A week ago, John McCain seemed poised to devote the final weeks of what could be the final campaign he ever runs to slash-and-burn politics.
His running-mate, Sarah Palin, was deputized to accuse Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” Speakers at McCain-Palin events took to invoking Barack Obama’s middle name as if it were an epithet, and the Republican campaign cut an ad that played up Mr. Obama’s tenuous association with Bill Ayers, an aging ’60s radical. Finally, Mr. McCain himself played the Ayers card at one of his town hall meetings – which only prompted his supporters at the event, in an extraordinary scene, to appeal to him to launch even harsher attacks.
Since then, though, he’s toned things down a little. Not enough to satisfy his critics on the left, of course, but enough for a fair-minded observer to conclude that Mr. McCain has decided not to pin whatever chance of victory remains on an overt effort to sow fear of Mr. Obama among swing voters.
He’s stopped bringing up Mr. Ayers, stuck by his refusal to make Jeremiah Wright an issue, refrained from launching the Ayers ad on a wide scale, and even shown a willingness to reign in some of the more vitriolic Obama critics who show up at his rallies – like the woman whom Mr. McCain corrected last Friday when she labeled Mr. Obama “an Arab.” Most significantly, in a speech on Monday that his campaign billed as part of a campaign “reboot,” Mr. McCain limited his attacks on Mr. Obama to boiler-plate ideological criticisms – decrying the Democratic nominee, for instance, as an unrepentant tax-hiker.
Granted, Mr. McCain is not suddenly running some uniquely high-minded and honorable campaign. His rebuke of that woman last Friday may have been a one-time only occurrence. By Monday, McCain supporters were waving signs linking Mr. Obama to Osama bin Laden at a Virginia Beach rally, and he chose not to challenge them. But on the whole, it could be – and very nearly was – much, much uglier. He has pulled back from the edge.
The speech he delivered on Monday was intended to separate Mr. McCain from George W. Bush and to use his own military heroism to connect with voters on the current economic crisis, something Mr. McCain has struggled to do.
Speaking of the fear and hopelessness that Americans are feeling as the economy teeters, Mr. McCain declared, “I felt those things once before. I will never let them in again,” and added: “I’m an American. I choose to fight.”
In terms of winning the election, this approach isn’t likely to be much more effective than the Ayers offensive. Right now, voters want specific economic plans – or the appearance of specific plans – from the presidential candidates, not an abstract emotional bond. Hours after Mr. McCain spoke, Mr. Obama responded with a laundry list of policy proposals. Whether the ideas are helpful doesn’t really matter (for now). The simple contrast between Mr. McCain and his Vietnam allusions and Mr. Obama and his nuts-and-bolts prescriptions favors the Democrat, especially given his party’s built-in advantage on economic issues.
Plus, Mr. McCain walked into a trap when he started his speech by saying: “Let me give you the state of the race today…We have 22 days to go. We’re six points down. The national media has written us off.”
His intent was to sell himself as the underdog, but Mr. Obama was able to take this line and make it seem like Mr. McCain is fixated on horse-race politics while the economy goes to bits around him.
“Senator McCain may be worried about losing an election,” Mr. Obama said, “but I’m worried about you losing your jobs. I’m worried about you losing your homes. I’m worried about you losing your life savings.”
And so it was that Mr. McCain lost the sound bite-wars on the first day of his “reboot.” By late Monday, his campaign – whose surrogates had spent the weekend touting Monday as the day when he would offer an economic plan – was promising a second, more specific speech on economic matters for Tuesday. At best, though, he figures to sound like an echo of Mr. Obama.
When he toyed with launching an all-out assault on Mr. Obama last week, Mr. McCain was met with fierce personal criticism – and poll numbers that suggested the strategy wouldn’t work. The new game plan isn’t going much better, but at least now Mr. McCain stands a chance of walking away from this election with his dignity still intact.