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Swiftboating '08: While The Democrats Are Away...


On arrival in the madhouse that is Denver (and the even madder blogger's tent), I'm almost more concerned with what's happening in Chicago (or wherever else the Obama ad team is based) than anything happening here. In a week in which Democrats and the national media are focused on the Convention and the surrounding protests/parties/circus, it's worth keeping one eye on what's happening on local television in the swing states. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Michigan, a pro-McCain group has sunk nearly $3 million into a Swiftboat-esque attack ad tying Barack Obama to former Weatherman Bill Ayers, a relationship that the Washington Post has called "a tenuous one."

In the primary, the potential Swiftboat topics against Obama became clear: Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, "Bittergate." Despite the McCain camp's protestations that Obama has somehow "opened the door" to these attacks by pointing out the disconnect between John McCain's cultivated (and media-abetted) Average Joe image and his decadent lifestyle and many homes (mind you, only after McCain's "celebrity" salvo at Obama), it was inevitable that the Swift-attacks would come. It's no stretch to say that Team McCain has had its collective hand on the doorknob for some time and that the Swift-boat door would be "opened" whenever they so chose.

It's no secret that negative campaigning works. But 2008's Swiftboat ads don't have to have the same effect as 2004's. Why? Consider the term itself. If you asked most Americans, particularly those who voted for Bush in 2004 but are now part of his massive disapproval rating, I bet you that they'd have come to deplore Swiftboat and Rovian tactics. In fact, Karl Rove's success in attack politics (and his emergence as a national symbol of underhandedness) may have weakened the potential effectiveness of such tactics for McCain. If Team Obama is searching for ways to link McCain to Bush, look no further than the ads they're willing to run or stand behind. There's an opportunity for the Obama campaign in those attack ads, but only if they respond effectively.

So, Team Obama, here's a freebie script that needs to make its way into your response ads to the Ayers hit, and the other hits yet to come:

"John McCain has said he deplores negative politics and Swiftboating. So why is he using the same playbook as his good friends George Bush and Karl Rove, trying to discredit Barack Obama with gutter politics and false ads, and trying to link him to (Rezko, Ayers, Wright)? We've seen this before, and we won't be fooled again."

(cue swell of hopeful violins)

"Barack Obama has real ideas for America ... (insert laundry list, including tax relief, energy, obligatory windmill footage, etc.). John McCain just has more of the same, the same negative ads, and the same Bush policies. How can McCain offer a change from George Bush if he's running the same tired campaign."

(Optional: end with snippet of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again.")

Obama's actual response ad to the Ayers hit job was fine, but his team missed the opportunity to continue linking McCain and Bush. Are most Americans even aware that Rove is serving as an adviser to McCain? If they're not, they should be, and it's the Obama campaign's responsibility to educate them.

McCain's camp will protest that it's not his campaign that's airing the Ayers ad. But when the man behind that ad is a McCain bundler, and when the McCain camp itself starts parroting the ad's talking points, the ad becomes their own. So while the Democrats convene, bond, and frolic in Denver, let's hope Obama's ad machine is at work, crafting the best possible response to the Ayers ad, and the inevitable other ads to come.