Obama, McCain and Partisan Warfare

Campaign staffers and paid consultants can be patronizing to the candidates they "handle." In the cynical view of the wise guys who run campaigns, the candidates are softhearted amateurs who can't be trusted not to wander from the disciplined message of the day, or who become all mushy and weak-kneed when it's time to attack the opponent. This seems to have been the attitude toward John McCain in some quarters of his campaign in recent days. A front-page article last week in The Washington Post was headlined AS AIDES MAP AGGRESSIVE RACE, MCCAIN OFTEN STEERS OFF-COURSE. The article was likely fed by Republican Party operatives who were frustrated by McCain's tendency to undercut or talk over his attack lines by being a candid or forgiving human being. When McCain offhandedly described Obama's plan to withdraw troops from Iraq in 16 months as a "pretty good timetable," GOP advisers moaned that he was ruining his attack on Obama as naive on foreign policy. The problem, in the view of campaign strategists, isn't the message—bashing Obama as arrogant and out of touch. Rather, "it's the candidate," says a "GOP strategist with close ties to the campaign," anonymously quoted by the Post.

It's clear McCain's handlers are determined now to keep him "on message" and not allow much spontaneity to creep into his performances. They can't persuade him to give up town halls, but last week he was noticeably kept away from the national press corps, whom he once called his "base." Although McCain requested that a couch be put on his campaign plane so he could sit around with reporters as he did on his Straight Talk Express bus during the primaries, the couch has lately been occupied only by overflow staff. McCain looked cranky most of last week, as if he could sense the potential harm he was doing to his reputation as a high-road politician.

Modern political campaigns, aided and abetted by the press, exert a powerful downward force. The Democratic handlers are no more high-minded. If anything, they have been rattled by Republican attacks in years past and are now determined to show their toughness. In 2004, as John Kerry was getting "Swift-Boated," depressed Democrats would recite a meme attributed to Bill Clinton's war room: "If you're not hitting, you're getting hit." In the 2006 cycle, the hard-edged (and successful) Democratic political team headed by Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel urged candidates to "leave no charge unanswered." Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton's communications director and one of the toughest players in the Democratic Party, first came to prominence in Schumer's successful bid for the Senate in 1998. Wolfson's motto in that campaign was a line from "The Untouchables": "If he uses a fist, you use a bat. If he uses a knife, you use a gun." Though a veteran of political knife fighting in Chicago, Obama has been more restrained, or at least a little more subtle about negative campaigning, but he does not always rise above it. McCain's staffers were infuriated in April, when Obama slyly talked up McCain's age by saying that Democrats wouldn't play "the age card" and in May, when Obama pointedly remarked that McCain had "lost his bearings" and was "confused."

All this sliming may make political sense. While voters say they dislike negative campaigning, polls show they are influenced by it. Still, the constant tit-for-tat squabbling between the candidates is dispiriting and so convoluted than even political junkies have trouble keeping score. And it has a way of distorting the candidates and making them seem meaner or more robotlike than they actually are.

To be sure, by his own account McCain can be nasty and is not known for shying away from a fight. McCain aides beamed when he coined the derogatory term "Dr. No" (from the old James Bond movie) to describe Obama for opposing offshore drilling. But lately, it appears that McCain is mostly doing the bidding of his handlers, not the other way around. The biggest noise last week was made not by McCain himself, but by his campaign manager, Rick Davis, a veteran Washington operator who accused Obama of "playing the race card." McCain was left to dutifully endorse this incendiary remark: "I agree with it," he said when asked by reporters. (The next day he said, "I'm ready to move on.") The airwaves quickly filled with breathless commentary about race, a taboo subject reporters scrupulously avoid as "sensitive" but thrill to when they can get someone talking about it on the record.

There was a time, all the way back in May, when McCain sounded like he was going to strike a higher note. At a speech to business leaders in Columbus, Ohio, McCain decried the "hyperpartisanship" of presidential campaigns, the endless charges and countercharges. "Americans are sick of it, and they have every right to be," said McCain. But that was then. Off to a lackluster start, McCain seemed to be unable to fire up his base. Evangelicals were either giving him lukewarm endorsements—or privately vowing to stay home in November. Harry Awdey, 21, a Republican National Convention delegate from Michigan, tells NEWSWEEK he doesn't think McCain should invest too much in social networking because "Obama is so far in the lead that it would almost be futile to try and catch up with him in the youth-voting base." McCain's best hope, his handlers have apparently concluded, is to try to make suburban moms and working-class voters nervous that Obama is inexperienced or too elitist and cocky. (They have disdained the Web slime merchants who go on about Obama's ethnicity and religion.) Last week the campaign repeatedly described Obama as "fussy"—a tactic one McCain aide, who wouldn't be quoted discussing internal strategy, insisted was just the campaign "having a little fun at his expense the way Democrats have had with us."

In late spring, the McCain campaign convened a focus group with undecided voters in a swing state, trying to determine if lashing out against Obama would cause blowback against McCain. An adviser, who declined to be named discussing internal strategy, tells NEWSWEEK they quizzed how voters reacted to Obama's remark that working-class men and women were "bitter" and "cling" to "guns or religion," as well as McCain's attacks on Obama for failing to take political risks and do the right thing for the country. The results were "positive" for McCain, the adviser says. Not long after, the man who ran Bush's "war room" in 2004, Steve Schmidt, took over day-to-day operation of the campaign. Schmidt, known as The Bullet for his shaved head, specializes in staying on message.

As much as McCain, Obama has called for a new kind of politics that rises above partisan backbiting. But he, or more commonly his surrogates, routinely take potshots at McCain. Indeed, the McCain advisers insist they are just fighting fire with fire by aggressively going after Obama. They note, for instance, that when a radio host warming up a McCain rally pointedly used Obama's middle name (Hussein), McCain repudiated the remarks and called for an apology. But when another radio host at an Obama rally called McCain a "warmonger," Obama did not personally disavow the comment. (Instead his campaign dismissed the remark in a press release.) "It has not escaped our attention that since the Indiana primary, Senator Obama has not given a speech in which he hasn't attacked John McCain," says McCain strategist Mark Salter. "We're no longer going to put up with that."

Presidential campaigns resemble the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the Sharks and the Jets ("You started it. No, you started it"). When it comes to self-defense, Obama is in a tricky spot. It has become Democratic orthodoxy that the Obama campaign cannot allow the Republicans to "define" Obama the way they did John Kerry in 2004—as an elitist flip-flopper. Obama has tried to play it cool, to not let traditional Rovean tactics get under his skin, the way Republican attacks usually do with Democrats. It's particularly perilous for Obama, who has sometimes looked arrogant while trying to act unfazed. Showing real anger at GOP fire could be risky for Obama. "There are limits to what Obama can do in response," says a Democratic operative who did not wish to be identified discussing the touchy issue of race. "An angry white guy can get away with angry responses, an angry black guy can't."

On the other hand, Obama can't afford to play it too cool. Asked if he minded a particularly tough Democratic debate last April, Obama mimed rapper Jay-Z doing a "dirt off the shoulder" brush with a flick of his hand. The move played well with Obama's young base, but rubbed some older Democrats the wrong way. Lately, The Washington Post reported last week, Obama has been keeping his distance from rappers. Last week Ludacris released a single called "Politics," praising Obama but calling Hillary Clinton a b–––h and suggesting that McCain should be in a wheelchair. Obama's campaign condemned the song.

Last week, in Union, Mo., Obama tried to distance himself from racial or ethnic stereotyping while taking a dig at his attackers, telling audiences that "John McCain and the Republicans" are going "to try to scare you about me … 'He's got a funny name, and he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills'." This apparently provoked the charge from Davis that Obama is "playing the race card, from the bottom of the deck." (McCain aides were angry because Obama specifically accused McCain, by name, of scare tactics, when the purveyors are usually anonymous bloggers and radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who is unconnected to the campaign.) By the weekend, both campaigns were bickering furiously over who played the race card first.

The press was clearly enjoying the squabble, and there is no doubt the reporters egg on the campaigns to flame each other. But the attack-counterattack culture has become slightly overwhelming, even to the press. Reporters are now summoned to two or three conference calls each day to hear campaign operatives bash the other side. Reporters' BlackBerrys fill with attack e-mails at all hours of the day and night from party hacks and bloggers "feeding the beast," in campaign parlance. The avalanche has produced some gallows humor on the campaign planes. Recently, a Democratic National Committee press aide named Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza began flooding electronic mailboxes with unfavorable clips about McCain. A couple of weeks ago, a reporter on McCain's plane opened his e-mail and found his IN box clogged with messages from her. ("Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza?" the reporter asked sarcastically, wondering who this new name was.) The volume, velocity and (probably) viciousness of messages like these will just grow. And it's only early August.