Assessing McCain's Closing Argument


After struggling for weeks to present a coherent case against Barack Obama, John McCain has finally found a closing argumentand he's sticking to it. The surprising thing, at least in light of his earlier sallies, may be that it's worth sticking to.

Call it the Tale of Two Joes. Steering the "Straight Talk Express" through central Florida's vote-rich I-4 corridorpit stops included a doctor's office, a diner, a farm and a sawdust-strewn lumberyardthe Republican presidential nominee hammered away yesterday at the two-man message that his strategists hope will carry him through Nov. 4.

On one hand, there was Joe the Plumberthe Ohio worker who confronted Obama about his tax plan earlier this month. "After months of campaign-trail eloquence, we finally learned Sen. Obama's economic goal," McCain told a crowd of 3,500 in Sarasota. "He wants to spread the wealth around."

On the other, there was "Joe the Biden"the Democratic vice-presidential nominee who recently informed Democratic donors in Seattle that if his "brilliant 47-year-old" boss is elected, "we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test [his] mettle." “We don’t want a president that invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars," McCain said in Ormond Beach. "[Sen. Biden] accidentally delivered some straight talk to America.”

Here at Stumper headquarters, we'd like to interrupt our regularly scheduled programmingmindlessly slobbering over the latest polls, baselessly speculating about 2012to note what many of our colleagues in the media probably won't: that McCain's "Two Joes" message (reinforced today with a pair of ads) is a huge improvement over the dreck that preceded it. In fact, it's probably the best strategy available to him in the final days of the race.

Here's why.

It's Nothing Personal. Averaging more than 50 percent support in the national pollsand in enough states to garner him a game-ending 306 electoral votesObama can afford to float above the fray and spread sunshine about the land. McCain can't. To win, he has to pull Obama down below the magic 50 percent markwhich means he has to attack.

Unfortunately for the Arizonan, his initial attempts to "disqualify" ObamaBill Ayers, ACORN, etc.hurt him more than they hurt his rival. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll, for example, shows Obama's favorable-unfavorable split at 53-33; McCain's, on the other hand, has plummeted to 36-45. Obsessing over a "washed-up old terrorist" when the rest of the country was obsessing over the economyand Obama was obsessing with themmade McCain look like a typical "out-of-touch" politician.

That's why the "two Joes" messagewhile still fundamentally negativeis a step up. It's framework for discussing the implications of Obama's domestic- and foreign-policy proposals--and, by extension, the issues facing the country--rather than a vessel for fear-mongering and spooky innuendo, You might disagree with McCain on the substance of his statements about the candidates' competing tax plans and contrasting attitudes toward hostile international leaders. (As I've written, Joe the Plumber would get more money back under Obama than McCain.) But at least now there's some substance to disagree with.

From Their Mouths... McCain's mantra during the days of Ayers and ACORN was "Who is Barack Obama?" The point, it seemed, was to create a false air of mystery and encourage voters to fill in the blanks with their own biases, suspicions and fears. McCain resorted to innuendo because he thought he had more to gain from preying on ignorance than providing information. But swing voters actually examined the data and decided that Obama wasn't a closet radical and ACORN wasn't a nefarious conspiracy (sloppy, yes; dangerous, no). So the strategy didn't work.

Now, instead of darkly warning America about the things Obama hasn't said, McCain is seizing on the things his rival (and his rival's running mate) have said. Obama, for instance, actually told Joe Wurzelbacher, "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody"; Biden specifically highlighted Obama's youth as a reason to expect a "generated crisis to test the mettle of this guy." You might argue that McCain is taking these comments out of context, but hey, that's politics; Obama did the same thing with McCain's "100 years in Iraq" remark. The fact is, criticisms are much more memorable when they're supported by a soundbite from your rival.

Keep it Simple. By the time McCain arrived at Hofstra for the final debate, he was practically a powder keg of anti-Obama talking points. It's fair to say he exploded on stage. By my count, the Republican unleashed a dozen different attacks that night. Now he's down to two: one on the economy, one on foreign policy. "We will focus like a laser on those messages in the closing days," a McCain adviser told the Washington Post this morning. Given that voters absorb only a limited amount of information, this strategysimplicity and consistencyis infinitely preferable to the "kitchen-sink" assault that preceded it. Plus it has the added bonus of not making McCain look like a loser who's desperately flailing at his opponenta potentially fatal image in the final days of a campaign.

McCain's "Two Joes" message isn't perfect. Much of his rhetoric, for example, remains overly alarmist. Agree or disagree, calling Obama's plan to raise the top tax rate from 36 percent to 39 percent a sign of "socialism" is ridiculous; as Colin Powell noted Sunday, "there is nothing wrong with examining what our tax structure is, who should be paying more, who should be paying less." Redistributing wealththat is, taking a bigger slice from the affluent than the less affluentis how our system of progressive income taxation works. Likewise, it's a little over-the-top to suggest that only Obama would "invite testing" from overseas, given that Michael Chertoff, the guy in charge of Homeland Security, just told Bloomberg News that "any period of transition"whether Obama's or McCain's"creates a greater vulnerability, meaning there's more likelihood of distraction." And the campaign is still investing in under-the-radar, innuendo-laden robo-calls.

That said, no reasonable observer expects a candidate who's losing by an average of 7.4 percentage points to spend the last 11 days of a presidential campaign playing pattycake. By and large, McCain's closing argument is substantive, focused and totally within the bounds of American political acceptability. It's perfectly legitimate to argue over whether rich people should pay higher taxesor to wonder why Biden didn't say "every President gets tested in his first six months in office, and Barack Obama won't be any different."

Of course, that shouldn't excuse the incompetence and occasional absurdity of McCain's previous infractions (lipstick on a pig, anyone?). And it probably won't be enough to turn his campaign aroundthe upcoming NEWSWEEK poll, for example, shows that voters prefer Obama by 15 points on taxes and think that the economy is a more important issue than national security by a margin of 32 percent. But it's worth considering as the second (and third, and fourth) drafts of history are written in the days and weeks to come.