It was a pickle only John McCain could have gotten himself into.
What should have been a mostly uneventful weekend for McCain, two weeks before the increasingly ugly Democratic campaign culminates in a Carolina showdown, turned into a hurricane of bad press when the presumptive Republican nominee asked the state Republican Party not to run an anti-Obama ad targeted at North Carolina’s two Democratic gubernatorial candidates, both of whom endorsed Obama.
The ad, now quite familiar to anyone with a TV or radio suggested that Obama’s connection to Wright made him “too extreme” for North Carolina, and made Richard Moore and Bev Perdue too extreme by extension.
It was a mostly unremarkable ad, employing no more radical a line of attack than the Republican National Committee, now run by McCain’s own people, had been actively and openly hoping would resonate with voters into the general election. The N.C. GOP used the attack precisely because it is a legitimate issue that resonates with voters, even with regard to a candidate once removed from Wright. It was a validation of the GOP’s strategy, not a violation of it.
Then, in soared John McCain, determined to have his Sister Souljah moment at the expense of the wrong people. No one reminded him that effective Sister Souljah moments must repudiate extremists like Wright, not mainstream officials of your own party running rather benign ads.
In the most comically overblown denouncement of a campaign flush with repudiations, McCain called the N.C. GOP “out of touch with reality and the Party,” “dead wrong,” and suggested the ad introduced issues of “race” that were inappropriate, which it did not.
For his crusade, he earned himself no less than two and a half hours of bashing on Friday’s “Rush Limbaugh Show,” where the conservative host mocked the senator for teaching us all that being of independent mind is something to be prized above all else, except for when being a Maverick means ignoring the Maverick himself. “We’re all Independents now, Senator,” Limbaugh hooted during each call from an angry North Carolina Republican.
By Saturday morning, the McCain news e-mail list, which had previously delivered to my inbox no fewer than 50 Jeremiah Wright stories since the story broke, sent me the New York Times’ editorial that validated McCain’s new notion that mentioning Wright had become “shameful, ugly, race-baiting, and manipulative.” I half-expected the next news story to inform me that McCain had joined the call of Al Sharpton to “shut down” New York City in light of the Sean Bell verdict, so deep into the weeds of liberal racial demagoguery had he creeped. In classic style, McCain’s sense of “right” was the only sense of “right” acceptable in this incident, and it happened to be decidedly, err, left.
Yes, it was a pickle only the likes of John McCain could have gotten himself into.
Luckily, it was a pickle only the likes of Barack Obama could have gotten him out of.
Obama, apparently confused by the old adage “never murder your opponent when he’s busy committing suicide,” decided to offer rigorous first aid to the Arizona senator on “Fox News Sunday,” saying, “I think that people were legitimately offended by some of the comments that he had made in the past. The fact that he is my former pastor I think makes it a legitimate political issue.”
Our conservative candidate, up until then impervious to the arguments of the “out of touch” members of his own party, took Obama’s comments to heart, immediately adjusting his stance on the Wright issue to the default, logical, and historic position of his campaign and the RNC since the story broke:
“I believe that Senator Obama does not share those views. But Senator Obama himself says it’s a legitimate political issue so I would imagine that many other people would share that view and it will be in the arena,” McCain said in a Sunday media avail after the "Fox News Sunday" appearance by Obama.
At just the moment when both the Republican nominee and most of the big media, thanks to the sanction of the Republican nominee, had decided to leave the Wright issue well enough alone, to cast any mention thereof as inherently racist and illegitimate, Obama himself revived the issue. This strategic blunder came just a week after he pulled a John McCain by nullifying the national party’s key argument against his opponent in a town hall meeting: “Either Democrat would be better than John McCain – and all three of us would be better than George Bush,” he said.
Now the big media, thanks in part to the sanction of the savior of American politics, has no argument for downplaying Wright’s publicity tour of the NAACP, the National Press Club, and PBS, which has numerous pundits talking about the “sinking” of Obama’s campaign and Obama distancing himself from a man who Monday reiterated his assertion that Obama’s only repudiating him for political reasons and thinks Louis Farrakhan is “one of the most important voices” of the last century.
It’s becoming clearer every day that Uncle Jeremiah is the one who should have gotten that one-way ticket on the underside of the bus in Obama’s historic speech on race, instead of Obama’s grandma.
The fact that Obama had to repeat again today, “he does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign and so he may make statements in the future that don’t reflect my values or concerns,” has got to have Obama thinking he, too, used his Sister Souljah moment on the wrong person.
Though very different men, the unique strength of both McCain and Obama lies in reaching out to independents and moderates with a well-defined brand that says, “I’m not really one of them (the base).” Both are surprisingly successful at selling that image despite having some views on the Left and Right, respectively, that are far enough Left and Right on polarizing issues to be bothersom to independents.
In a general election, the GOP’s goal will be to illustrate to voters that Obama really is hard left, using his associations with the likes of Wright and Bill Ayers and his policies to paint. The goal of the Democrats has to be to make voters see a clone of Bush in McCain by playing up their association and shared positions.
For a week now, McCain and Obama have been committing gaffes that, by turns, undercut their principal arguments against their opponents and give sanction to their opponents’ arguments against them. Up next: McCain’s ‘You Know, Come to Think of it, I am Kinda Old,’ Tour
Perhaps it’s the pace and frequency with which these candidates of vaunted bipartisanship are asking others to repudiate, asking each other to denounce, and all the time wondering if they’re rejecting enough to remain “independent” that has them mixed up about just what’s worth apologizing for these days.
Now, if McCain as the more experienced campaigner, can combine his unique appeal to independents with the ability to stay on message, I believe we might be able to count on Obama choosing the wrong Sister Souljah moments all the way until November, and that’d be a pickle we'd be glad to be in.