THE BLOG
08/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yes, McCain's Attack Ads Are Pathetic, But Obama Can't Assume that Voters See It

As we all know, John McCain has gone negative. And he has done so in an especially egregious and clumsy way, resorting to lies and obvious pandering in an effort to scare voters away from Barack Obama.

But here's the thing: It's working. And it's time for Obama and the Democrats to recognize that fact in crafting a response.

Nowhere is the McCain bungling strategy actually succeeding better than on the issue of offshore oil drilling. Every piece of evidence says that this kind of exploration will do nothing to help the price of gas in the short term, and it certainly won't do anything to help the energy and global warming crises the country is now facing. And yet, McCain keeps hammering Obama in his ads, saying that Obama is against lower gas prices because he won't support offshore drilling. And the statements in these attacks are blatantly dishonest, mischaracterizing both Obama's positions and the effects of this kind of exploration.

By any reasonable analysis of McCain's strategy, it should not be working. To a rational observer, the attacks smell of desperation and reveal a candidate without a plan, and they should be driving voters straight into the Obama camp.

And yet they're not.

A Rasmussen survey on the offshore drilling issue last week found that 57 percent of respondents favored offshore drilling, which makes sense when you consider that 56 percent of those asked thought that offshore drilling would cause gas prices to fall. In Florida, a recent poll revealed that 60 percent of the people supported drilling.

In other words, more than half of the American people (based on the polls, anyway) are relying on false data to make their judgments. On last night's Countdown With Keith Olbermann, Paul Krugman cited a finding from Bush's Energy Information Administration last year that offshore drilling would produce no oil until 2017, and the effect on pricing would be insignificant. The EIA also reported in May that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would not result in oil production until 2018, and the effect on pricing would be a reduction of 75 cents a barrel (less than one percent of the current price) in 2025. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior advisor to the McCain campaign, admitted to the Los Angeles Times in June that offshore drilling would have no immediate effect on gas prices.

So if it's crystal clear that offshore drilling won't lower prices at the pump, how is McCain turning this into a winning issue for his campaign?

On Countdown, Krugman said that Obama has fallen into the trap of thinking, "This is so ridiculous, nobody is going to believe (it)." Krugman thinks Obama was being "dismissive" when he needed to be "outraged" and come out with a strong statement to the effect of: "(McCain) is insulting your intelligence, he is really doing bad stuff." I think Krugman is right, and the Obama campaign has to take Krugman's advice and be more aggressive in fighting the obvious lies and distortions that McCain is shoveling into the marketplace of ideas.

But what Krugman is really saying is that voters are uninformed and/or uninterested, and that Obama has to take action based on that assumption. Sadly, I think the evidence supports Krugman's premise, but I'm outraged that this is the case. Yes, Obama is running for president, so, by definition, he has to make his case to the American people, but should the case have to be this hard? Shouldn't Americans themselves take the responsibility of understanding the basic issues being discussed in the campaign? Should a candidate really be responsible for spoon-feeding every last detail, pointing out obvious lies? As Krugman pointed out on Countdown, for a change, the press has done a pretty good job of reporting the facts on offshore drilling. It's disgraceful that 56 percent of Americans would believe that gas prices would be reduced, when the Bush administration and the McCain campaign have admitted they wouldn't be. Sure, Bush and McCain are out there saying the opposite, but Americans shouldn't be buying the lies.

But, again, they are.

In the Rasmussen daily tracking poll, Obama leads today by 45 percent to 43 percent. The numbers have been incredibly steady for the last two months: Between June 5 and August 1, Obama has never been higher than 48 percent or lower than 42 percent, and McCain has remained between 39 percent and 43 percent. In fact, the current percentage represents McCain's highest standing in the poll during this period.

In light of the fact that McCain is running with the burden of sharing party affiliation with a historically unpopular sitting president, in a bad environment for Republicans (a Rasmussen poll has Democrats ahead of Republicans 47 percent to 34 percent in a generic party congressional matchup), and with the electorate rejecting McCain's policies on his signature issue of Iraq (another Rasmussen poll had 52 percent of Americans saying that it's more important for the next president to bring the troops home from Iraq than to win the war there, and 63 percent of respondents want the American military out of Iraq within a year, regardless), the fact that the race is a virtual dead heat demonstrates how McCain's attack ads haven't hurt him.

That's why it is so important for the Obama campaign to take McCain's seemingly ridiculous attacks seriously, even though I think Americans need to take charge of their citizenship responsibilities and become more informed on the issues. Obama's team has to respond swiftly and powerfully to attacks, in a manner that voters will understand and relate to. Democrats need to make very clear, in simple terms, that McCain is working for big oil, not the American people. The campaign needs to get the facts out there, that McCain raised $1.1 million dollars from the oil industry in the last month, with three-quarters of it coming after his June 16 speech supporting offshore drilling. Obama has to loudly and forcefully relate that offshore drilling will not produce any immediate change in gas prices, and that the next president has an obligation to enact a broader energy policy to address the economic, national security and environmental ramifications of oil dependency. And it has to be made clear that offshore drilling will only serve to further enrich the oil companies, who, while Americans are suffering under the crushing heel of high gas prices, are raking in record profits off the backs of these citizens.

But no matter what Obama does between now and November 4, if the American people are going to allow themselves to be fooled, there is only so much progress he can make. The campaign can't simply assume that voters see how desperate, disgusting and inaccurate McCain's attack ads are, because the evidence seems to indicate that Americans are falling for McCain's lies. The United States is a democracy, and its citizens get the leaders they deserve. Let's hope they don't end up deserving John McCain.