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The Trash Talk Express

Analysis by Chris Graham

I expected more out of John McCain. A lot more.

I remember thinking a few years ago, circa 2000, that the Arizona senator might make a pretty good president. I bought into the whole Straight Talk deal that he was selling, supported his efforts to clean up campaigns through McCain-Feingold, told myself to overlook his lapdog fawning for George W. Bush in 2004 as evidence that he could be a team player, and wanted to believe him this year when he promised to campaign for the White House on the issues.

I don’t know what happened to that John McCain, but he might want to get in touch with the one who’s out on the campaign trail right now and tell him that he’s ruining his reputation, if there’s any of it left to salvage at this point in time.

“All I can is that we are proud of that commercial. We think Americans need to know that I believe that we should base this campaign on what we can do for Americans here at home and how we can make America safe and prosperous and that’s the theme of our campaign,” McCain said, referring to “that commercial” to the commercial entitled “Celeb” that pigeonholes Democratic Party opponent Barack Obama as a celebrity candidate light on the issues and the substance.

It’s not quite Willie Horton, but it is a low point nonetheless for a self-styled straight shooter now reduced of his own accord to attacking his rival as being the political equivalent of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

“It wasn’t too long ago that Sen. McCain and his campaign were talking about straight talk and civility and pledging to run a respectful campaign based solely on the issues. Sadly, each and every day, each and every hour, they seem to take a turn in what the St. Pete Times said today in an editorial that the Straight Talk Express has taken a turn into the gutter. It seems like we hit a new low note every day with this campaign,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday.

“We’ve got people struggling with high gas prices, with wage stagnation, rising health-care costs. We’ve got growing security concerns in Afghanistan. This is an election and moment of great consequence, and John McCain, unfortunately, seems to have made a strategic decision to rather than engage as the focus of his campaign on these substantive issues character assaults and negative advertisements. And this is not the John McCain the voters thought they were going to see in this presidential campaign,” Plouffe said.

What strikes me is that the McCain campaign has decided to go this negative this early. Today is Aug. 1, which has us still three months and change out from Election Day. I have to wonder why the McCain strategists have felt it necessary to spend the summer months that are usually reserved for quiet fundraising and issues-based initiatives aimed at getting the wonks lined up on your side and TV spots playing up your candidate’s biography and ability to pat dogs on the head to get them to smile with this garbage, and I apologize for not being able to think of a better word to call it than that.

Forget my disillusionment with Mr. Straight Talk going Lee Atwater. If you’re going to do Atwater, wouldn’t it at least make sense to do it in October, when it’s harder for your opponent to counterpunch? As it is, the Obama campaign has been able to seize the moral high ground, launching on Thursday a new website, The Low Road Express, that Plouffe said will be used to “correct mistruths that are put out by the McCain campaign.” “And unfortunately it’s probably going to be something that we’re updating with great frequency every day,” Plouffe said.

Obama is also gaining some traction on the campaign trail by playing up what I think is the problem with the McCain campaign that it is exposing with its trash talk. “Given the magnitude of our challenges when it comes to energy and health care and jobs and our foreign policy, you’d think that we’d be having a serious debate. But so far, all we’ve been hearing about is Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. I mean I do – I do have to ask my opponent, is that the best you can come up with? Is that really what this election’s about? Is that what is worthy of the American people?” Obama said.

“I’m not interested in getting into a tit for tat, these negative ads, these negative attacks, spending all this time talking about me and instead of talking about what he’s going to do. That’s not going to lower your gas prices, that’s not going to help you stay in your home if you’re falling behind on the mortgage. That’s not going to help you find a job if it’s been shipped overseas. It doesn’t do a single thing to help the American people. It’s politics as a game. But the time for game playing is over, that’s why I’m running for president of the United States,” Obama said.

The response from the McCain campaign – not McCain himself, mind you; he was much more muted in what he had to say – has been revelatory in its meanspiritedness. “I would say that is it beyond dispute that he has become the biggest celebrity in the world. It’s a statement of fact. It’s backed up by the reality of his tour around the world. He has many fans. The question that we are posing to the American people is this, is he ready to lead yet? And the answer to the question that we will offer to the American people is no that he is not,” senior campaign advisor Steve Schmidt said.

“The point we are making, if it hasn’t escaped anybody, is that, you know, these images of celebrity status and the way he has conducted his campaign to date both in the kinds of events that he has and what he says at these events owe more to the development of an international celebrity status than it does to a traditional campaign for president,” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said. “Maybe that’s what the Obama campaign has intended, and we think it is worthy of some attention by our campaign. In the early aspects of the ad, we have images of other celebrities that demonstrate that the focus of the Obama campaign has been as much to create that celebrity status of his as it is to discuss the hard issues that the American public are forced to debate during the course of this campaign.”

Since they’re dressing “Celeb” up as an attempt to engage on substantive campaign issues, let’s take them at their word. The ad excoriates Obama for opposing offshore drilling, which of course doesn’t come close to telling the whole story of Obama’s position, which significantly includes support for requirements to U.S. oil companies to use more than 68 million acres of land leases that they currently hold domestically that could produce an estimated 4.8 million barrels of oil each day, and focuses first and foremost on efforts to curb the ability of futures traders to push oil prices artificially upward by using the Enron loophole and trading on unregulated foreign exchanges, issues on which McCain has been curiously silent. The ad also blasts Obama for supporting higher taxes on electricity, an interesting gambit considering the controversy that McCain himself stirred up among conservatives with his comment to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that tax increases would be on the table for him as president in his efforts to balance the federal budget.

You might have missed on that nuance, of course, since the message in “Celeb,” such as there is a message in the ad, is wrapped up in the fluff that is Britney and Paris and the cheering throngs from Germany and the rest.

I want to be mad at John McCain, but it’s hard conjuring up too much in terms of angry feelings at the guy. I mean, after all, the Straight Talk guy has to still be in there somewhere, right?

“I would add my voice to those who believe that Sen. McCain can’t possibly mean this, because he has been a great public servant and a real genuine American hero. I suspect that he is under pressure to take steps like this, because he is showing in many ways that the Republican Party, and he doesn’t mean to do this, but that it is a party that is running out of ideas,” said Susan Eisenhower, the president of the Eisenhower Group consulting firm and the granddaughter of the former president, on the Thursday conference call arranged by the Obama campaign.

“What America really needs is the right kind of campaign at this critical moment in American history,” Eisenhower said. “I say this as a lifelong Republican. I say this as a foreign-affairs expert. I think that few would doubt the fact that we’ve got multiple crises unfolding, including a financial crisis, an energy crisis and a health-care crisis, not to mention the grave situation that we find ourselves in in Afghanistan and the lives that are being lost in Iraq. And I don’t think that these kinds of comments and innuendos have any place in a presidential campaign of this importance.”

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