The Perils Of Attacking John McCain

This morning I discussed, among other things, the perils of attacking John McCain. It wasn’t a call to not attack him, he most definitely deserves a trip to the woodshed or two (or couple million), but that we must do so with a great measure of caution and prudence.

In a way, attacking either of the Democratic candidates is far easier than attacking John McCain. Hillary Clinton, to be blunt, isn’t well liked and will hardly net a great outpouring of sympathy should she fall under a barrage of political haymakers. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is still something of a tabula rasa case; a blank slate. He’s relatively new to the national political scene, and while he still holds something of a rock star status, there are still a lot of question marks and vacancies that can easily be filled with invective, whisper campaigns, and outright falsehoods.

McCain, on the other hand, is a well known and broadly admired member of the national political scene. Further, he’s a white male. Now this aspect may seem like it would make him more open to attack, and as far as lines of decency go, maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t. But the inherent political risk (and I want to make this clear, I mean this from a purely strategic stance and am not making moral judgment one way or another) is that John McCain represents one of the most powerful voting groups in the electorate (by way of sheer power and voting likelihood). In other words, directing an offensive remark to McCain may be vicariously passed on to the white male demographic. It also can be be transmitted to the senior demographic and the military demographic.

But ultimately, the big problem with not being cautious when attacking McCain is that unlike Hillary Clinton, he’s not widely disliked, and unlike Barack Obama, he doesn’t have a lot of questions marks surrounding him (at least in the public’s eye). His military service is looked upon with respect, and many Americans view his time as a POW as a testament to the virtues of the man.

Thus, unmeasured attacks leveled at McCain are likely to backfire in a big way, as Senator Jay Rockafeller unfortunately demonstrated for us.

Per ABC’s Jake Tapper:

In the Charleston Gazette Sunday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, who has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said that Sen. John McCain “has a temper” and, according to the story, “believes McCain has become insensitive to many human issues.

“McCain was a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn’t know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues.”

This has caused something of a firestorm where the McCain camp has called for apologies, apologies were given, and then declared not satisfactory. All of which has become a minor embarrassment for the Obama campaign.

Though, Steve Benen pretty much nails it:

Now, realistically, if the Obama campaign really wanted to go after McCain like this, aides probably wouldn’t have called on Jay Rockefeller. The guy isn’t exactly a polished attack machine.

But the Umbrage Wars have very little to do with logic. McCain demands satisfaction, and Obama doesn’t much seem to care.

I’ll gladly concede that Rockefeller’s comments were cheap and definitely warranted an apology, which he promptly offered. And I suppose I don’t blame the McCain campaign for trying to capitalize on every available opportunity.

But in general, folks really can’t work themselves into too big a dither every time a pol makes a foolish attack. By the fall, no one in the political world will have any energy left at all.

But this doesn’t detract from the simple fact that attacking McCain through his service is only going to backfire. In truth, the Swift Boating of John Kerry should have backfired as well. The only reason it didn’t was because Kerry let it happen. At the time, the plan that the Kerry campaign decided to work with was to ignore them and hope it would all go away. That didn’t happen and I highly doubt that John McCain will ever adopt that plan.

The moral of the story is simply that you can’t go after McCain’s military record. In fact, any attack that looks even a little bit unfair is likely to carry with it greater risks than benefits due to his standing in the electorate’s eyes.

As a result, we have to keep pressing him on the issues, on his lack of understanding regarding the economy, of his persisting ignorance of the complexity of the Iraq war, and of how similar he is to the current president. I truly think that the real key to beating McCain in November is to tie him unequivocally to Bush.

Remember, Bush is suffering from record low approval numbers, and 81% of Americans feel that the country is on the wrong track. The greatest line of attack against McCain is also therefore the most obvious. Paint him as a third term Bush, and pound away at his general level of incompetence.

Further, I think the argument must be made as loudly and as clearly as possible that experience is not an ultimate qualifier to be president. That experience does not necessarily bring with it the right kind of wisdom, or provide the correct perspective, or even imbue someone with the temperament necessary to hold the highest office in the land.

These are the avenues we can take without risking a major backlash on our own candidate.

3 Responses to “The Perils Of Attacking John McCain”

  1. Evan says:

    Is “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” out of bounds?

  2. Jeff Myhre says:

    Attacking Mr. McCain’s military record is not going to work. However, he was one of the Keating 5, involved in the S&L shadiness of the 1980s. He seems to be a bit crooked, not out right criminal, but he engages in what the Brits would call “sharp practices.” He stays just on the side of legality. With a credit meltdown, this is his achilles’ heel.

  3. Evan, nope, not in the slightest. In fact, crap like bomb bomb bomb Iran is exactly the kind of stuff that we need to hit on.

    And yeah, Jeff’s about right here, the problem with McCain is that he’s just this side of legality which, for a politician, makes him look like a saint. That image has to be torn down,and it must be done so while keeping his military service integrity in tact.

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