John McCain's Blunder

02/20/2008 11:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain has made a terrible mistake.

Recognizing the likelihood that Barack Obama is going to be his opponent in the general election, John McCain has begun directing his attacks toward the Senator from Illinois. Our first taste was with McCain's victory speech in Virginia, where he criticized the "platitudes" that form the basis of the Obama candidacy. Days later, McCain began a line of attack that has continued into multiple news cycles, accusing Obama of reneging on a pledge he'd made to accept public financing in the general election.

On its own, it is generally a good line of attack against Obama. For all of his misguided policy positions, McCain is generally regarded by the media as trustworthy, and could benefit from shaping a debate to suggest that Obama is not. The problem of course is that John McCain does not have the kind of campaign finance record that he would want to share. The loan he took out to save his campaign was to be paid back by taxpayer dollars, not his own, through the federal matching funds program. A taxpayer funded bailout is certainly not the kind of scenario that proponents of public finance envisioned.

What's worse for McCain is that this may have been his best hand in a race against Obama, and he played it far too early. First, his strategists should have recognized that the best way to defeat Obama was to help Hillary defeat him first. John McCain fairs far worse against Obama than he does against Hillary in general election match-ups. Simply put, the best way to beat Obama is to avoid running against him.

Instead, McCain has opted to elevate Obama to the national stage, beginning the general election battle a few months early, marginalizing Hillary with every attack. To confound her problems, incredibly, she has taken to joining in on the attack against Obama on public finance, actually articulating publicly, a general election scenario which wouldn't include her.

McCain's first strategic move should have been to target Hillary, weakening her as a general election match-up while elevating her in the Democratic primary. Instead, it appears that McCain doesn't believe a Clinton nomination possible, and so wants to focus his energy where it will be needed most. Even so, the move was a terrible blunder... for other reasons.

Trust is an especially difficult angle from which to attack Obama. The trust he has built among his supporters is a substantial part of what drives his campaign. For McCain, there will be very few places to grasp for a deceitful Obama moment. But if he can succeed in shaking those foundations, it could prove worthwhile.

Public financing may well have been McCain's best opportunity. But rather than wait until the general election was in full swing, rather than wait until the media would give it above-the-fold attention, John McCain began his attacks before the race had begun. The story line is a negative one for Obama, and yet it's being dissipated, if not completely diluted, in the wave of momentum that Obama is currently riding. At a time when no one, not even serious political observers, have moved on to the McCain/Obama race, McCain dropped his best gambit in the trash. He gave a Page 1 story a Page 4 death.

The negative press will be blunted. Soon, Obama may give a definitive answer on public financing, ending the story and whatever value it may have had. When the timing is finally right for John McCain to bring it up, it will be a rehash, stale and not worthy of recycling.

The Obama campaign should take advantage of this moment by kicking the story out of the news cycle quickly. Obama should give a definitive answer against publicly financing the campaign. Like most of the best responses from the Obama campaign, the truth will be the appropriate spin.

After all, when Obama preserved the option to publicly finance his campaign, no one could have conceived that his campaign would already be financed by the public. The Obama fundraising operation has broken every record by staggering amounts, almost entirely from small donors. With over 900,000 donors, no special interest money, and less than three percent of the donor base maxed out, Obama could not have asked for a campaign to be more "of the people." The spirit of the pledge is being upheld. And more importantly, Obama owes something to the movement he has helped to create. Having told so many that their role in the campaign was essential, he has to let them participate.