McCain’s Attack Strategy Is Ugly But Not Stupid

John McCain seemed like anything but a typical politician when he burst onto the national scene eight years ago in a campaign that transformed him into the most popular public figure in America (if not in his own party).

But now, less than 100 days before the 2008 presidential election, he’s running a full-blown attack campaign, disparaging Barack Obama on both philosophical and personal grounds, and taking a few liberties with the truth while he’s at it. In response, many of his old allies in America’s op-ed and editorial pages, not to mention within the Republican Party, are warning that the presumptive G.O.P. nominee is recklessly soiling his reputation for character and integrity — and all for a strategy that, they say, is flatly counterproductive.

When McCain’s campaign unveiled its latest shrill attack ad on Wednesday — a nasty little spot that ridicules Obama as another Britney Spears or Paris Hilton — John Weaver, who was perhaps McCain’s most loyal friend and confidante in Washington until he left the McCain campaign in a shake-up last year, went public to pronounce the ad “childish” and “tomfoolery” and to declare that the campaign’s negative emphasis on Obama “reduces McCain on the stage.”

“For McCain to win in such troubled times,” Weaver told The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder, “he needs to begin telling the American people how he intends to lead us. That McCain exists. He can inspire the country to greatness.”

Weaver’s sentiments, no doubt, mesh with those of most of the political observers, activists and insiders who fell in the love with the jovial and freewheeling McCain of 2000. The man and the campaign they are seeing in 2008 are utterly incongruous with what they witnessed back then.

But their concern is only half-valid. The charge that McCain is sacrificing his own cherished and hard-won reputation, and that he may never recover it if his campaign keeps this up, is most certainly correct. But the assumption that this will also destroy his chances of winning the presidency — or even diminish them — has less basis in reality.

The personality-based campaign that worked so amazingly for McCain eight years ago — and the kind of campaign that Weaver and the rest of the McCain-of-Yesteryear Fan Club would like to see him run — simply can’t work for him in 2008.

Think back to March of 2000, when the resistance of the right forced McCain to abandon his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. At the time, he was running an astounding 25 points ahead of Al Gore in a theoretical general-election matchup, so singularly admired was McCain among independents and even Democrats. (George W. Bush’s margin at the time was just four points).

The public, by and large, was domestically content and blissfully ignorant of foreign policy and national security concerns — the perfect recipe for an entirely personality-driven campaign. And after eight years of Democratic rule (and personal scandal), voters were receptive to the idea of giving the G.O.P. a chance to run the White House. In that environment, there is no doubt that McCain, simply running as John McCain, could and would have defeated Gore or any other Democrat in something approaching a landslide in the general election.

This election year is a far, far different story. The public is anxious, frustrated and angry, troubled by a collapsing economy and the soaring cost of living on the home front and a host of worries — and wars — overseas. And the blame, in most voters’ eyes, for the country’s troubles is laid primarily at the feet of McCain’s G.O.P.

Moreover, McCain himself — even before his campaign’s embrace of the personally negative — has seen significant erosion in his sterling reputation, the result of standing unapologetically in support of an Iraq war that the public has long stopped believing in. In 2000, it helped McCain to be on the wrong side of public opinion on an issue of two, with voters judging him a stand-up guy for it. But the issues in 2008 feel far less trivial to the public, and McCain’s war views invite more scorn than admiration from his old fans.

In this setting, McCain lacks what he would have had as the G.O.P. nominee in 2000: the ability to win in November simply by being himself. Part of this is due to the strength and unusual personal appeal of Obama. A bigger reason is the overwhelming desire of the electorate to evict the Republican Party from the White House. If voters have a favorable view of both McCain and Obama on Election Day, Obama will win.

In short, the McCain of 2000 no longer exists, and thanks to issues like Iraq, couldn’t exist even if his campaign made a conscious effort to resurrect him. Running a 2000-like campaign would preserve McCain’s reputation and win him plenty of favorable post-election write-ups from his old media friends — but it can’t win him the election.

What can win him the election, as sad as it is to say, is the kind of campaign he is now resorting to. McCain’s aides have privately told the press that they see the fall race as a referendum on Obama. They are right. This campaign is not about hordes of undecided voters weighing the pros and cons of McCain and Obama; it is about hordes of undecided voters who are inclined — both because of his party label and his personality — to vote for Obama, but who still have trouble imagining him as America’s commander in chief. If Obama can remove their doubts, he will win going away — just as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, when he won the masses over in a debate a week before Election Day. If he can’t, then those voters will default to McCain, the “safe” old warrior. And it will have little to do with whether they approved of the tone of his advertising.

McCain has clearly figured that if he emerges victorious in an election that is Obama’s to lose, he will have his entire presidency to repair whatever damage is done to his reputation. He has also determined that his current strategy is his only chance of winning. He’s probably right on both counts.

McCain’s Attack Strategy Is Ugly But Not Stupid