By Ben Goddard - 09/17/08 05:06 PM EDT
If there is one thing I’ve learned from the presidential election of 2008, it is we’ll have to wait until the fat lady sings. Ignoring my own advice, I’ll hazard the prediction that she’s at least been running the scales and opening up her pipes this week. We all know that John McCain is prone to wander off the talking points from time to time, but when he proclaimed on Monday that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong,” he took a sharp turn into what may be a deep message ditch. His halting delivery of the line even suggests that he knew, at mid-sentence, this was not where he should be going.
At almost the same moment, the Obama campaign seemed to have suddenly gotten their game back. Both nominee Barack and his vice presidential sidekick Joe Biden were all over McCain’s pronouncement like, as we used to say in Idaho, “stink on s--t.” On the stump, in TV news clips and, most importantly for the Obama campaign, with their paid advertising, it was as though Obama finally let his attack dogs into the editing room. The skills of a very good advertising team skewered McCain, and if they are smart they’ll keep beating that drum until the first Tuesday in November.
The first spot out of the box was a powerful one from the Obama team. Released less than 24 hours after McCain’s proclamation, the ad begins with a bold graphic recalling the collapse of Lehman Brothers, job losses and foreclosure statistics. Then the spot cuts to McCain on the stump proclaiming that the fundamentals of our economy are strong. Not once but twice. His words are wrong, he looks uncomfortable and you can’t help but remember his admission that he doesn’t know much about the economy. Then the punch line: “How can John McCain fix our economy if he doesn’t understand it is broken?” while a jolly photo of McCain and President Bush fills the screen.
At this point in the campaign, television commercials become as important as news coverage, in some cases even more so. Many more people saw John McCain proclaim the strength of economic fundamentals in Barack Obama’s TV ad than in actual news coverage. And importantly, the clip was packaged so that the viewer takes away what the Obama team wanted: McCain doesn’t get it.
By contrast, McCain’s first post-Lehman Brothers ad was soft and reassuring in tone. Whether the McCain media team was reacting to the negative press surrounding some of their harshest and most misleading attack ads, or if they really did believe a positive message was important for the country, I can’t say. What I can say is that the ad was far too soft. It was a string of platitudes promising that the McCain-Palin team would protect our investments and our savings. The ad did say we’re in a crisis, but there was little sense of alarm — and “Trust us, we’ll fix it” is not a message that will work just now.
On Wednesday, the Obama campaign rolled out a two-minute TV spot, a living room chat in which the nominee lays out his now familiar calls for a middle-class tax break, an end to the “anything goes” culture on Wall Street, a “made in America” energy plan, a crackdown on lobbyists and a responsible end to the war in Iraq. While there is nothing particularly new or at all surprising in the two-minute piece, just the longer format suggests that Obama is taking the economy seriously. He wants to stamp his brand on this issue and back McCain into the corner as a Bush crony with little appreciation for what is happening to middle-class America. It is a smart move and the best chance Obama has for demonstrating that he understands what real people are living through and is committed to changing it.
In this first exchange of commercial salvos over the economic issue, Obama clearly scored a direct hit. McCain’s advertising response seemed to reinforce the out-of-touch, tone-deaf nature of his first remarks. The campaign tried to correct their early comments with a release saying we were “in crisis” — and “Crisis” was the name of their first ad on the Wall Street meltdown — but all that seems too little, too late. Unless something radically changes, this week goes to Obama.
And if Obama is able to best McCain on economic issues, that really may have been the fat lady we heard tuning up on Monday and Tuesday.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.