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William Bradley

William Bradley

Posted: September 22, 2008 07:47 PM

Distract and Detract: Team McCain Follows Form In Crisis



John McCain's new TV ad, amidst an epic global financial crisis, does not discuss the crisis but posits Barack Obama as product of "the corrupt Chicago political machine."

In the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, John McCain's campaign wants to talk about the Chicago political machine, the New York Times, Bill Ayers (who?), and Hugo Chavez.

On a day that saw the biggest upward oil spike in history and an overall retreat to commodities including the old standby gold, with Barack Obama holding a steady lead in most of the daily tracking polls, Team McCain tried its true to form technique ... "Distract and Detract." Which I've outlined for months in a number of columns, including this one. Maybe I should get that column title trademarked.

This is the pattern. In a political crisis, Team McCain moves to change the subject, to stay away from what may be unfriendly issues ground and switch back to a negative focus on Obama's personality and image. In the midst this time, as it happens, of the biggest global financial crisis since the 1930s.

Their conference call this morning focused on the Chicago Mob, er, Machine, the lack of any journalistic relevance for the New York Times, and Bill Ayers, the funder at the start of Barack Obama's career. On a day in which most American voters, not to mention the global markets, were looking for leadership on America's financial crisis.

John McCain's campaign director, Steve Schmidt, who I know well from his brilliant management of Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide 2006 re-election as California governor, and profiled here on Huffington Post in early July, attacked on several fronts. First, on the new anti-Obama ad seen above, claiming Obama is nothing more than a product of "Chicago's corrupt political machine." Then, with an attention-getting slashing of the New York Times, calling it "not by any standard a journalistic organization." Okay then. Supposedly just another element in the Hobbesian media universe, as I discussed in this Friday piece. And then on Bill Ayers, the ex-Weather Underground terrorist-turned-university professor, claiming that Obama launched his political career with a fundraiser at Ayer's home.

Actually, he didn't. I looked into this well over a year ago when, as an Obama skeptic at the time, I scouted Obama. Ayers' was one of several houses near Obama's that the then nascent legislative candidate visited for neighborhood meet-and-greets when he first ran for state senate. As I recall, not only was it not a fundraiser, Ayers didn't contribute money to Obama's first campaign. He later gave him a whopping couple hundred bucks.

What do these things all have in common? They're not about the financial crisis.

Of course, Obama has developed a consistent if still small lead in the daily national tracking polls. And most voters are blaming Republicans for the financial crisis.

Obama has moved up some in the polls on the strength of economic crisis, and McCain's faltering response to it. Not that Obama has been a beacon of light on the issue. Though he has been a beacon of calm. The slight frontrunner has been cautious in his pronouncements, calling for more detail from federal bailout leaders, criticizing McCain for his longtime deregulationist stance, and demanding more oversight. And now joining with other Democratic leaders in insisting on mortgage relief for Americans, not just a bailout of the big firms involved, and limits on executive compensation.

But if Obama has been far less than incisive, McCain has been a portrait in confusion and contradiction. Just a week ago today, he said America's economic fundamentals are "strong." A few hours later he was backpedaling on what he meant by that, defining "fundamentals" as "workers." After his first inclination, a punt to a "9/11-type commission" to study the matter failed to launch from the carrier deck, he began alternating between blaming Obama for the crisis and launching angry populist attacks on Wall Street.

The problem with blaming Obama is that McCain's entire campaign has been geared to the proposition that Obama has no experience. That is to say, it was geared that way until the very late decision to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate. If Obama has no experience, how can he be responsible for the crisis? Er, because he'd received advice and some donations from the former heads of the Fannie Mac and Freddie Mac housing finance entities. Casualties the week before, which McCain didn't delve into then since he was profiting from Sarah Palin's sense of victimization and the question of whether it is sexist to use the old phrase, "lipstick on a pig."

But the problem is, obviously, much deeper than Fannie and Freddie. And, in any event, it turns out McCain's longtime campaign manager Rick Davis made $2 million heading up a PR effort for ... Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The problem with angry populist attacks on Wall Street comes when you are a longtime advocate of financial deregulation.

This is what happens when you are in scramble mode, with a candidate who has touted his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee and has long stated that he is for financial deregulation.

Not that Obama will be confused with Huey Long. In reality, he has raised more money from Wall Street than McCain. Of course, he's raised more money from everywhere, at least outside the Deep South, than McCain.

By Sunday night, McCain was hugging close to Obama's policy positioning, while attacking him constantly on taxes and a variety of things. Including the Chicago political machine.


Another new McCain attack ad ties Obama to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. It is not a parody.

And this ad just above, tying Obama to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and his incendiary rhetoric -- which naturally takes up the entire ad -- because Obama is open to talking with the head of one of the biggest oil-producing countries in the world.

Incidentally, appearing with someone does not necessarily constitute a publicity plus for the other person. I've been on a number of shows which did not turn out well for others.

Of course, the McCain guys know this very well. They're very smart. They're relying on the ADD media culture for arguments like this to work.

They're operating out of an obvious strategic imperative. If they run a positive campaign, in this political environment, they lose. Simple as that.