Responding to a question about whether his candidacy would necessarily be damaged by the suffering Republican brand, McCain responded, "Sen. Obama says that I'm running for Bush's third term. It seems to me he's running for Jimmy Carter's second."
Then he laughed at his own joke.
But what's truly funny about McCain's "Obama equals Carter" line is that the Arizona Republican hasn't always been so down on the former president and his team of advisers. In a May 1999 interview with The Hill newspaper, on the occasion of his first presidential run, McCain was asked to opine on the recent occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In his written reply, McCain described Carter as having had "the greatest, the noblest and loftiest intentions of any president, but he never really understood how to use the institution to obtain his goals." In his brief response to the question, McCain also said that while the Iranian hostage crisis "brought him down and conveyed to the people he was a weak president. Whether he was or not, that's [debatable]."
Still, the new gambit lives on, with McCain repeating it on Wednesday during a CNBC interview. The line fits with the broader pattern of guilt-by-association that the Republican presidential nominee's team has been trying to make against Obama.
When Carter met with members of Hamas in May, McCain suggested Obama would have to distance himself the former president or be implicated in kind. (Even after Obama criticized Carter and reiterated his objections to Hamas, though, McCain still used Hamas's praise for Obama, since withdrawn, in a fundraising appeal.)
As a writer for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz editorialized in April:
"[McCain] wanted to say, here is an evil square: Iran-Hamas-Carter-Obama. He also meant: If Obama is like Carter, the weak loser, then McCain is like Reagan, his idol, and all that is left is to rerun the election results from 1980."
McCain's surrogates have also received the message loud and clear. Stu Sandler, deputy executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told the National Journal that informal Obama adviser and former Carter Natoinal Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski could be used to stoke fears among voters for whom Israel's security is a top concern.
The only problem on this count is that Brzezinski was one of McCain's principal national security advisers during that inaugural 2000 run. Back when McCain was a fearless critic of dogmatic Republican thinking, he justified his hiring of Brzezinski as emblematic of his bipartisan streak. As the Tuscon Citizen reported in January 2000:
"McCain added more global and military experience to his campaign by naming a foreign policy team that includes advisers who have served under President Carter, a Democrat, as well as under Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the father of his chief rival for the GOP nomination."
"I am honored that Zbigniew Brzezinski will join my foreign policy team," McCain said at that time. "As a former national security adviser and a highly respected foreign policy expert, his broad experience makes him an invaluable asset to my team." In describing his key advisers, McCain continued: "I am very honored to have the support and advice of these recognized experts whose years of service to our nation and experience in international affairs have earned them the well-deserved respect of all."
So is Obama's respect for Carter aides like Zbigniew Brzezinski "well-deserved" or a danger to the country? It all depends which John McCain you ask.