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Howard Schweber Headshot

Message to Obama: SAY SOMETHING

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It is difficult to imagine a campaign reacting to events any worse than the Obama campaign in the past week. Today the announcement was that there will be a new, more aggressive tone, exemplified by some new ads. I have only seen one of the ads, but it is enough. The new "e-mail" ad is the worst thing of its kind that I have ever seen, the absolute nadir in political advertising. It is guaranteed to offend anyone over the age of 50 - among whom there are rather a lot registered voters. It is likely to irritate if not insult blue-collar workers worried about their economic futures. It is smug, condescending, and just the teensiest bit elitist. It is also silly, trivial, and distracts from any consideration of policy issues.

The Obama camp claims to be unconcerned with recent shifts in the polls, including a 20-point shift away from Obama among white female voters. They say, for example, that recent national polls are only a blip, that it's what goes on in the 18 battleground states that matters. Well, I've been watching the polls in those states, and they aren't pretty. At this point, the GOP is even seeing substantial gains in generic match-ups at the congressional level. (Note: just today there is some indication that the Palin boost may have maxed out, at least for the moment, but it is way too soon to tell.)

Now, I realize that the Obama campaign is getting an earful of suggestions from a variety of quarters. Here's one more: SAY SOMETHING. Give undecided voters something substantive to chew on. Tell us all the substance of how you will be president - and something of the substantive case against John McCain.

I never much liked "four more years of Bush" as a theme, but at least it was a theme. Lately I cannot figure out what the hell the Obama campaign thinks it is running on. You want to go after McCain? SAY SOMETHING. How about this: McCain has a nearly incredible record of reversing himself over the past few years:
- characterizing Falwell and Robertson as "agents of intolerance," then embracing them (and other equally offensive characters);
- opposing then supporting tax cuts;
- insisting during the Republican debates that mayors and governors are not ready to be president
and about two dozen other things.

If you want to see how it's done, check out two videos produced by BraveNewFilms - you can find them on Youtube under "John McCain vs. John McCain" and "The Real McCain 2." They play video clips of McCain changing his tune on a whole series of issues, denying his own statements, and either outright lying or demonstrating worrisome lapses of memory. There is a rich store of video documenting McCain's "I was for it before I was against it" moments and places where his actions do not match his words. And yet I have not seen a single Obama ad mentioning these little facts or using any of this priceless ammunition.

And talk about an opening! On "The View" McCain said ""What specific area have I quote, changed? Nobody can name it." What an invitation! And yet, again, we never hear a hint to suggest that the Obama campaign will accept this lovely invitation for a haymaker.

Why not? I can only conclude that the Obama campaign has decided that McCain's character is off limits. He is inconsistent, sometimes dishonest, unreliable, and his positions shift with the breeze. SAY SO. Why oh why has somebody concluded that McCain's character is off limits? Will Democrats ever learn that voters care about a candidate's character?

McCain has always talked about honor, but is running one of the most dishonest campaigns in recent memory. No need to go far: quote the Wall Street Journal, Factcheck.org, the AP. Quote the McCain campaign ad that accuses Obama of favoring sexually explicit sex ed for children and show that it isn't true. McCain is running a dishonorable campaign, even by the standards of modern campaigning. SAY SO. McCain has a long history of changing his stories. SAY SO.

It is not enough to tell us that McCain is old. Make the point that he is doddering. I do not say that to be snarky; I am genuinely beginning to wonder whether McCain is exhibiting early signs of dementia. Show the video clips where he repeatedly cannot remember whose side Iran is on, thinks Czechoslovakia is still a country, blinks in confusion when asked questions.

Aggressiveness is not just an attitude; it has to be a vehicle for substance. After the Democratic convention, one has the sense that Obama's people figure this thing was over. If they ever thought that, they must know better now. Obama has work to do, the same work he has had to do - and not done - since the beginning. He has to articulate his vision for governing and his idea of how to deal with the world. Economy and energy are high on voters' lists of concerns; give us some ads that identify specific policy differences between Obama and McCain. Then do the other part: explain why McCain is a bad choice for President. It can't be just because he supports Bush's tax cuts; there has to be some reason to think that Obama would do the job better in general, not just that he has a better tax policy. Instead we get cutesy images of disco balls. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??.

A good ad says something positive about the candidate, presents an unflattering image of the opponent, and responds to attacks - all at once. Here's an example: "Independent analyses say that Obama's tax proposals would cut taxes for 80% of American households. McCain's ads misrepresent this fact. Maybe that's because the same analyses show that McCain's own tax plan would produce huge gains for the richest 1% and produce almost no tax cuts for that same 80% of families."

How about this one. "We all make mistakes. But the McCain campaign has taken untruth in advertising to an unprecedented level." . Show McCain on The View again, this time the point where he defends his ads by saying "Actually they're not lies." Then the voiceover: "Actually, Senator, they are." Present a series of non-partisan groups' criticisms of McCain's ads - making sure to include the Wall Street Journal and Factcheck, organizations that people who are not on the political Left respect - and focus in particular on the inaccuracies in McCain's accusations that Obama has engaged in smearing or insulting Palin. Here's the ending. "Senator McCain knows all about dirty, dishonest campaigns; he was the victim of a dishonest campaign himself when he ran against George W. Bush. Now he has hired the very same people who ran Bush's campaign to run his, and is stooping to the very same dishonest smear tactics he used to decry. That's a change from the old John McCain, but it's not the kind of change we need."

Or -- just a thought -- how about some ads featuring Bill and - especially! - Hilary Clinton? Message to David Axelrod: YOU NEED THEM.