The Trap Has Been Set, The Bait Has Been Taken

As recently as yesterday, I was willing to say tomorrow night’s debate is a crapshoot.  McCain is currently trailing 8-10 points nationally, traditional battleground states are in the Obama column, and the current battlegrounds are couched it what should be safe Republican territory.  With the political landscape laid out like that, McCain still needs a game changer in a big way with tomorrow night’s event potentially being the last and best shot for one.

With that in mind, I simply had no clue what tomorrow night would look like.

Debates are double edged swords.  A cleverly delivered line can own a news cycle, generate positive press, and move the needle in your direction a few points.  At the same time, a gaffe or a stumble can have the effect of also owning the news cycle while driving the needle in the wrong direction.

But these are desperate times in the McCain campaign, despite their insistence that they have Obama right where they want him.  When things are desperate, you throw the long ball.

Not that McCain is any stranger to the Hail Mary pass.  We’ve already seen enough shenanigans in one presidential election season to last us for the next two or three elections.  But all of those have come up short or been intercepted, and with time on the clock winding down, he’s going to have to go deep once more.

Or not.  You see, this was my thinking.  McCain may try and cause some big waves tomorrow night to try one more time to reverse the momentum of the campaign, or he could play it cool, try not to do more damage to himself than he’s already done, and rely upon the campaign over the three weeks following the debate to make up the deficits in the polls that we’ve seen.  While McCain has so far shown the inclination towards the former option, the sheer erratic nature of his presidential alone gave me reason to believe that he still might have chosen the latter.

At least until now.  John McCain has made it clear that he intends to bring up Bill Ayers at tomorrow night’s debate.  He’s going deep.

This does not come as a surprise to the Obama campaign, indeed, it would look like this is exactly what they wanted to see.  Not long after the second presidential debate, both Barack Obama and Joe Biden remarked on how John McCain didn’t bring up the former Weather Underground member to Obama’s face.  For anyone who understands the kind of person that John McCain is, this is a near irresistible bait for it questions both McCain’s honor and his courage.  Even if hubris and arrogance weren’t part of the equation, it is still tempting to bite on the line anyway for the sheer fact that this is a direct attack at the political brand that McCain cultivated, and is now flailing to protect.

No, there was something very deliberate about the way Obama and Biden went after McCain in this instance.  You don’t dare someone to say something to your face unless you’re ready for it.  In politics, when your opponent starts hitting below the belt, you don’t say, “Say it to my face,” you either hit them below the belt, defend yourself from the attack, or you do both.  Instead, Obama invited McCain to do it again.

In light of this, Steve Benen points to three things that could happen at tomorrow night’s debate:

  1. McCain gets so spun up by the taunts that he has a total melt down; point Obama.
  2. McCain doesn’t bring up Ayers despite insisting that he would.  The new narrative becomes McCain is a political coward; point Obama.
  3. McCain does attack Obama with Ayers.  In this case, Obama better be ready.

I personally think it will be the third, and I believe that it will ultimately fail.  First and foremost, I think it will fail for exactly the same reason McCain gave when asked why he didn’t bring up the attack in the second presidential debate.  He said, “It didn’t come up in the flow of conversation.”  Unwittingly, as I’ve mentioned before, McCain just put forth the reason why the attack is not translating to any movement in the polls in his favor; it has no relevance to the actual issues we are debating in this presidential election.  Tomorrow night, there is a very low probability that there will come a question that gives McCain a clear opening to bring up Ayers… especially considering that the focal topic will be the economy.  That means that if he’s going to bring up Ayers, he’s going to have to force it in, and it’s going to ultimately look like he’s diverting attention from issues people care about to propagate a smear campaign.

That’s not likely to go over well.

But look, Barack Obama has also proven to be one of the most effective counterpunchers in politics, and this is regardless of whether the attack is telegraphed or not.  Now everyone knows that he’s going to get hit on Ayers tomorrow night.  Further, we know that at least since the middle of last week, Obama’s been begging for it.  Chances are that the Obama team has had a response ready for quite some time, and even if they don’t, twenty-four hours is more than enough time to fashion one.

What’s more, if McCain brings up Ayers, Obama is free to bring up Keating and anything else he chooses.  Indeed, the last thing McCain wants to do is try and go into a character campaign when his running mate was just found to have violated ethics laws in her home state.

Now, I know I’ve said I’m not one to go into armchair strategizing, but I do have one line that the Obama team are more than free to use.  After Obama goes through and rebuts McCain’s attack however he had planned, I think it would throw a little sting if he said something to the effect of, “And I really don’t need lessons on ethical behavior from the only presidential ticket in history where both candidates have been found guilty of ethics violations.”

In advance, Senator Obama, you have my full permission to use this.

(edited by DrGail)

5 Responses to “The Trap Has Been Set, The Bait Has Been Taken”

  1. Mark says:

    I’m going to make a prediction right here, right now. If McCain uses the words “Ayers,” “terrorist,” and “Obama” in the same sentence(s), it will backfire on him, even though it will increase the, uhh, fervor of the Republican dead-enders (which is a scary thought in itself but is largely irrelevant for purposes of winning an election). When McCain resorts to personal attacks in debates, I think he has a tendency to come across as a bully in a way that is unusually off-putting for all but his most rabid supporters.

    Take a look at the way he acted in the California Super Tuesday debate towards Mittens. Although he wound up effectively clinching the nomination on Super Tuesday (and winning California), I have long suspected (based on the polls at the time and the way McCain was trending) that McCain did not have the margin of victory he should have had were it not for his bullying tactics (which managed to make even Mittens look sympathetic, IMHO). I can’t prove it, but my suspicion is that some of McCain’s “leaners” shifted to Huckabee due to that performance, which is a major reason Huckabee exceeded his Super Tuesday expectations.

    Simply put – McCain’s not very good at being mean without appearing mean. If Obama keeps his cool in response – and he probably will – McCain’s Hail Mary will wind up getting intercepted, so to speak. I don’t think this will increase support for Obama so much as it will get some of McCain’s more lukewarm supporters to stay home on Election Day.

  2. Ace Armstrong says:

    I think we saw the real John McCain in the aftermath of the South Carolina Presidential Republican Primary of 2000. If he is who he claims to be, he would have aggressively bounced back and given W. a run for his money. But no, he simply started whining – which is what Bush would have probably done if the tables were turned. Here we have a glimpse into the mind of a legacy individual. Rather than mustering the courage to confront reality and attempt to prevail, this personality will retreat into the comfort of privilege and entitlement.
    This reality lies at the crux of this election because Barak Obama is not a child of privilege like George Bush and John McCain. He was not guaranteed a prep school education and automatic acceptance into the university of his choice regardless of grades and accomplishments. He is a man who has risen through the ranks of American society based on his accomplishments.
    And it is exactly this reality that has given Obama a distinct advantage. He derives his strategy from raw experience, where McCain’s claims of experience are a littered trail of half truths and distorted benchmarks.

  3. You know what Mark? I agree with just about everything you said. The wingnut brigade wants McCain to hit Obama so badly on Ayers, but I don’t think they understand how potentially dangerous that is for McCain. I would say there is about a 90% chance that Obama has a killer retort, and if he does, that could solidify this race where it is right now. Incidentally, I wanted to get your thoughts on a post a little bit further below “The New Silent Majority”.

    Armstrong, I agree with you completely too. Obama’s campaign is a logical extension of his work as a community organizer in a lot of respects, just as McCain’s “Mine by right” attitude towards the Oval Office feels very much like an extension of his life as a legacy. Incidentally, have you read the Rolling Stone piece, I think it’s called “Make Believe Maverick?” If there was a way to condense that from eighty billion pages to, say, half a page, that would be a major blow to McCain’s brand.

  4. Mark says:

    Thinking about this a little bit more, I’m wondering if personal attacks in the context of a debate EVER work (my initial comment emphasized that this just doesn’t work for McCain because he is unusually bad at hiding the meanness behind his attacks). The only real personal attacks I can recall during debates all backfired, most infamously Rick Lazio’s attempt to get Hillary Clinton to sign that ridiculous pledge. Bob Dole (who was and is generally regarded as a ‘nice guy’) failed spectacularly in bringing up Bill Clinton’s marijuana use during a debate. Bush I (who was regarded as a ‘wimp’) failed spectacularly in trying to bring up Bill Clinton’s Vietnam War protests.

    Personal attacks that have a clear tie to policy substance seem to work (i.e., charges of flip-flopping), but I can’t recall a true personal attack actually succeeding during a debate.

    That’s not to say that personal attacks don’t work outside the context of a debate – at a minimum, they can probably succeed in reducing your opponent’s turnout. But when a candidate does it during a debate, that candidate is perceived as lowering himself rather than bringing down his opponent. Outside that context, the candidate is separated enough.

  5. I think you’re right again Mark. You know one thing that continues to impress upon me is the fact that while the McCain campaign is trying to be Rove-Like, they persist in failing to do the most important thing in a Rove strategy; make sure the official campaign is clear of the worst stuff.

    The thing about how Rove operates is that he keeps his candidate relatively clean so that his team gets to have their cake and eat it too. They get the benefit of mud sticking to their opponent while at the same time not having to worry about the nastiness of the campaign dragging down their favorables.

    But McCain has been taking on the guise of both candidate and chief surrogate in a lot of instances. Further, we know that Vice Presidential candidates are supposed to be attack dogs, but Palin has taken her role way too far as well.

    The fact that we are in a crisis period wherein people really do care more about the issues because those issues could have a serious detrimental effect on their lives only compounds the effect.

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