Why Obama Wants McCain to Attack

Call it the Masochistic Maneuver.

Each day, political reporters like, say, Stumper are inundated with messages from each campaign's "rapid response" squad--a group of operatives who rebut attacks, forward fact-checks and and flag reports that could damage their boss's rival, all for the benefit of the "overworked" national press corps. Obama's team--which consists of spokesmen Tommy Vietor and Hari Sevugan--is especially rapid and especially responsive. On an average day, the dastardly duo sends me 15-20 e-mails, and yesterday was no exception. But amid the usual detritus--"McCain Employing GOP Operative Accused of Voter Registration Fraud"; "McCain Solicits Russian U.N. Ambassador"--there was one message that stood out.

The note--entitled "Flailing"--originated with Mr. Sevugan. In it, the loyal Obaman listed the "ten different attacks" that Team McCain had unleashed on the Illinois senator during the previous 24 hours--complete with links. These included swipes at Obama regarding ACORN ("threatening the fabric of our democracy"); taxes ("sounds like socialism"); readiness ("the next President won't have time to get used to the office"); the press ("the media has a thumb on the scale for Obama"); Bill Ayers ("people should be informed about Barack Obama's background, including his relationships with domestic terrorists"); and baseball ("After repeatedly saying he would root for the Phillies in the World Series, Barack Obama switched teams while campaigning in Tampa today"). This is unusual--to put it mildly. Typically, rapid responders will reference attacks in their messages--but only to show why they're "demonstrably false" or "categorically untrue." This may be the first time I've ever seen a guy like Sevugan simply collect a bunch of criticisms of his candidate and transmit them, unaltered, to the nation's leading political scribes.

So why the shift?

As weird as the maneuver seems--I mean,"Don't Spread Attacks on Your Own Candidate" is like, Campaign Politics 101--Sevugan and Co.'s decision reflects a fundamental reality of the 2008 presidential race as it enters its final fortnight: by going negative, McCain has been hurting himself more than he's been hurting Obama. The proof is in the pudding. On Sept. 24, both candidates enjoyed identical 17 point net-positive ratings (the number you get when you subtract the number of voters who see a candidate unfavorably from the number who seem him favorably). But over the past few weeks, McCain's net favorable rating has plummeted (to 7.3 percent) while Obama's has ticked steadily upward (to 19.5). In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, Obama's favorable-unfavorable split is 53 percent to 33 percent; McCain's, on the other hand, is 36 percent to 45 percent. Those numbers represent gains of 10 points for both candidates since the September survey--Obama on the "favorable" side of the ledger, McCain on the "unfavorable" side.

The thinking in Chicago is that the risk of alerting reporters to attacks they haven't heard--I, for one, didn't known about the Phillies phlap until I received "Phlailing"--is minimal compared to the benefits of pushing the campaign's preferred narrative: a desperate, "erratic" McCain flails at Obama and avoids the economy; meanwhile, the Democrat floats above the fray and only discusses "the issues that matter to America." As Sevugan wrote in his introduction, "With 15 days to go, John McCain still hasn't found a compelling message to persuade voters that he is offering something other than four more years of the same failed policies and destructive politics of the last eight. Instead he's offered up the kitchen sink ... and not one of [his attacks] ha[s] a thing to do with turning the economy around."

So far, America seems to agree. Six in 10 voters recently told CNN that McCain is unfairly attacking his rival, and 69 percent of CBS respondents say that the Republican is spending more time gnashing his teeth than explaining what he plans to do as president. As long as those numbers hold steady, the defining dynamic of the race will remain unchanged: the more McCain attacks, the more negatively voters see him--and the more positively voters see Obama. It's no surprise, then, that Sevugan is circulating lists of the Arizonan's latest punches. The only surprise may be that McCain is still trying to land the same old blows.