Obama Rapid-Response Ad Skewers McCain

Every day, my inbox is filled with twenty or thirty or more press releases from the presidential campaigns and their surrogates. Some communicate important factual information or make newsworthy position statements; at least half are just toss-off cheap shots or blatant spin on ephemeral and forgettable events.

Sometimes, though, even the trite stuff turns interesting, reminding us that politics isn't just deadly serious -- it's also a great spectator sport when it's played well. (Think Roman gladiators instead of pro football.)

Exhibit 1: the campaigns' exchanges Thursday afternoon trying to turn the nation's economic woes to political advantage:

At 2:37 p.m. Pacific time Thursday, the McCain campaign issued a press release announcing its newest T.V. ad, titled "Advice," which ties Obama to a disgraced financial figure. The McCain press release describes the ad this way:

ARLINGTON, VA -- Today, McCain-Palin 2008 released its latest television ad, entitled "Advice." The ad highlights who Barack Obama is seeking advice from on mortgage and housing policy. Unfortunately for the American people, one of those advisers is Franklin Raines who led Fannie Mae when "extensive financial fraud" was committed to enrich Fannie executives. The ad will be televised nationally.

At 3:50 p.m., the Obama camp responded with a press release disputing the McCain ad's central premise. It read:

Statement from Frank Raines on the ad: "I am not an adviser to Barack Obama, nor have I provided his campaign with advice on housing or economic matters."

"This is another flat-out lie from a dishonorable campaign that is increasingly incapable of telling the truth. Frank Raines has never advised Senator Obama about anything -- ever. And by the way, someone whose campaign manager and top adviser worked and lobbied for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shouldn't be throwing stones from his seven glass houses," said Obama-Biden campaign spokesman Bill Burton.

So far, this is no different than the dozens of other, relatively benign, usually unreported tit-for-tat exchanges that the campaigns excrete two or three times a day into a thousand journalists' inboxes. Even the inadequacy of Obama's response isn't newsworthy; for at least a couple of months, it's been standard practice for the Obama campaign to answer a McCain T.V. ad with a mere press release that, even if accurate, doesn't reach the same audience -- a symptom of deficiencies both of cash and of inspiration.

But then, in one stroke (and in just over three hours), the Obama campaign turned a pedestrian, inside-the-Beltway kerfuffle into high political art -- and did so by borrowing a tactic from McCain, whose own media strategy has focused largely on appropriating and confusing Obama's trademarks by making them his own (e.g., "change" and "enough is enough").

At 6:54 p.m. -- three hours and four minutes after McCain announced his ad -- the Obama campaign issued a second press release announcing (and linking to) their own new TV ad, "Who Advises?" -- an ad that mirrors McCain's so closely that there's no other way to interpret it except as a direct "in your face!" to the McCain campaign -- the electoral equivalent of stealing McCain's ball, stuffing it in the hoop, then leaning into McCain's grill and sharing just a couple words of trash talk to drive home the point that it's Obama's court now:

The Obama ad parallels the McCain ad from its intro (the opponent doesn't understand economics) to its theme (voters should be worried about the opponent's advisers) to its title (McCain's "Advice" vs. Obama's "Who Advises"). In fact, Obama's ad secretly has the same name as McCain's: the video embedded in Obama's own website is coded simply "advice.flv."

And both ads contain hidden messages. Most of Obama's inner circle happens to be white -- but McCain's ad lingers on three different images of another black man, one with few connections to Obama's campaign, and follows with a shot of a troubled, elderly white woman. It's not unreasonably cynical, in this era, to realize that this is a carefully-calibrated effort to trigger some voters' recollections of Obama's former black-rights-oriented pastor, and to provoke latent fears of a black cabal taking control of the government (remember, at the Texas Republican Party's convention there were buttons asking, "If Obama Is President... Will We Still Call It the White House?").

Obama's ad subtly reminds viewers to fear a different cabal, one terrifying to liberals, moderates and libertarian conservatives alike: the small and narrow-minded subset of evangelical Christians, sometimes called "dominionists" by theologians but more popularly (mis)labelled "fundamentalists," who seek control of everything from Middle East policy (where they believe God wants a cataclysmic war between Israel and the forces of Satan) to the intimate lives and reproductive choices of ordinary American people. The Obama ad doesn't just slam-dunk McCain on the economy; it also reminds people that the Republican Party is still dominated by fundamentalists like the anti-choice, anti-sex-ed, anti-gay, dinosaur-bones-are-a-trick-by-Satan Sarah Palin, who thinks God has given her a mission to occupy the White House and who, given McCain's age and health, may well wind up doing so. Where does the Obama ad do this? It's subtle but it's there: watch the word "fundamentally" draw attention to itself as it moves across the Obama ad, and ask whether it brought some undefined but nevertheless powerful emotions to the surface the first time you saw it.

Bottom line: the McCain ad is good, but the immediate, same-news-cycle Obama response is great. "Advice"? Naw. McCain's getting "schooled." Not only will Obama's ad neutralize McCain's if they both are run in battleground states, but it may succeed in stopping McCain from actually running his ad altogether, since he knows it will only be trumped, embarrassingly, by Obama's. By acting quickly, decisively, and creatively, Obama has preserved the status quo -- which, this week, is trending in Obama's favor. And by creating and circulating such a superb response ad to the media, Obama also is sending a message to opinion-makers that he's back in the game, carrying all the momentum.

This is the kind of brilliance that helped a little-known civil rights lawyer, Constitutional law professor and community organizer win the Democratic nomination over the best-connected political machine since Daley the Elder ran Chicago. The exchange of press releases and ads today is reminiscent of those the Obama camp pumped out regularly during the middle third of the primary season, before Obama decided to start dropping to a knee after the snap to run out the clock (and seemingly forgot how to rise to his feet again once the general election started). The mojo seemed to be missing from the Obama campaign over the last couple of months -- but if today's exchange of ads and press releases (coupled with August's fundraising numbers) is any indication, Obama may be getting that mojo back. And not only is it good politics -- it's great sport, as well.