McCain's New Plan - Attack Obama's Character. Will it Work?

| Mon Jun. 30, 2008 10:17 AM EDT

You knew John McCain's promise that he was going to "reject the type of politics that degrade our civics" and emphasize respect in his campaign against Barack Obama was kind of window dressing when McCain and his top surrogates claimed Obama was the candidate of Hamas.

But now the claim has officially been put to bed. Today's Washington Post:

McCain typically leaves the sharpened criticism to others, in the hope of being able to claim the high ground of conducting a "respectful" campaign. But the abrupt shift in tone among his paid staff members, volunteer surrogates and other Republican staples of the cable news circuit is unmistakable...

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It also reflects a growing belief among McCain's strategists that the campaign for the White House will be won or lost based on voters' view of Obama's character. In a strategy memo released Thursday, McCain's top political adviser accused Obama of "self-serving partisanship."

...The new Republican theme moves the campaign argument away from policy disagreements — of which there are many — to the realm of character, where McCain aides think their candidate is untouchable. But the tactic has potential risks for McCain, who has said repeatedly over the past several months that he will run a "respectful" campaign that does not engage in the politics of personal destruction.

For a taste of what the attacks on Obama are going to look like, here's McCain strategist Steve Schmidt: "It's a statement of fact that [Obama] discards people, and he discards positions when they become inconvenient for him. When politicians say one thing and then do another, like Senator Obama has done, voters wonder about the steadfastness of the character of the person sitting in the Oval Office."

And here's Senator Lindsey Graham. "[Obama's] a calculating politician. The bottom line about Barack Obama, whatever the position — whether it be Iraq, campaign finance reform, public financing — he's going to take a tack that allows him to win. He wants to win beyond anything else, even more than keeping his word."

This is a two-pronged attack, of course. On the one hand, you say outright that Obama is not a man of integrity who cannot be trusted with the responsibilities of the Oval Office. On the other hand, you say (without mentioning Obama at all) that McCain is the "the American president Americans have been waiting for." Add a dash of internet-based misinformation, and voters get the message.

The fundamental flaw in this strategy is that it doesn't acknowledge that John McCain has reversed himself on as many positions as Obama, if not more. The Carpetbagger Report has cataloged dozens. Just recently, we tracked flip-flops on the estate tax and off-shore drilling. Other big ones include immigration, the Bush tax cuts, torture, abortion, and the religious right.

But if you were to ask voters which candidate has flip-flopped more frequently, I'm sure they'd say Obama. McCain's identity has been established for years — everyone has known since his last presidential campaign, and possibly before, that he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and has taken dangerous but principled political positions. The McCain campaign is betting that nothing he has done in the last two years, and nothing he says on the campaign trail now, can undercut the reputation built on those foundations.

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