7 Days in America: Will McCain Put Reputation First at Wednesday's Debate? w/ Mellman, Huffington, Conason & Green

11/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Green Host, 'Both Sides Now' & author of "Bright, Infinite Future"

Dear Senator McCain:

We don't know each other well. We only met once when I interviewed you in 2002 for a book on money in politics. And like many progressive Democrats, I found you interesting, engaging, pretty independent.

What happened?

I understand how ambition can warp judgment. But your recent personal attacks on Barack Obama are so beyond the pale for presidential politics that you now face a fateful choice by the Wednesday debate -- will you pull back from the abyss of sleazy slander or risk losing not only the election but also your reputation and honor?

2008-09-20-airamericalogo.jpgIf Friday is any indication, you're on the fence. On the one hand, when another rally started turning into a mob, you chastized some hateful supporters by saying that Obama was "a decent person [who] you do not have to scared of as president of the United States" and "we will be respectful." But that same day your campaign released an ad that was anything but respectful, asserting that Obama "worked with terrorist Bill Ayers" and then "lied" about it. And of course Sarah Palin keeps repeating that Obama "started" his political career in Ayers' living room.

According to newspaper reports, this is a big lie -- one any candidate should sympathize with. Hundreds of people have hosted events for me, and I assure you that I don't know what awful things they did decades earlier. Indeed, it's known that the two of them worked together handing out educational grants on the same board of the Annenberg Foundation, whose widow endorsed McCain this week! So are you supported by terrorists?

What's unusual this year is that so-called Swift Boat tactics are being launched not by mysterious 527s so a candidate can deny paternity... but by the presidential and vice-presidential candidates themselves. The mud is dripping from your hands -- and the anger and hatred from your supporters ("traitor," "Arab," "kill him") was ginned up by the McCain Team.

With three weeks to go, I'd urge you to make a decision on this by the third and last debate this Wednesday. You can choose to be be forever known as a 21st Century Joe McCarthy or modern day Joe Welch who faced down McCarthy's excesses. You should do so for three compelling reasons:

  • First, it's wrong and you shouldn't engage in such self-immolating behavior.
  • Second, it's backfiring -- since polls show the gap widening since voters care a lot more about their jobs and 401(k)'s than Bill Ayres.
  • Third, while a loss is a loss, for down-ticket Republicans, an Obama win by 10 points rather than by 4 points can be the difference between 56 and 60 seats in the Senate, between 245 House seats and 260 House seats.

Senator, we both recall how Lee Atwater on his deathbed apologized for all those years of playing the race card for Republicans -- and how you repented for not telling the truth about the Rebel Flag during your South Carolina primary in 2000. This time there will be no mulligans. No apologies later accepted. It's not Steve Schmidt's name or decision, not Nicolle Wallace's decision or name. It's your decision and it's time.

Listen to the entire show at

7 Days in America,

Three weeks ago McCain was slightly ahead after his convention, yet now Obama is measurably ahead and pulling away. You're a leading pollster -- what happened?

MELLMAN: Well, you hit the nail on the head. There is a natural cycle to these elections. The fundamentals of this election suggest a win for Barack Obama. The economy is the worst economy we've had in the public perception since the Depression, we've got the most unpopular president we've ever had, and we have the most unpopular war we've ever had. All of that speaks to an Obama victory. Obama was ahead going into the convention period, came out of his convention with a bounce, but that ran smack into the Republican convention. And you know what? Those bounces dissipate. And now we're back to a situation dictated by the fundamentals, a situation where Obama's ahead. And that's only been magnified by the financial crisis, which has had people very much focused on the economy -- an area where Obama is very strong, and an area where McCain is extraordinarily weak.

GREEN: How hard is Obama's lead in the battleground states?

MELLMAN: We are in a situation at this point where it's very hard for John McCain, I think, to really turn this election around. He has to change the subject in a significant way; he needs to change the dynamic in a significant way. And in this week's debate, he really failed to do that.... That alone would make it a big, big win for Obama. I think Obama won on points, as well, and so did the polls, and so did the public. Now, what's the margin going to be, is it going to be six or seven points, is it going to be two points or ten points? I think it's too early to say.... As you look at it at a state-by-state basis, Obama has a lot of paths to victory here. Obama is extraordinarily likely to win every state that John Kerry won, with the possible exception of New Hampshire. But there are a lot of states now that John Kerry did not win and that Barack Obama is likely to. States like Ohio and Colorado, and potentially Florida and others. If Obama wins this race by four points, that's going to be a huge electoral vote margin.

GREEN: What could happen before the election that would significantly shrink Obama's lead?

MELLMAN: It's hard to imagine an event that changes the outcome of this election. John Kerry does blame the bin Laden tape in part for his loss, but the reality is that John Kerry was not ahead at that point. It blunted his forward movement, blunted his momentum, but he was not ahead. The fact is that Obama is ahead, and ahead by a substantial margin. It's hard for me to imagine an event that really changes that, unless, God forbid, some huge dramatic world event happens, and that is totally unpredictable.

GREEN: Do you agree with the consensus among pollsters that the so-called Bradley Effect --where polls overstate voting for a black candidate -- is largely gone?

MELLMAN: Let's separate two different questions. First of all, are there people who are going to vote against Barack Obama because he is African American? There is no doubt there are those people. The second question, a separate question is, are people unwilling to tell pollsters that they are going to vote for someone other than Barack Obama because they are afraid of being labeled racist? And I think honestly the answer to that question is no. People are perfectly comfortable saying that they are voting for John McCain; as you said, just a few weeks ago John McCain was ahead in this race. So I don't think people feel stigmatized by saying that they are not voting for Barack Obama.

GREEN: What were the worst moments in the second debate for Obama and then for McCain?

MELLMAN: Well, honestly I don't think Obama had really any bad moments. I think he connected well with the audience. That's very important in those town hall debates: it's not just the information that you provide, it's not just the statements you make, it's the extent to which people watching feel that you're connecting with that individual. I think McCain had a very different look and feel. He seemed angry, seemed negative, and was not connecting with voters in a personal way. And I think when he got angriest and sort of referred to Obama as "that guy" or "that person".... GREEN: "That one!" MELLMAN: Right, "that one." I think that kind of epitomized for people the sense of anger and disdain that McCain was displaying. And debate watchers want to see the debaters connect with the audience, not just take issue with each other.

GREEN: If you were advising McCain, would you suggest that he and Palin keep trying to link Obama and "a domestic terrorist" Ayers, or is that so harsh that it's boomeranging?

MELLMAN: Well, if you're the political advisor, not concerned with the long-term image of John McCain, and you're just concerned with maximizing the chances of winning the election, frankly I'd say "hard negative." Go after him hard, go after him in ways that are going to be perceived as fair and substantive, but go after him. The reality is that it's not going to help, and it's going to destroy John McCain's image. He's not going to win the race that way, and it will destroy his image for the future.

GREEN: So then how should Obama-Biden respond to this relentless guilt-by-association -- stay above the fray and just talk about the economy, unleash Biden, attack Palin on Troopergate and McCain on the Keating Five?

I mean, McCain and Palin are saying things that are completely untrue; newspapers and other independent observers have made clear that they're completely untrue. Yet, knowing they are untrue, they have continued to repeat them. John McCain considers himself an honorable person; that concept, he says, is critically and centrally important to him. He's really given up his claim on being an honorable person. You can't go out there and lie day after day, week after week, knowing you're telling lies, and continue repeating them, and still look yourself in the mirror and say you are an honorable person.

7 Days in America PANEL WITH HUFFINGTON, CONASON AND GREEN, October 10, 2008

GREEN: Watching the McCain-Palin rallies attacking Obama so harshly and then crowds responding as if they were mobs after Frankenstein, I was reminded of your book title, "It Can Happen Here," a take-off of Sinclair Lewis's novel about fascism coming to America? Can it happen here?

The mobs chasing Frankenstein's monster were actually much more charming than the ones that are going to see McCain and Palin right now, because they at least had pitchforks and were kind of cute and peasant-y looking. But this is sort of a throng of authoritarians, really. My book was about the threat of authoritarianism in America. And the people who show up and are calling for what sounds like the death of Barack Obama, or "off with his head"...the rage at these rallies is, you know, it's an authoritarian emotion. Because what they seem to be saying is, they don't want to accept what they are afraid will be the outcome of the election.

GREEN: Could these crude, McCarthyite attacks work? Or are they more likely to make McCain lose by 10 points if he keeps it up?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, you know, Mark, you and I have talked a lot about fear-mongering and how powerful and effective it is. But there is something else happening right now, which is that there is real fear that has gripped Americans based on what's happening with the economy and what's happening in their own lives. In the presence of that real fear, fear-mongering about imaginary enemies and imaginary dangers is much less effective. Certainly that's how it's been so far, and barring anything unforeseen, it's going to be...It's really even turning some of the most mild in the media against McCain and Palin.

GREEN: As I asked Mellman, how should the Democratic ticket respond to these charges, if at all?

CONASON: You know, I think the media in general has done a reasonable job of at least attempting to look at Sarah Palin's background. And therefore the Obama/Biden team does not need to discuss her, personally. What they need to do - and they've been doing this - is to say, "Sarah Palin, as a surrogate of McCain, is just like McCain; she doesn't want to talk about real issues because they have no real solutions. And so she keeps bringing up these irrelevant things to try to stir up the Republican base. But if you want to address what's really happening in the country" - the real fear, that Arianna's talking about - "you need to come with us." I think that's a very effective thing to do. In other words, to marginalize her. It's important to constantly make the point is that the reason they're talking about these things is that they don't have one clue about what to do for this country. On any level. They don't know what to do in foreign policy; they don't know what to do for the economy. I mean, McCain's now talking about a spending freeze! If I were Joe Biden, I'd be talking about that. That is the deadliest thing that could possibly be done in the face of this economic crisis.

GREEN: The U.S. and Great Britain are about to spend probably hundreds of billions buying stock in banks. Is this capitalism, socialism, or something unnamed?

CONASON: It's called the Scandanavian Solution, and we're all Social Democrats now. Richard Nixon once said, "we're all Keynesians now." I guess that we're all going to be Social Democrats now, which means allowing the government to take a much more forceful role in the economy. If banks won't lend money, which they in many cases are refusing to do now leading to this credit freeze, the government needs to go in and order them to lend money, and say "we will back up these commitments with the full faith and credit of the federal government."

GREEN: What might McCain learn from the second debate so he's more effective in the third next week?

HUFFINGTON: He needs to have some kind of anger and contempt management training before the next debate. Because his contempt and anger at Obama are so palpable that there's almost nothing he can do to disguise it. And he needs to do something real; he needs to seriously look at that, because it makes him so unattractive. I mean, the one statement of "that one" that we all wrote about - it was really indicative of his whole attitude towards Obama. He needs to move beyond that.