Once upon a time there was a candidate who was 17 points ahead of his foe. The election, it seemed, was his.
His name was Dukakis, and he lost that election to George Bush, Sr.
Or, more accurately, he lost it to Lee Atwater, Rove's mentor. By the time Atwater got through with him, Dukakis wasn't even a respected politician anymore, he was a punchline.
In 2000 Rove ran Bush as a "compassionate conservative" and smeared Gore as a liar, the man who'd "invented" the internet. The fact that Gore had never said that didn't matter. In 2004 Kerry, an actual war hero, was smeared as a coward by the Swift Boat Veterans for "Truth" and by the time they got through with him, the man who'd taught Swift Boaters that the way to respond to an attack was to turn into it, was branded a coward, not a hero.
Republicans try and run elections based on "character" and when they manage it they generally win. When the election turns on something else, such as hope, the economy and health care in '92, they lose.
Today McCain promoted a new campaign manager, Steve Schmidt. Schmidt has been pushed, hard, by Karl Rove. He worked for the Governator's reelection, and he also worked for Bush's reelection in '04. Schmidt understands both parts of the Republican two-step -- how to take away the scary parts of Republicanism, which he did for the Governator, who ran on a number of rather liberal policy plans; and how to destroy the opponent.
McCain isn't going to win this election by playing nice. The natural momentum of the time favors Obama, because the Republican brand is badly damaged. The appointment of a Rovian disciple shows that the Republicans get this, and they're ready to intensify their strategy.
Folks act as if negative campaigning doesn't work, but this is a myth. It works, and it works well. All it is is reverse branding -- branding your opponent for him. Schmidt will be looking for the opportunity to brand Obama as effete, weak and unprincipled. Obama's actions of the past couple weeks, his "run to the center" in which he has suddenly realized he didn't mean what he said in the primaries is playing into this narrative.
As with almost all Democrats Obama doesn't seem to get that strength isn't about what you vote for (national "security"), it's about how you act. Stand strong on a principle and people will admire that even if they disagree with it. Be seen to flip like a weathervane and even if people wind up agreeing with you, they'll despise you. Being strong, appearing strong, is about having principles, about taking a stand, not about talking tough.
Now, certainly McCain has no principles to speak of, having thrown his few remaining scruples out the door over the last couple years to court the conservative base, as when he voted for torture.
But, as we all know, the media prefers Republicans on character issues. The Swift Boaters were liars, their lies were proved at the time, but they were never effectively rebutted by the press. In 2000 the press likewise repeatedly failed to call Bush out on his many lies, indeed Paul Krugman, who tried, was expressly forbidden to use the word "lie" by his editors.
So the McCain campaign is going to try and define Obama. Republicans defined Dukakis, they defined Gore, they defined Kerry. Only with Clinton did they fail. At the same time, I expect Schmidt to push the McCain maverick brand more seriously and start backing away from the right wing base on a couple of key issues. (Torture, for example, is a place where McCain appears to be attempting to claim he is different from Bush, despite his vote for it.)
Muddle the difference on some key stands, define your opponent, make the election about character and not about policy. Obama has made this easier. It can't really be about health care since Obama is not for universal care, and it's harder to make it about the economy after changing his position on NAFTA.
So what Obama's got left is "I'm not George Bush. And I am change." If he can define McCain as Bush, he can still win it. But remember, historically elections that have come down to being about character have favored Republicans. And as Obama decides to be all things to all people, and nothing to anyone, I hope he isn't walking into a trap whereby in simply defining himself as "hope" and "change" and "not Bush" he's leaning on some slender reeds, easily broken by the avalanche of mud soon to come his way.
Lee Atwater is dead, but the style of politics he perfected hasn't changed.
And sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Ian Welsh is the evening and weekend editor for FireDogLake.