McCain's campaign shows new vulnerability, but will Obama exploit it?

by JS O’Brien

John McCain’s campaign advisers have made a potentially election-changing, tactical error.

They’ve started lying.

Lying in campaigns isn’t new, of course. The GOP has made big lies central to their campaigns since Nixon and Harry Dent, refining the technique with Reagan and his campaign manager, Lee Atwater, and have since kicked it up 20 or so notches in the Rove era. Most of us know about Rove, but he learned at Atwater’s knee, and it’s Atwater who accused Kitty Dukakis of burning an American flag and Dukakis, himself, of being treated for mental illness.

Generally, campaign lying works. The GOP knows that. The Democrats know it, too, and they’ve done some lying of their own. Unfortunately for them, they’re just not as good at it as the Republicans, so their lies tend to be smaller and less prolific, aimed at a constituency that is very different from the GOP one. In other words, lying doesn’t work as well for them.

Election campaigns are a bit like set-piece battles. There may be a central set of tactics that work for an army in most battles, but they may not work for all because conditions change (see Custer, George Armstrong), and a really brilliant commander, knowing the tactics his opponent is likely to use, can turn those predictable and time-worn tactics against him. We are now at a point where Barack Obama can do just that.

John McCain is running on integrity, putting nation before himself, being a maverick in a Republican Party that has seen more than its share of scandals during the W years. His questionable reputation for integrity and being his own man is his strength, and if Karl Rove has taught us nothing else, swiftboat tactics proved that attacking an opponent’s strengths can work if the opponent has difficulty fighting back (or won’t fight back, in John Kerry’s case) on that ground.

McCain’s campaign has given the Obama campaign the perfect opportunity to attack John McCain where he is strongest. The fact is, the McCain campaign has lied. No question. Whether they are direct lies or lies of omission, the lying has been pernicious, egregious, and unrelenting. Here are just a few of them, from

  • McCain makes a lie of omission by saying that Obama supported comprehensive sex education for children in kindergarten. In reality, that part of the “sex education” was teaching them how to avoid pedophiles.
  • The campaign says that Obama’s health care plan would force small businesses out of business when, in fact, the plan exempts small businesses.
  • Palin says she didn’t support the infamous “bridge to nowhere” when, in fact, she supported it right up to the point that Congress killed it.
  • McCain says that Obama gave big oil billions in subsidies when, in fact, the bill in question slightly raised taxes on the oil companies.
  • The campaign keeps repeating lies about Obama’s tax proposals, prompting to call it a “pattern of deceit.”
  • McCain has a history of, at the very least, questionable judgment and implied corruption when he helped delay and investigation of Charles H. Keating, became one of the “Keating Five,” and helped cost taxpayers about $5,000 per family of four in the subsequent S&L bailout.
  • While not exactly a lie, McCain called Falwell and Robertson “agents of intolerance,” then embraced them, has flip-flopped on tax cuts, etc. which demonstrates that he tend to talk out of both sides of his mouth.

This is not the sort of thing smart campaign managers do when their candidate is running away from his party’s current reputation for corruption and (at best) obfuscation, and is trying very hard to position himself as the anti-Republican Republican in charge of change. In fact, he has just demonstrated that he is exactly like the Republicans he is following up. In a sense, he as just thrust his jaw forward towards Barack Obama and said, “C’mon son. Give me your best shot right in the old kisser.”

But will Obama do it and, if he does, will he do it right?

Let’s take the second question, first. In order to do it right, he has to put four things into his ads:

  1. The accusation of untruth along with a proving example (using moving pictures, preferably, but pictures and words on a screen from a reputable source if that’s all he’s got)
  2. Demonstration of untruth (moving pictures of McCain and Palin giving themselves the lie with earlier words would be best)
  3. Demonstration of how it applies to lies from the Bush Administration (“mission accomplished,” testimony that the Iraq War would pay for itself or be over in months, etc.)
  4. A wrap-up message that ties McCain/Palin to the George W. Bush and Republican corruption.

Done well enough, and with a large enough ad buy, Obama’s campaign can shift the election campaign away from the Palin/female voter connection toward where he wants it to be: squarely linking McCain’s own dishonesty with dishonesty and corruption in McCain’s own party. Obama has the media behind him on this issue. What he needs to do is to is to get very, very honest, himself, make the point over and over that he will not stoop to making false claims (and he’s stretched some truths, so far), and attack McCain on his newly demonstrated, doubtful character.

Will Obama do this?

I’m going to guess that he will, but only when it’s too late. Making this message work requires repetition, and there’s enough time to get sufficient repetition prior to the election if he starts now, but not if Obama waits until he’s eight points behind in the polls on October 22.

On the political battlefield, there are commanders who see an opportunity and move swiftly to exploit it, risking much but with a commensurate reward should they be right. There are commanders who prefer defense, risk little, rarely are defeated, but rarely register outright wins, either. One can make an argument that the latter sort could be a good president, but is rarely an excellent election campaigner.

I think Barack Obama will stick to what he’s doing now, saying “no I didn’t” to everything McCain says he did, and losing ground inch by inch as more and more people come to believe McCain’s big lies. He could go on the attack and turn the tables on McCain’s strategy, and I hope he will, but nothing I’ve seen so far suggests that Obama is that type of man.

34 replies »

  1. The primary reason that Republicans, and not Democrats, can lie lie and lie again is that the media is owned by fellow Republicans. It is in the owners’ interest to report and repeat the lies as truths. And that’s the same reason that Democrats are always on the defensive.

    lies that keep the electorate unsure, and resultant election results close, works well for Repblicans for the second big reason: as a policy, Republicans blithely cheat election vote tallies and disenable potential contrary voting blocs. Can you believe it? After all these years and demonstrations of how easily they can be manipulated, a large number of states will still rely on electronic voting machines this coming election.

    I wish I could feel that this country is not on its way to the disaster that befell earlier countries whose hubris carried them far beyond what was sustainable. But I can’t. For one thing, the Republican puppet masters who are catapulting America into sure disaster are not worried; they are not invested in America, and keep their holdings international. They’ll come out OK.

    Furthermore, it’s hard at this time to see American protests going beyond what is grudgingly sanctioned in the “free speech” zones. As far as I can see, presently the last hope that the catastrophe express will be derailed rests in this medium and sites like this.

    Agents of truth, we can only keep trying. How many Cassandras does it take to screw a light bulb back in?

  2. How many Cassandras? One to tell the truth and millions to insist that it’s the truth to no avail ;-).

    Pooka, I can’t buy two of your premises without some hard evidence. You’d have to show me that news staff and editorial staff are being told what to say by the owners, and you’d have to provide solid evidence of widespread Republican voting fraud. I’m not saying that some owners don’t influence news and editorial staff. For Fox News, for instance, it’s a marketing ploy that has served them well. And I’m not saying there hasn’t been voting fraud in some places at some times throughout American history. There most certainly has been. But I’d have to have some pretty strong evidence that your allegations are widespread before I’ll buy them, at this point.

    This is not to say that I don’t fear we’re headed headed for the kind of country you say we are, now. I am. I just don’t think we’re quite there, yet.

    As a guy who works with cognitive influences on behavior, I see the reason Republicans get away with lies as being very integrated with human behavior. The first trick to get away with a lie is to tell someone something he wants to believe. So, a message like “you can have all the government services you’ve had before, we can even increase them, and cut taxes so we don’t have to pay for them” is something people want to believe. The second trick is to play on their fears to motivate them, as in “All those scary people who aren’t white will take away your jobs.”

    The Republicans control the something-for-nothing and fear messages, so they’ve controlled elections. They know what all propagandists have known since the 20s and 30s.

  3. Not since Nixon have I seen journalists turn on a candidate for lying like they have this week McCain. Still, with the public’s leeriness of the media, that may yet redound (like that word?) to his credit.

  4. JS,

    I don’t think anyone has to provide proof that corporate masters are telling news media what to say. Just say it – and continue to say it. It’s called fighting fire with fire. You know like the media (except Fox Liars and Crooks) is always “liberal” and shouldn’t be trusted. It’s classic Goebbels procedure reversed on its practitioners. Let the burden of proof be on them as they have put the burden of disproving liberal bias on the media – and made it their toady as a result. This is no time to play nice….

    Proof of election fraud should be provable. Take a quick gander at the list of convictions for voting irregularities in Ohio in ’04, the story behind the firing of US attorneys, oh, lots of stuff. Of course you might have to go to international press for info. US media hasn’t covered this stuff for fear of being smeared as “liberal biased.”

    And maybe if management is merely saying “Avoid reporting that opens you up to charges of liberal bias or pay the price – like Dan Rather did….” Makes matters simple enough, doesn’t it?

    You may deny this argument on ethical bases, but I doubt you can find evidence to deny it on factual ones….

  5. Hey Jim,

    Not trying to deny or agree, just waiting for something useful.

    Maybe someone in the media needs to do an expose on pressure in the media.

  6. “Obama supported comprehensive sex education for children in kindergarten.”

    The Obama camp should have put an add that stated “The Republicans Support pedophiles by blocking legislation that protects innocent children.”

    I’m starting to think that Obama just needs to do what the manatees in south park did when they wrote Family Guy episodes. Get some idea balls and choose randomly. The crazier the better. Hitler-gay-sex-economy-Iran.

    “John McCain once had gay sex with Hitler while selling America’s future to Iran”

    Now that will get some air play.

    The latest add from Obama is actually pretty funny. I’m not sure I would have gone negative any sooner then now. It’s just after the conventions, and I actually think the Palin hype has motivated the Dems. I think the Dems are trying to hush how much money they have been raising becasue they want it to keep rolling in. While the media is reporting how the Dems are imploding, Obama’s raking in the cash and opening up new offices in battle ground states and purchasing ad buys. Palin does throw a curve becasue she’s getting a lot of air time. I’m still on the fence with this one. Do you lower yourself to even mention her name, or do make it Obama va Palin?

    You are right, now is the perfect time to blast McCain since the media is covering how untruthful his ada are. Of course while doing that the media is playing the ad over and over again. I can only assume that the ads from both sides will get tougher. I’m still waiting for the “he’s going to take our white women” ad that Ford got pounded with in Tennessee. We all know it’s coming.

  7. I think we need to co-opt that idiot Dr. Phil’s famous catchphrase: How’s that working for ya? After all, there’s no shortage of material. Why not attack using the truth?

    And I’m almost serious about hiring Jon Stewart. He’s built a comedy dynasty around pointing out obvious lies and backing them up with video.

    And furthermore, if it’s not about issues, John, why the need to lie about them?

    Woof. Grr.

  8. Ann,

    I agree about Stewart, in the sense that he SHOWS people the lies. I really don’t get why the political ad people haven’t caught on that showing is better than telling.

  9. Russ: I noticed that – the media is finally saying “hey, we’re not complete idiots here. If you’re going to lie this baldly, we’re going to call you on it.” And it’s not just the big liberal papers, either. When small local papers report on the lies (and it’s not just wire service), that’s a big deal, and I found some of that this week.

    JS: Showing people is hard. You have to have the time, the tools, and the data all at the same time. For example, I’d love to be able to sit down and crank out a number of graphs about how oil shale won’t work for multiple reasons, but I don’t have the software tools to do it and can’t afford to just go out and buy them.

  10. I should add that the Obama campaign has been very deferential to John McCain, based on his service record and his “POW” campaign. Perhaps it is time to stop talking about what a good man McCain is and start hammering home the craven behavior of selling his soul.

    Unfortunately, they won’t point out the truth of his service. They won’t show the film of his actual release where he looks well fed and moves briskly…instead we get the picture with Nixon taken almost 6 months after his release (the crutches being from a bone resetting procedure). Nor will they run an add showing McCain hugging his former interrogator on the floor of the Senate. Nor will they quote the sworn testimony (in the Senate) of a KGB general…who not only said that KGB did interrogations, but that a “high ranking naval officer” agreed to work for the KGB after his release.

    McCain’s entire “hero” status is built on lies, but the Dems won’t touch them.

  11. Brian:

    I would modify your statement to say that showing people is hard, sometimes. Ann is onto something, here. The Daily Show does an excellent job of showing people by running video clips of public figures saying one thing, then another clip of their saying another, and opposite, thing. Or they’ll show clips of someone making an assertion, then another clip showing that assertion not to be true.

    It’s a really, really effective technique, and it would work well in the only reasonable medium available for reaching such a vast audience: television. It would work because the message is simple, visual, and absolutely devastating.

    Your example about oil shale is apt, and it applies to complex national policy, for sure, but I think it’s very different from what I’m talking about, which is exposing McCain’s and Palin’s lies. In your shale example, you would need a LOT more than software resources to animate your message. You’d need a medium other than television (for most people, anyway, because they wouldn’t watch what you have to say). Audio-visual is just not a good medium for conveying complex messages, and it’s a terrible medium for conveying messages people don’t want to hear. For that, you need one-on-one conversation (or very small, interactive groups) at the very least, and the media of simulations and hands-on experience would work much better.

    We deal in words on S&R, mostly, and it’s a very abstract medium that is good for abstract thought, but it doesn’t hit the emotions as hard as audio-visual, and it’s emotions that drive voting behavior (or most other behavior, for that matter).

  12. Wow, yes it is emotions that drive voting behavior…and that is frightening.

    Combine that with Russ Wellen’s observation that politicians treat voters like consumers and you have the recipe that cooks up disasters like the one we’re currently living through.

    The question then becomes, is there anyway to break that cycle?

    I read an interesting thread at The Agonist yesterday. One poster posed the challenge of laying the economic blame on the Republicans in three sentences. Anyone care to take a shot?

  13. Lex,

    Now THAT’s an interesting challenge. Here’s a first draft shot at three sentences:

    On April 2, 1987, John McCain met with federal overseers to help delay their investigation of campaign contributor and felon, Charles H. Keating, whose unregulated, risky investments sparked the Savings and Loan crisis and an economic recession, ultimately costing Americans taxpayers $5,000 for every family of four. The Senate Ethics Committee ruled that McCain had shown “poor judgment” in shielding Keating. Now, once-healthy companies like Merrilll Lynch and Lehman Brothers are no more, banks are failing, and people are losing their homes and jobs because John McCain and his Republicans care more about their campaign contributors than they do about America and Americans.

    And since I wrote this with a TV commercial in mind, here’s the tag line:

    John McCain: Poor judgment then, poor judgment now.

  14. Agreed, Ann, but it’s three sentences, which was the challenge. And it’s also about the length of a TV ad, and it can be backed with useful images.

    Perhaps I’ll do an example.

  15. How about:

    Charles H. Keating: convicted felon and racketeer, whose unregulated, fraudulent junk bond sales sparked the Savings and Loan crisis, plunging America into economic recession.
    John McCain: United States Senator who received over $100,000 in campaign contributions from Keating, then tried to shield his friend from federal investigators when the ugly truth came to light.
    Now banks are failing, Wall Street is in crisis, and Americans are losing their homes, jobs, and dreams… because John McCain and his Republicans care more about their campaign contributors than they do about you.

    More dependent on visuals, more familiar terms, nice specific connection and really bad criminal terms? Still three sentences. 🙂

  16. You could get the Ethics Committee thing in with a shot of a headline or their report with the relevant words highlighted.

  17. Nicely done Ann! I like how hard-hitting it is. I wonder if there’s a way to revise it so that it ties what happend in 1987 to what’s going on now. Your copy makes it sound as though the current crisis is of Keating’s making, and that’s likely to be rejected. Some other claims aren’t strictly true (I know that wasn’t part of the rules, but let’s make it a part, OK?). McCain didn’t actually try to shield the man, but he did go to a meeting with federal regulators, and that meeting delayed the investigation so that the ugly truth didn’t come out just yet.

    In addition, it always seems to work better when there’s as much detail as possible. “Wall Street” is kind of an abstraction for most people, I think, but almost everyone has heard of Merrill Lynch … but they may not have heard that Merrill Lynch just got absorbed by BofA. Merrill Lynch ceasing to exist is much more shocking, I think, than “Wall Street in crisis.” That’s also why I gave a specific date in the first copy, because it’s more convincing than “once upon a time,” but I think we can do without it.

    I added “their” to the copy a couple of times for rhetorical repetition.

    I also think we need a tag line, and we need to shorten it a bit to fit into a :30 spot.

    Here’s another iteration. It’s not quite right, but it gets across some of what I mean.

    Charles H. Keating: convicted felon, whose unregulated, fraudulent junk bond sales sparked the Savings and Loan crisis, plunging America into economic recession.

    John McCain: United States Senator who received $112,000 in campaign contributions from Keating, then helped delay a federal investigation so the ugly truth wouldn’t come to light

    Now banks are failing, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers are no more, and Americans are losing their homes, their jobs, and their dreams for the same reason… because John McCain and his Republicans care more about their campaign contributors than they do about you.

    John McCain: He’ll be your president … for a price

  18. You could add the date back into the first sentence, then change the last to “John McCain and his Republicans still care more about their campaign contributors than they do about you.” Would that be enough differentiation?

    Since Merrill Lynch is in the headlines right now, I think you’re dead right about leaving it in.

  19. Good stuff, Ann.

    Here’s another iteration that should fit into a :30 spot.

    Charles H. Keating: convicted felon, whose junk bonds plunged America into recession.

    John McCain: US Senator who took $112,000 from Keating, then helped delay an investigation so Keating could get away with it for two more years

    Now companies like Merrill Lynch are failing, and Americans are losing their jobs and their homes because John McCain and his Republicans still care more about their campaign contributors than they do about you.

    John McCain: He’ll be your president … for a price

  20. Well, well, done. There is no reason why that couldn’t/shouldn’t be an Obama ad.

    I like the original tagline the best. It has a lot of punch, and it goes beyond Keating or the economy. I do like the “… for a price” line, but it might be too hard.

    “still care more about their campaign contributors than they do about you.” A political kidney punch…without trying to claim some silly high road about how the little people keep the Democrats financially afloat.

  21. Lex:

    I hear you. I also think the “for a price” line is a bit too much, but I’ve fallen out of love with the “Poor judgment then, poor judgment now” line because,originally, it harkened back to the Senate Ethics Committee finding. Plus, in the new context, it sounds like we’re just saying that giving back to your campaign contributors is just poor judgment.

    Here’s line that might work because it can be taken in more than one way:

    John McCain: Can you afford him?

    It sounds as though we can’t afford him because of the way he plays the game, but it also has a slgiht feel of whether or not you can buy him.

  22. Keating and Keating in part two is too singsong.

    I’m with Lex – I think the first tagline stands very nicely on its own.

  23. “Can you afford him?” is good. Maybe i think too much, but the word “more” in the “still care…” line takes care of the giving back to your contributors/judgment issue in that it doesn’t suggest that the contributions or even some quid pro quo is wrong, but it does speak clearly about priorities.

    John McCain: US Senator whose acceptance of $112,000 in campaign contributions and efforts to delay investigation of Keating convinced the Senate Ethics Committee of Sen McCain’s poor judgment.

    Too wordy, i think, but i also think that the “poor judgment” verdict by the Ethics Committee is important…partially because it is somewhat official and partially because it either shows McCain to be much less of the maverick or more of an outlaw.

    But i agree, without the judgment ruling the judgment tag line hangs rather than swings.

  24. Ann,

    I did, and i agree that it would be an essential visual. But i also think that it’s a point that needs to be hammered home.

    The more “…for a price” stewed in my brain, the more it grew on me. If the “…still care…” line is a kidney punch, the “…for a price” tag line might well be a tire iron to the knee cap.

    I lost the link, but i gather that there is a place that is accepting ideas for television spots.

  25. Ann:

    I don’t think the visual of what the ethics committee said would work all that well. The rule of thumb in A/V is to have the picture reinforce the auditory message. The human brain can only process one thing at a time when using the same part of the brain for both tasks (so-called multi-taskers may object, but studies have shown that people lose as much as 30% of productivity when multi-tasking, and neurological studies show that brain function must cease and then recover when switching from one task to another, using the same part of the brain for different inputs).

    I know we’ve all seen a lot of commercials where there is voice-over and on-screen text and we may think we’re interpreting both, but in reality, we’re switching from one to the other, losing the audio message momentarily while we read the text. That’s OK, and sometimes even desirable when the text is the same as the voice over, but not when you’re expecting the text to convey one message and the VO another simultaneously.

    Watching pictures (not reading text) and listening, as in a movie, appears to be a single task because the pictures aren’t forcing the speech center in the brain to try to do two things at once. That’s how we can talk and observe body language at the same time.

    Wonky, I know, but I wanted to explain why some of the stuff you see in commercials (and political commercials, especially) is bad stuff.

    Thanks for your comments on this, but I think I might go with “John McCain: Can we afford him?” for the tag line, because it could mean “can we afford his bad judgment” or it could mean “can we afford to pay him enough to wean him off money from campaign contributors.”

  26. Hey Rho,

    Ordinarily, I’d have this up by tomorrow, but I doubt that will happen. I’m under some deadline pressure for the job that pays. I don’t know if I”ll be able to do it before next week, frankly, which is too bad.