPDATE: To address some reader comments, it was a big mistake by his staff, however it happened, not to go to the hospital, and his staff should have foreseen the devastating PR consequences of failing to do so, especially because it feeds into the "weak on national security" and "failing our troops" narrative the GOP is trying to pin to Obama.

My guess is that they didn't want to get into a dispute with the Pentagon over the ground rules for a visit, so his staff decided to scrap it to avoid a political controversy over visiting the wounded troops while worrying about being accused by the GOP of using the soldiers as props in a political campaign. Apparently, they didn't realize that failing to make the visit would prove far more damaging than any disputes over rules. But once he failed to make the visit, and was headed to other European capitals, he needed to do at least do some effective damage control and not allow himself to be portayed by the Pentagon and its right-wing allies as a showboat who doesn't care about the troops.

Unfortunately, Joe Scarborough and other conservative commentators are continuing to push,unchallenged today even by liberal analysts and reporters on their shows, the scurrilous myth in the McCain ad that Obama didn't go because he couldn't bring along the media.