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 FactCheck.org:
- 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 FactCheck.org 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:
- 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)
- Demonstration of untruth (moving pictures of McCain and Palin giving themselves the lie with earlier words would be best)
- 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.)
- 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.