So why did lovable old John McCain suddenly put out FOUR negative TV ads in less than two weeks?
After the latest (and rather good) version of his positive biographical spot went wide just three weeks ago?
I'll lay out the sequence of events and reasons at each juncture.
Are new campaign director Steve Schmidt and company crazy like foxes?
Or just crazy?
What's the plan? As I said earlier in the week, they were deathly afraid -- not the way macho guys would put it, to be sure -- of going into the Olympics with Barack Obama having a steady and sizable lead. Right now, Obama doesn't have that.
Which means that McCain has survived the week after Obama's huge foreign tour -- a triumph for Obama on many levels -- and Obama's follow-up this week on domestic economic concerns, without losing contact with the frontrunner.
The fear amongst Republicans is that once Obama gets a big lead on McCain, he won't let go, even with more of the Wright Stuff and Bittergate and the like coming down the pike. Kind of like Ronald Reagan. This is the year for a change election, with nearly 80% of voters saying America is on the wrong track and most connecting McCain -- who in many respects is a fairly doctrinaire conservative, despite his reputation -- with the extraordinarily unpopular President Bush.
So let's run through the sequence of events, which explains what the McCain campaign is really up to and why with this sudden and dramatic negative shift, typified by 4 straight negative TV ads in 13 days. Which may be called the "Four on the Floor."
For months, John McCain has been running mostly positive TV ads, usually playing up, one way or another, his famous service in the Navy. Some ads have worked better than others, and the latest and more effective version of this advertising was released in early July.
But although it was backed up with heavy spending on broadcast TV in 11 battleground states and national cable TV, the ad failed to move numbers.
In this bad year for Republicans, McCain has been essentially a candidate of biography. But the biography is not strong enough to overcome another candidacy of biography, that of Obama, who has become an increasing target of personal acrimony from the Mac campaign, which supposed that his war hero background would trump any personal story the Democrats could muster.
New McCain campaign director Steve Schmidt, who I know very well and who ran uber-celeb Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide re-election campaign as California governor, and the Bush-Cheney 2004 war room before that, took over operational control of the campaign in early July. The new bio spot was a result of his new role.
But it simply didn't work, other than to reinforce McCain's standing amongst those who were already for him.
A change was clearly in order, especially with Obama embarking upon an unprecedented foreign tour. If Obama got a big lead coming out of his star turn in the Middle East and Europe, he could well, as one McCain advisor put it, "float beyond our reach."
Especially with the Olympics on tap, followed immediately by what looks to be a spectacular Democratic National Convention in Denver, heart of the Mountain West which Obama is poised to take away from the Republicans.
Team McCain decided not to let that happen. No matter how unpretty a spectacle it was for them.
Beginning July 18th, every TV ad produced by the McCain campaign has been a hit spot on Obama. This, of course, coincides with the beginning of Obama's much ballyhooed tour of the Middle East and Europe. Which the McCain campaign, ironically, goaded him into with their Iraq watch at the Republican National Committee. Be careful what you wish for.
Why the big attack mode for McCain, a pol long identified with positive campaigning?
The issue constellation is not favorable to McCain. To say the least.
Beyond that, there is a fundamental strategic conundrum for McCain, which I wrote about on June 6th. McCain has to hold onto a conservative base, which is increasingly out of phase with the mainstream of America, if he is to have a chance at winning in a bad year for Republicans. Those are simple numbers. He also has to win over enough independents for victory. And he has to raise some big money, pushed through the Republican Party, for which he is reliant on President Bush.
Unlike Schmidt's other client, Arnold Schwarzenegger, McCain does not have the personal wealth or fundraising prowess to fundamentally detach himself from Bush. So he's stuck.
If McCain runs a positive campaign against Obama, in this year, he almost certainly loses.
As a result, the famed Straight Talk Express is now the Tough Talk Express.
What is Team McCain out to do with Obama?
Position him as "a selfish celebrity who's not like us."
With this clear strategic imperative, McCain succeeded in jamming up Obama for most of this week. Obama has been forced to respond to a flurry of hit spots, including most recently an essentially silly ad, the "Celeb" ad above -- silly to most of the country, if not to the three states McCain is most concerned with -- instead of concentrating his fire on the economy. Which is an issue area where McCain is, not to put too fine a point on it, weak.
This is not what Obama wanted to be doing in the week after the most spectacular week of his campaign, and there are now little more than three months left in the campaign.
What are the three states McCain is most concerned with? Well, they are states in which he has been consistently outspending Obama on the air, far from the coasts: Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
As it happens, Obama played somewhat into Team McCain's hands this week.
Obama should have descended from the Olympian heights he reached in Berlin at the beginning of the week. Instead he began with a high-level meeting with elite economic advisors in Washington , rather than a house meeting in Missouri.
After this week, Obama has two hopes to stay on track.
That the McCain crew has over-reached in their inaccuracy, pique and snarkiness toward him.
And that he re-tools his approach.
Meanwhile, knowing that they could be criticized in the press for going all-negative -- and with ads that are, let's say, factually challenged -- Team McCain set the table last week by attacking the press for its supposed pro-Obama bias. The purpose being a brushback pitch, hoping to intimidate the press into criticizing Obama and going easy on McCain.
The truth is that both candidates have had the press explain away various misstatements and outright gaffes. If anyone has gotten the better break on that score, it's actually McCain.
In reality, we've had two candidates who are press favorites. McCain's gone so far as to refer to the press as "my base." And both candidates have a touch of the prima donna about them.
Now, in my view, the attacks from Team McCain on the "celebrity" front are not very serious. I would enjoy seeing them tried in my state of California.
Take this Rick Davis missive: "Only a celebrity of Barack Obama's magnitude could attract 200,000 fans in Berlin who gathered for the mere opportunity to be in his presence. These are not supporters or even voters, but fans fawning over The One. 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."
Or this line from a Schmidt conference call: "Do the American people want to elect the world's biggest celebrity or do they want to elect an American hero?"
An intriguing question, given that Schmidt was the campaign manager for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who really might be "the world's biggest celebrity."
And who is also McCain's most famous backer, though the California governor parts company with McCain on oil policy and wife Maria Shriver famously endorsed Obama during the primary. Schwarzenegger's backing for McCain in the California primary knocked principal rival Mitt Romney out of the Republican race and effectively delivered the nomination to McCain.
In another irony, McCain himself has long pursued celebrity status.
The truth is that McCain has been a celebrity far longer than Obama. He is a longtime personal friend of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, who've frequently visited him at his "cabin" in Sedona, Arizona. He's hosted Saturday Night Live and made many appearances on late night talk shows and comedy shows.
And as for the elitist trope the McCain crew is intent on latching on to Obama's throat, here is an interesting fact.
The Orange County Register, a right-wing newspaper, in late June, asked McCain about the price of gasoline. You know, that crisis he goes on about, for which his solution is more offshore oil drilling, notwithstanding the fact that it would take a great many years before there would be any impact.
OC Register: When was the last time you pumped your own gas and how much did it cost?
McCain: Oh, I don't remember. Now there's Secret Service protection. But I've done it for many, many years. I don't recall and frankly, I don't see how it matters. I've had hundreds and hundreds of town hall meetings, many as short a time ago as yesterday. I communicate with the people and they communicate with me very effectively.
The fact is that McCain only got Secret Service protection a few months ago.
In any event, it's not hard to see how much gas costs. All you have to do is look out your window as you drive by the plethora of gas stations on any route. Or, in the senator's case, are driven by those stations by staff.
Obama likes arugula.
McCain didn't know how much gasoline costs.
Fellow elitists of the world, unite!
In the meantime, there are real issues at play in this election.
Time to get to them.