McCain Catches On: It's All About Obama

McCain Catches On: It's All About Obama

By Toby Harnden - August 8, 2008

During the opening weeks of this general election campaign, John McCain's advisers were fixated on the phenomenon they were up against. It became an article of faith at his Arlington headquarters that the swooning mainstream media had mobilized en masse to get the Illinois senator elected, triggering a tidal wave of Obamamania.

"Oh, the unfairness of it all," McCain aides would lament, measuring the foot and a half of Barack Obama clippings each morning compared to the five inches devoted to their man. They'd bury their heads in their hands when another press avail knocked the Arizona senator off message as he responded to yet another inquiry that basically amounted to: "So what do you think of Barack today?"

But then the penny dropped. An astute campaign has the serenity to accept the things it cannot change. McCain's re-jigged team did just that by belatedly recognizing that this election was going to be all about Obama. When the main alternative was that it could be all about McSame and George W. Bush, the Republican's strategists concluded, perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing after all.

Obama has made his extraordinary life story the central plank of his political career. But the constant repetition of the carefully-crafted narrative has begun to wear a bit thin. All the talk about himself can seem a bit, well, self-regarding.

Team McCain now gets this. In a neat judo move - using the weight and momentum of your opponent to throw him to the floor - they hit upon the Celebrity ad, comparing Obama to the vacuous pop icons Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. A bull-session idea that was forced into reality by the hard-charging strategist Steve Schmidt, it was not without risk.

Americans are obsessed with celebrity so to lampoon someone as a megastar can be tricky. There was a danger too that McCain would seem like a cranky oldster, the once raffish flyboy jealous of the popularity of the new kid on the block. But after the overly grand European leg of his world trip, Obama was vulnerable and the ad hit a nerve.

It fed into a perception that had bubbling since the height of his struggle to overcome Hillary Clinton. The first time I heard the Britney comparison at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond, Virginia back in February when Linda Little, a 60-year-old retired secretary and Hillary supporter told me: "Barack has pretty words. It's like he's a rock star for people. It's like he's Britney Spears or something. They just fall for him."

The former First Lady's partially successful attempts to portray Obama as a preening, arugula-munching, Honest Tea-sipping elitist have softened him up for McCain and also provided a trove of quotations to use as ammunition.

Obama needs to solve his Clinton problem - and fast. Clinton loyalists were notable by their absence in defending him during the recent squabble over who had played the race card. Problem is, Bill and Hillary surely want him to lose in November because it would give her a shot in 2012 and prove they were right about Obama all along.

As luck would have it for McCain, Celebrity also coincided with the onset of Obama fatigue. In a Pew poll this week that is worrying Democrats, 48 per cent of voters believed they had been "hearing too much" about Obama, compared to just 26 per cent feeling the same way about McCain. This might be temporary. Or not.

Yes, the ad was silly but this is what political observers fondly call the silly season - that time in August when everyone is looking for a bit of light relief. Obama's allies overplayed their hand by claiming Celebrity was racist and it will be many years before Bob Herbert of the New York Times lives down his fantasy about the phallic symbols therein.

For once, Obama seems a little rattled. He even accused McCain of lying about his energy plan for the relatively mild offense of trying to reduce it to an off-hand remark about tire inflation. He was clearly irked by the mildly amusing stunt of distributing Obama tire gauges. "We weren't lying, we were mocking him," said one McCain aide. "He's so fussy."

The aide added that he had a theory that the campaign that laughed the most tended to win. There could be something in that. Suddenly, after coming across as unremittingly dour during the primaries, McCain is enjoying himself a lot more, quipping about his wife Cindy taking part in a topless beauty pageant and telling people to lighten up about Celebrity. By comparison, Obama is straight faced.

McCain's The One ad, which painted Obama as a would-be messiah, complete with Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea, also hit home. The suggestion that Obama sees himself as too grand to relate to the concerns of ordinary people has real potential to damage him. At the same time, Schmidt & Co. have finally begun to exert a bit of message discipline on both McCain and his surrogates.

Tom Daschle's remark that Celebrity and The One have dented Obama's poll numbers was an admission of at least a tactical defeat. Obama's top aides know that whining about how negative the campaign has become is pointless and their candidate didn't spend all those years in Chicago without learning how to hit back hard.

When Obama returns from his holiday in Hawaii, where he should avoid windsurfing at all costs, he has to take the fight to his opponent. The anger and the age cards will no doubt be in his back pocket.

Winning in November in an environment toxic for any Republican remains a gargantuan task for McCain and there is no need for Democrats to panic just yet because the national polls are so tight.

But the Vietnam hero has realized that many Americans might be tiring of this election being all about Obama all the time - and that he therefore needs to keep it that way.


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Toby Harnden

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter