John Heilemann suggests that John McCain once thought about a real campaign free of the usual GOP mudslinging but then this decision was made:
But Weaver, Murphy, and McKinnon are no longer guiding McCain. Instead, the motor behind his operation now is Steve Schmidt, the shaven-headed strategist who earned his bones running Karl Rove’s war room in 2004, Frenchifying and de-war-heroizing John Kerry. What Schmidt and his associates have apparently concluded is that McCain’s weaknesses—on the election’s most salient issues and as a candidate—are so pronounced and Obama’s vulnerabilities so glaring that the low road is their guy’s best, and maybe only, route to the White House. They’ve concluded, in other words, that even if McCain may not be able to win the election in any affirmative sense, he might still wind up behind the big desk if he and his people can strip the bark off Obama with sufficiently vicious force.
Once Schmidt was running the show, the path was clear:
For those not keeping score, a quick review of the McCain campaign’s lunge for Obama’s jugular. First, its new slogan: “Country first,” with its inverse insinuation that Obama puts something else (i.e., his own ambition) ahead of the nation. Second, McCain’s accusation that Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” Third, the McCain ad “Troops,” which claims that Obama, while in Germany, “made time to go the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops—seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” And, finally, the ad “Celeb,” with its intercut images of Obama in Berlin, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears. The strategy behind all this isn’t hard to discern: Drive up Obama’s negatives and render him unacceptable to pivotal voting blocs. Thus the depiction of him as too young, too feckless, and too pampered to be president. (In almost every shot in the McCain ads, Obama is smiling flashily, whereas McCain is pictured as weathered, sober, staring hard into the distance—a clever bit of jujitsu, using Obama’s pretty mug against him.) Thus the portrayal of him as precious, self-infatuated, and effete: “Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand ‘MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew—Black Forest Berry Honest Tea’ and worry about the price of arugula,” wrote campaign manager Rick Davis in an e-mail announcing “Celeb.” And thus the emphasis on Obama’s rock-star persona, designed to engender envy and contempt among the swath of Middle America for which hipness is no virtue but a sign of pretension. The racial undertones of this assault are subtle but undeniable, as Obama himself suggested when he asserted last week that his opponents are trying to make voters “scared” of him because he “doesn’t look like the other presidents on the currency.” They’re most glaring in “Troops,” which features footage of Obama sinking a three-pointer in Kuwait, despite the fact that the shot took place at a military base, which undermines the ad’s argument. But the spot’s deeper aim is to foster an unconscious simile: Obama as a blinged-up, camera-hungry, NBA shooting guard, Allen Iverson with a Harvard Law degree. Am I reaching? Consider this: Would the ad have featured footage of Obama on a golf course draining a hole-in-one? “No, it wouldn’t,” laughs a GOP media savant. “The racial angle is the first thing I thought of when I saw that ad. It fits into the celebrity stuff, too.” (For McCain, that impolitic, pro-Obama Ludacris track was manna from hip-hop heaven.)
Team McCain has the audacity for saying Obama played the race card. All part of the Schmidt strategy. Schmidt’s garbage got the worst President in my lifetime reelected in 2004 and the GOP hope is that this garbage will do the trick again. Folks who complain about this gutter politics should think twice for voting for Schmidt’s client – even if you happen to agree with something McCain has said on the real issues. Besides, if you don’t agree with what he said about an issue recently – just wait, he’ll flip-flop to a policy position you like just before he hurls some other dishonest smear at Obama. After all – he earlier said he wanted to run a clean campaign but then he hired Steve Schmidt.
Update: Tom Toles provides the perfect political cartoon!