WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When one of the Democratic Party's most astute strategists this week criticized John McCain for attacking Barack Obama's desire to engage Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I asked what the Republican presidential candidate ought to talk about in this campaign. "Health care and the economy," he replied. That is a sure formula for Democratic victory, but it is one that McCain's campaign rejects.
Obama embraced that formula once it became clear that he would best Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He began pounding McCain for seeking the third term of George W. Bush. At the same time, Obama implores McCain in the interest of "one nation" and "one people" not to attack him. The shorthand, widely repeated by the news media, is that the Republican candidate must not "Swift boat" Obama. That amounts to unilateral political disarmament by McCain.
McCain is not about to disarm. His campaign has no intention of fighting this battle on Democratic turf. During the more than five months ahead, Republicans will explore the mindset of this young man who is a stranger to most Americans. That includes his association with the Chicago leftist William Ayers, who has remained unrepentant about his violent role as a 1960s radical. This will not be popular with McCain's erstwhile admirers in the mainstream news media, but America has not heard the last of Bill Ayers in this campaign.
Indicating what lies ahead is the McCain campaign's plan to bring in Tim Griffin, a protege of Karl Rove, who is a leading practitioner of opposition research -- digging up derogatory information about opponents. Although final arrangements have not been pinned down, Griffin would work at the Republican National Committee, as he did in Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.
It is an article of Democratic faith that John Kerry would have been elected president had not Republicans undermined public confidence in his leadership and integrity by assailing his performance as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam. McCain, idolized by much of the news media in 2000 as the potential Bush slayer, is now stigmatized as adopting not only his former intraparty adversary's policies but also his tactics.
Simultaneously, with Clinton no longer around to worry about, Obama deplores "the failed policies that John McCain wants to double down on." He is relentless in pressing home that point. Last Saturday, in Roseburg, Ore.: "If you agree we've had a great foreign policy over the last four or eight years, then you should vote for John McCain. (He) wants to give you the failed Bush health-care policy for another four years." On Monday, in Billings, Mont.: "John McCain has decided to run for George Bush's third term."
While on this attack, Obama rails against any responsive fire from McCain. He has lashed out against criticism of his declared willingness to sit down with Ahmadinejad and Cuba's Raul Castro. McCain's strategists are infuriated by prestigious political reporters and commentators whom they see supporting Obama's position. Time columnist Joe Klein turned up in Savannah, Ga., Monday for McCain's press conference, declaring that McCain had misrepresented Obama as proposing unconditional talks with the Iranian president. After asserting that "I've done some research" and "also checked with the Obama campaign," Klein said Obama "never mentioned Ahmadinejad directly by name. He did say he would negotiate with the leaders."
In fact, Obama has repeatedly been questioned specifically about Ahmadinejad. At a press conference in New York last September, Obama was asked whether he still would meet with Ahmadinejad. He replied: "Yeah ... I find many of President Ahmadinejad's statements odious. ... But we should never fear to negotiate." In November on NBC's "Meet the Press," he defended "a conversation with somebody like Ahmadinejad."
The debate over such "a conversation" was heightened by Bush's speech last week to the Israeli Knesset, suggesting "appeasement" by Obama. The White House has privately informed the McCain campaign it had no intention of leaping into presidential politics, but Obama's defensive response enabled him again to link McCain with Bush. Although the Republican candidate would like the unpopular president to get offstage politically, McCain is not about to run a campaign about health care mandates and home foreclosures.