Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Joseph Romm Headshot

Obama Nails the Winning Message: "Honor Comes with Honesty." But Does He Know How to Win with It?

Posted: Updated:

Finally, the Obama campaign has articulated the winning message to counterpunch the shameless lying from McCain-Palin. They have raised the issue of McCain's (lack of) honor.

Following Senator Claire McCaskill's catchy "Honor comes with honesty" rhetoric on ABC's This Week, Obama has released an excellent new ad titled "Honor" that explicitly quotes The Washington Post on McCain's "disgraceful and dishonorable campaign."

You'll know that Obama is serious about winning if he and Biden, their surrogates, and their ads use this devastating line of attack on McCain's dishonorable campaign over and over again, including the debates, through November. I would especially urge all of team Obama to memorize and repeat McCaskill's memorable attack lines whenever they debate a McCain surrogate, like Carly Fiorina, who repeats the various lies about Palin or Obama:

This is a good example of what I'm talking about. You know, honor is talked about a lot in this campaign. Honor comes with honesty. And you've got to be honest about the facts.

This attack on McCain's honor is the winning narrative because it has so many different benefits for Obama. First and foremost, it allows Obama to turn all of the ongoing lies by and about Palin -- which are presumably designed to goad the Obama campaign to go after her, rather than McCain -- into a character attack against McCain.

Second, relatedly, it provides both of the counterpunches that team Obama's message has been missing (as described in "Can Obama Win With Half a Messaging Strategy?"). It counterpunches against McCain's new post-convention message that he is the agent of reform. You can't possibly reform Washington if you are just another dishonest and dishonorable politician. And it counterpunches against McCain's various attacks on Obama by bunching them all together and dismissing them as dishonest and dishonorable.

Indeed, like the best frames, it can be used by Obama or any surrogate to immediately reframe any new McCain attack as yet another example of McCain's dishonor and dishonesty. The best narratives piggyback on and negate a large portion of your opponent's advertisements and messaging -- just as McCain is attempting to do by saying he is the agent of change in the election, not Obama.

In other words, winning campaigns don't just attack their opponents' weaknesses (the issues, McCain's similarity to Bush) but adopt the winning Rovian jujitsu strategy of attacking their opponents' strengths -- the fact that an overwhelming majority of the public thinks McCain has superior character and leadership qualities. Democrats ought to realize by now that merely having the policies the public supports is not a winning strategy -- as Presidents Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry can attest.

Character trumps all. Or at least perception of character does. And right now, McCain is trumping Obama on "Who has the strong leadership qualities needed to be president of the United States?" by 48% to 26%. You can't be a strong leader if you are dishonest and dishonorable.

Third, going after McCain's dishonor is the best way to "get up in McCain's face, to get inside his head the way the McCain campaign has gone after Obama." That is one of the three things that Democratic strategists told Mark Halperin that Obama must do to win, along with "stop focusing so much on Sarah Palin" and "get back to talking about the economy."

Nothing will get inside McCain's head more than going after his dishonor -- especially if Obama does it during the debates. McCain prides himself on his honor above all other qualities, I believe, and that makes him defensive about any attacks on it. At some level, McCain knows he is selling his soul to the Rovians devil to win. But he has gone all-in on the countless lies and stands by them lamely, as he did on The View. If he does that during a debate, he will be skewered by the crucial post-debate media analysis.

The key to success when using such a harsh attack face to face is to choose your words very carefully. The best I've seen from team Obama was Senator Claire McCaskill thrashing McCain surrogate Carly Fiorina on ABC's This Week yesterday. McCaskill called her out on the lies she repeated and thrashed McCain with a simple yet powerful message of truth and honor:

FIORINA: Sarah Palin as governor stood up and said, I know earmarks are corrupting. We must ask for less of them--

STEPHANOPOLOUS: But she still requested them.

FIORINA: As governor she did not. [...]

MCCASKILL: She just requested this year, George. She requested hundreds of millions of dollars of earmarks for Alaska. She took the money for the bridge to nowhere. She took -- she hired lobbyists to get earmarks.

This is a woman who has been lobbying for earmarks, has received earmarks. As a mayor, as a governor.

This is a good example of what I'm talking about. You know, honor is talked about a lot in this campaign. Honor comes with honesty. And you've got to be honest about the facts.

Sarah Palin has been an earmark queen in Alaska. That's the facts.

Note to Obama campaign: Please have all your surrogates -- and Obama and Biden -- study the transcript to see McCaskill's deftness here. Please have them memorize and repeat her key attack lines again and again and again.

Note to McCain campaign: Please continue to use Fiorina as a surrogate as much as possible.

McCaskill did four crucial things here:
  1. She had all of the relevant facts at her fingertips and repeated them calmly but forthrightly.
  2. She used a memorable metaphor to quickly dismiss Palin -- "earmark queen."
  3. She turned Fiorina's mindless and indefensible repetition of Palin's stock lies into an attack on McCain's honor and honesty.
  4. She created an attack on McCain that uses some of the best rhetorical figures of speech, which makes any attack more powerful and more memorable.
The key lines cannot be repeated too much:

This is a good example of what I'm talking about. You know, honor is talked about a lot in this campaign. Honor comes with honesty. And you've got to be honest about the facts.

The point is to link "honor" -- a term (unjustifiably) associated with McCain -- with "honest." Marrying the two words is easy because of the alliteration, assonance, and consonance they share. But repetition of the whole word always helps, especially the powerful figure of speech, anaphora, repeating the same word at the beginning of a series of clauses or sentences: "honor is talked about a lot in this campaign. Honor comes with honesty."

Presumably, the McCain campaign keeps pushing Palin and its surrogates to keep repeating their lies for a purpose. They must know there is some cost to having Palin repeat on Saturday for the ninth time the absurd claim that she said to Congress, "Thanks, but no thanks on that Bridge to Nowhere" and having Fiorina -- a much less-practiced liar than McCain and Palin -- say "The facts are that Sarah Palin rejected the money for the Bridge to Nowhere."

The McCain team must see benefits that outweigh the cost of all this well-debunked lying -- and presumably that is keeping the focus of the Obama campaign's attacks on Palin to create sympathy and a backlash in her favor while keeping the attacks off of McCain himself. Obama, however, can turn all this lying to his great advantage if he and his surrogates and his ads finally start ignoring Palin and instead using the pathological lying to go after McCain's character, as they have just started to do.

Even the King of smear, Karl Rove, recognizes the potentially fatal mistake his disciples -- the devil's disciples? -- have made. Why else would he take the extraordinary step of going on FoxNews and saying

McCain has gone in some of his ads -- similarly gone one step too far, and sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100-percent-truth test.

If you've been called smelly by a skunk, you know you stink.

The larger point -- the final reason why this attack on McCain's dishonor and dishonesty is so powerful -- is that the media has become so sick and tired of McCain's lying that they won't defend him anymore.

Heck even the just-the-facts Associated Press headlined a piece, "Analysis: McCain's claims skirt facts, test voters" that opens:

The "Straight Talk Express" has detoured into doublespeak

On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times ran an editorial entitled: "Campaign Of Lies Disgraces McCain," which opines:

McCain's straight talk has become a toxic mix of lies and double-speak. It is leaving a permanent stain on his reputation for integrity, and it is a short-term strategy that eventually will backfire with the very types of independent-thinking voters that were so attracted to him.

That should be the centerpiece quote of any attack ad in Florida.

Kudos to team Obama for finally getting the right counterpunches to McCain's constant lies and his claims to be a reformer. Now they just have to repeat it over and over and over and over again through November 4.

If you are not attacking you are losing.

Register To Vote