McCain Adviser Responds to Newsweek’s Cover Story

In an email to Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham on Sunday, McCain adviser Mark Salter responds to this week's cover story:

Dear Jon,

A useful way to read the piece would be to try to imagine you were a Republican reading it.  The characterization of Republican presidential campaigns as nothing more than attack machines that use 527s and other means to smear opponents strikes us as pretty offensive.  Is that how Ronald Reagan won two terms?  Do they really think other Republican presidential candidates were elected because they ran dirtier campaigns than their opponents? Or could it be that they were better candidates or ran better campaigns or maybe more voters agreed with their position on important issues?  From the beginning of their article, Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe offered a biased implication that Republicans have won elections and will try to win this one simply by tearing down through disreputable means their opponents.  You can see why many Republicans and voters and our campaign might take issue with that.

Suggesting that that we can expect a whispering campaign from the McCain campaign or the Republican Party about Senator Obama's race and the false charge that he is a Muslim is scurrilous.  Has John McCain ever campaigned that way?  On the contrary, he has on numerous occasions denounced tactics offensive tactics from campaigns, 527s and others, both Democratic and Republican. By the way, which party had more 527 and other independent expenditure ads made on its behalf in 2004?  It wasn't us.

By accepting the Obama campaign construct as if it were objective, Evan and Richard framed this race exactly as Senator Obama wants it to be framed—every issue that raises doubts about his policy views and judgment is part of a smear campaign intended to distract voters from the real issues at stake in the election, and, thus, illegitimate.  And even if Senator McCain might not be inclined to support such advertising, if he can't stop them from occurring then he will have succumbed to the temptation to put ambition before principle.  How this notion could appear credible after MoveOn, the AFL-CIO and the DNC launched negative ad campaigns weeks ago, and after leaks from the Obama campaign that they would soon start running negative ads against McCain, is mystifying.  When a conservative talk show host emphasized Senator Obama's middle name, Senator McCain immediately denounced it himself in the strongest possible terms.  When a left wing radio host called Senator McCain a "warmonger;" when Senator Rockefeller disparaged Senator McCain's war record; and when Howard Dean consistently accused Senator McCain of corruption, dishonesty and various other smears, the response from the Obama campaign has been either silence or a spokesperson releases an anodyne statement saying they don't agree with the characterization.

To see how completely Evan and Richard have accepted the Obama campaign spin look at the example of an illegitimate smear they cite: Senator McCain raising the Hamas spokesman's comments welcoming Obama's election.  The Senator has never said that Senator Obama shares Hamas' goals or values or proposed a relationship with Hamas different than the one he would propose.  On the contrary, he publicly acknowledged that he doesn't believe Senator Obama.  He did note that there must be something about Obama's positions, particularly his repeated insistence that he would meet with the President of Iran (Hamas's chief state sponsor), that was welcomed by Hamas.  Imagine if a right wing death squad spokesman announced that they welcomed McCain's election.  Would Evan or Richard treat that as an illegitimate issue or would they examine which of McCain's stated positions might have found favor with the terrorists?  That seems obvious on its face to me. Rather than argue that his position on Iran is the right one and has no bearing on how Hamas views him, Senator Obama makes a false charge that we accused him of advocating a different relationship with Hamas than Senator McCain's supports.  His false characterization of Senator McCain's statement was accepted uncritically by Evan and Richard.

Democratic Party allied third parties have announced negative ad campaigns, which distort McCain's statements and positions, in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They are already running them.  Senator Obama himself and Democrats generally have taken out of context and distorted Senator McCain's statements on a post war military presence in Iraq and his views on the economy.  Our townhalls are now routinely salted with Obama supporters who are there to raise embarrassing questions for the Senator (we don't screen people at our events).  An Obama supporter asked him in Iowa if he called his wife a very vulgar name.

When the North Carolina party prepared to run an ad raising the Reverend Wright issue, Senator McCain again denounced it in the strongest possible terms, and was sharply criticized by conservative radio and pundits for doing so.  And when the North Carolina party refused to withdraw it, the Obama campaign, Howard Dean and others charged that he was either being disingenuous or ineffective.  I understand why they might employ that tactic, but isn't it the job of reporters to ponder its implications to see if it is fair?

Senator McCain is not going to referee ads run by groups outside our control.  The other side has no intention of reciprocating and has shown every inclination to tolerate and even encourage such attacks against us.  Of course, he will denounce any use of race or calumnies against his opponent by anyone.  But he won't play traffic cop anymore.  The other side uses the same tactics, with no opposition from the Obama campaign that I have seen.  Also, were he to do so and be unable to discourage independent expenditures run by people who have no relationship with him or our campaign, (and, in some cases, had previously run attacks against him) the Obama campaign will denounce him as a phony or weak.  If Evan and Richard's piece represents a general attitude among their colleagues, the press will agree.

Evan and Richard noted, ominously, that our campaign includes Steve Schmidt and Charlie Black, characterizing them basically as noted Republican attack specialists.  The Obama senior staffers were described as idealists and decent sorts, and jujitsu experts who could use Republican Party smears and deceitful tactics against their authors.  I'm sure both David Plouffle and David Axelrod are fine, upstanding citizens.  But the former ran a campaign for Senator Torricelli and the latter worked on the campaigns of Mayor Daley.  I don't remember those campaigns being notable for their delicate courtesy and softball tactics toward their opponents.

Without a trace of skepticism, your reporters embraced the primary communications strategy the Obama campaign intends to follow: any criticism of their candidate is a below the belt, Republican attack machine distortion that should discredit the authors.  And any attempt by our campaign to counter that suggestion will be dismissed as a rant.  The other day, Senator Obama noted that Representative DeFazio's accusation that Senator McCain was up to his neck in the Keating Five scandal was a legitimate line of attack, despite the fact the Senator was largely exonerated by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose special counsel declared he had been kept in the investigation only because of his party affiliation.  Were we to raise the Rezko matter, their campaign would accuse us of distracting voters with a low blow by making more of a "flimsy relationship" than the facts warranted. Evan and Richard, I feel certain, would agree.

The McCain campaign will keep to the high standards of political debate Senator McCain demands of us.  The Senator will not tolerate unfair attacks by anyone on our campaign.  We won't, however, abide by rules imposed on us by our opponents, and which pertain only to our campaign and not theirs, even if they manage to get reporters to call the deal fair.

Thanks for hearing me out. 

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