McCain Paints Obama into a Corner

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Aug 08, 2008 8:49 AM
A common theme of mine lately has been that McCain's campaign has finally turned things around.  Of course, his critics charge that, in so doing, he has "gone negative".  But my experience has been that people don't criticize you unless you are being effective.

Critics and pundits often decry "negative" politics, but we should really celebrate vigorous debate as proof we live in free society.  Keep in mind that totalitarian regimes usually don't have elections -- and if they do -- they are merely pro forma events that evoke little emotion (because everybody knows who is going to win, anyway). 

The fact that our elections are contentious affairs only proves they are legitimate and real elections.  What is more, historically speaking, modern-day elections are relatively tame affairs compared to past elections (for example, Andrew Jackson's wife was referred to as an "American Jezebel."

Regardless of how you feel about the merits of tough elections, though, it is clear that the McCain campaign stands to gain by turning this election into a brawl.  If the election is a polite affair where trivialities like charisma and lofty rhetoric rules the day, Obama will win hands down.  

Conversely, if this election is about serious issues such as drilling and winning the war on terror -- as well as about the personal attributes of the candidates, such as toughness, character, and experience -- McCain wins.  It's just that simple.  Of course, this puts the onus on the McCain campaign to start throwing elbows.

Perhaps more than any candidate I have observed, Barack Obama is poorly suited to engage in such a campaign.  Aside from the fact that he is vulnerable on the experience issue, in order to win the primary, Obama made decisions that essentially put him at a disadvantage in a general election.  McCain's team has realized this, and have begun painting Obama into a corner.  Let me explain ...

If Obama attacks McCain, he can no longer claim to be a "new brand of politician."  Once he engages in "attack politics," Obama will lose his image as a "post partisan" leader.  And if he loses this image, he also will likely depress some of the excitement generated by his young quixotic supporters.  These young voters -- who historically have not turned out to vote in large numbers anyway -- are less likely to actually vote on Election Day if Obama becomes viewed as just a normal politician.

But if Obama fails to respond, he will allow McCain to define him as an effete, out-of-touch liberal.  Already Obama is being criticized by Democratic leaders for not hitting back at McCain harder.  Just allowing this perception to develop could be devastating to Obama's chances, as it might depress Democrats who would assume that he will suffer the same fate as past Democratic nominees like Kerry and Dukakis.

When it comes to the question of whether or not Obama should hit back, he is essentially damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Come to think of it, this is just one example of how Obama's campaign has recently become hamstrung by the McCain campaign.  McCain's team has been brilliant at punishing Obama for doing the things he does best.  Here's another example:  If Obama speaks to large crowds -- something he excels at -- he will be cast as having a "messiah complex."  But if he eschews big speeches, he will be giving up one of his greatest strengths -- and playing on McCain's turf.

It is good that McCain has been able to begin defining Obama early -- but things aren't all rosy.  Keep in mind that once McCain receives the GOP nomination, he will be under the public finance system.  During the months of September and October -- when most undecided voters will be forced to make up their minds -- Obama will be able to out-spend McCain.  This race will be very interesting.  Right now, I think it's about 50/50 on who will win ...