02/13/2009 03:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush Media Guru McKinnon on Obama: "Good Integrity," but a Token

Mark McKinnon was a guest on MSNBC's Hardball this week, identified as a "Republican strategist." He didn't flinch at the title.

This is a long way from the fellow who produced the TV spots for Democrat Ann Richards in her successful 1990 Texas governor's race. She lost to George Bush in '94, and by '99 McKinnon was on board Bush's presidential bandwagon in the same role. He stayed for the '04 reelection.

Not once in those years did he ever call himself a Republican, per se. He was always careful to thread the needle as he made the long transition from left to right.

That phase is obviously complete.

Host Chris Matthews mentioned that Mark was a McCain adviser in the '08 election cycle, and asked him about famously telling the campaign he wouldn't be able to continue if Obama became the nominee:

MARK MCKINNON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: That's right. When I joined the campaign in January of '07, I wrote a memo to the campaign saying that if in the general election, it turned out to be John McCain and Barack Obama, I'd step to the sideline. I still supported McCain, but I just didn't want to be the tip of the spear attacking Barack Obama.


MCKINNON: I liked his candidacy. I think it's--you know, I think it says--it's great for the country. I disagree with his politics, but it was an historic candidacy. And I think he's got good character. I think he has good integrity. I disagree with his politics, but I think he's a good man. And I wish him great success.

So, the strategist twice emphasizes that he doesn't share Obama's views ("his politics"), and "supported McCain," yet didn't want to be the "tip of the spear" and thinks Obama becoming president is "great for the country."

Well, that's certainly a mouthful to decipher. For what it's worth, Matthews effusively seconded: "I know a lot of Republicans like you, anyway -- not a million, but I know a lot."

Since the core of any politician, after all, is their politics, what is McKinnon really saying here?

Regarding Obama's politics, he ran as a centrist in the general election. He campaigned mightily as one who would roll up his sleeves to tackle the problems created by Bush, ideology be damned. McCain, on the other hand, remained stuck in his end of the field, by his own choice and conservative demands. Rush Limbaugh, for example, publicly ordered that he not pick a running mate who failed to show proper fealty to the Right's most strident views.

Obama ran on substance, competence, changing Bush policies. McKinnon, although disapproving, is now implying that Obama deserved the keys to the Oval Office for a different reason: he's African-American. That smacks of tokenism. It's also not the reason the Illinois senator won. McKinnon may think so because voters have shown surface tendencies before, and he's exploited them.

In 2000, we were told incessantly that we wanted Bush because he was the one we'd enjoy having a beer with at a backyard barbecue instead of the know-it-all Al Gore, remember? That was apparently the breadth and width of our collective wisdom, and McKinnon's slick TV ads sold his candidate as a regular Joe, fitting the meme. The Supreme Court iced the cake.

It's the nature of the advertising beast to simplify (some might call it dumbing down), and on it goes. Thursday's NY Times blog "The Caucus" featured McKinnon chiming in on Obama's identification with Abe Lincoln. Here's his take:

"People think in a simple narrative construct. And the dots connect: Tall skinny guy from Illinois. Country divided. Fierce partisan fighting. Very gloomy times. Pulls country together. Gets the job done. Hope floats."

I realize that selling a product, whether beer, soap or a candidate, requires boiling the key points down to their essence. Still, the condescension toward voters in that McKinnon quote is palpable.

We opted for change, and, yes, that's a slogan. At the same time, most of us deeply understand the inherent details, starting with foreign policy. That's hardly a "simple narrative construct." Burning the midnight oil at the kitchen table while deciding between medical bills or the mortgage isn't simple, either.

These are complex matters, and we've all experienced the full measure of the past eight years, at home and abroad, not some Cliff's Notes version.

It's indeed historic that an African-American is in the White House for the first time, but let's be clear: he's there because his message and ideas -- "his politics" as McKinnon calls them -- were deemed a better fit by the fully engaged American people than John McCain's tepid offer of a third Bush term.

Obama's worthiness to be president isn't merely skin deep, and it's insulting to float such a suggestion.