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Bill Katovsky Headshot

Is McCain Being Brainwashed by his Advisors?

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For the second time in his life, John McCain finds himself in the unfortunate position as a POW. God knows what hell he went through during five years in captivity in North Vietnam. God knows what he's enduring as a prisoner of his own presidential campaign. In a most remarkable turnaround, the maverick McCain, who used to love flaunting his independence, now seems a brainwashed victim being held hostage by his senior advisors.

Last spring after miraculously emerging as the Last Viable Man Standing in the Republican primaries, McCain vowed that he would promote civility and positive campaigning in the general election. Unlike the two previous presidential elections where the villainous Voldemortian hand of Rove seemed ubiquitous as well as lethally effective, McCain emphasized that he would strive to elevate the national political dialogue --for example, through town hall question-and-answer sessions. So far, so good for those who believe in democracy. Apparently, the campaign gutter, too often filled with snakes and mud, was declared off-limits.

For a while, McCain stayed true to his word. But he lagged in the polls, there were numerous campaign staff shakeups and embarrassments, and he came across as indecisive, erratic, and gaffe-prone on the stump. As a presidential candidate who had mistakenly placed a border between Iraq and Pakistan, McCain was all over the political map. Moreover, he had yet to energize the Republican base which is key to fundraising and getting out the vote in battleground states.

To party bigwigs, it looked like he was in danger of becoming the GOP's McGovern. The chilling prospect of an Obama landslide loomed in November, and this sent conservative heads scratching and phones ringing on K Street and elsewhere.

Former top staffers from Bush's 2004 reelection bid were brought on board to fix the McCain mess. The new team was led by senior advisor Steve Schmidt, who brought much-needed discipline and structure to the organization. The tone of the campaign also changed overnight. Senator, you want to win, these electoral mercenaries argued, then you need to go on the attack. No more Mr. Happy Warrior. You must go out and publicly define Obama as unpatriotic, elitist, and too inexperienced to be president. Forget about maintaining general civility. Take no prisoners, Senator, because we're at war with the Democrats.

Perhaps it was the mounting daily pressure of the campaign, or maybe he was experiencing PTSD-like flashbacks of being subjected to fierce interrogation as a POW in Hanoi, but McCain quickly caved into the demands of his advisors. How could he not? Going all Stockholm Syndrome made perfect sense. His dwindling campaign coffers desperately needed replenishing. He was tired of being a punch line on the late-night yuckfests. And so, after re-inventing himself once again at a critical juncture in his long political career, McCain, who is an avid boxing fan, instinctually understood that the gloves needed to come off. One of the first blows he delivered was repeatedly telling reporters that Obama would rather lose the war in Iraq than lose an election.

As past flip-flops on issues were conveniently sidestepped or deflected in McCampaign 2.0, McCain and his handlers carpet-bombed Obama with a flurry of personal attacks and outlandish ads that ricocheted throughout the media landscape like shrapnel. There was collateral damage from this offensive onslaught, like the stinging rebuke from the New York Times, but the rewards clearly outweighed the risks.

By bringing aboard these cutthroat veterans from the Bush '04 electoral team, McCain injected new life into his campaign, but it's also produced a toxic cloud of disgust among many observers
-- and the potential for backlash among independent voters. Yet all the negativity is working. National polls indicate that there's now barely any breathing space between both candidates; Obama's lead has vanished.

With a sputtering economy, unpopular war in Iraq, and a very unpopular president, you'd expect Obama to be way ahead in the race. What's prevented this from happening could be attributed to any number of factors - bitter Hillary supporters, the race issue, Obama's own skein of broken campaign promises and semantic dodges (his latest capitulation is drilling off Florida's coast). But the serially sowing of doubt by McCain and his surrogates that Obama is the wrong man for the White House job is paying off in terms of results.

Because McCain lacks bumper-sticker slogans such as Bush's "compassionate conservative" or "I'm an uniter not a divider," the Arizona senator is banking on his long-term familiarity with the public as a known entity who toes the conservative line on the GOP's bread-butter-and-belief issues. He's telling voters, I'm trustworthy; my opponent is not. I'm in touch with America; Obama is not. As a sales pitch, McCain's message might be wooing undecided voters to his side, but it's certainly a poor way to evaluate a candidate whose uneven political track record and erratic behavior over the years requires proper press scrutiny (as Bob Herbert of the Times pointed out last week).

But the shock-and-awe attack ads keep on coming The most recent ad debuted on the web, and it mockingly questions the celestial aura and media-amplified self-importance of Obama who wowed the world with his overseas trip and crowd-stirring speeches. "Barack Obama may be 'The One' but is he ready to lead?" asks the narrator. While the ad is heavy with religious imagery, it paradoxically deifies and demonizes Obama; it's a double-edged blade. Or like a line from a William Blake poem. Still, the message of the new ad is clear: Political Armageddon 2008 has arrived. We have the Manchurian Candidate versus the Messiah. So which candidate can better lead American voters to the Promised Land of Broken Political Promises?