The Best of Times, the Worst of Times on the Stump
In the last few weeks of the presidential race, we have seen the best and the worst of the two campaigns.
While I perceive that the campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been more negative, even a strong supporter of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) such as myself must concede there have been some bad moments on our side, too.
The common theme seems to be that in both campaigns there is sometimes a disconnect between the candidates’ personal campaigning and what their campaign organizations are saying in paid ads and hateful outbursts by some overzealous supporters.
Here are some examples on both sides:
Bad moment: Mr. McCain’s campaign is running an ad that calls Mr. Obama a “liar” because he denies being sympathetic or closely associated with William Ayers, who was involved with terrorist bombings in the late ’60s as one of the founders of the Weather Underground. But the ad misleadingly omits Mr. Obama’s having called Mr. Ayers’s conduct back then “detestable” — and I agree with that.
What makes this ad worse is that it directly violates what Mr. McCain has long stood for and taught me personally years ago: the importance of always making the distinction between disagreeing with a political opponent and attacking his motives or character (as in describing Mr. Obama as a “liar.”)
Good moment: Mr. Obama, during last week’s debate, gave credit to Mr. McCain for opposing certain members of the Bush administration who permitted torture.
Bad moment: Mr. Obama has approved campaign ads that claim that Mr. McCain’s election represents no more than “four more years of President Bush.” This may be true on some issues, such as tax cuts for the wealthy, but the ad doesn’t mention that Mr. McCain courageously led bipartisan efforts to reform campaign finance and immigration, opposing the right-wing base of his party.
Best moment for Mr. McCain: At a campaign event last week, the Arizona senator took away the microphone from an ignorant and bigoted elderly woman after she said she couldn’t trust Mr. Obama because he is an “Arab.” Mr. McCain immediately said, “No. That’s not true,” adding that while he and Mr. Obama disagree on many issues, the Illinois senator is a decent person and should not be feared if he is elected president. This is the John McCain that so many Democrats and independents came to respect during and after his 2000 presidential campaign.
Bad moment: At that same event, the haters in the audience booed Mr. McCain for calling Mr. Obama a decent man and saying he should not be feared. Some Obama supporters are blaming Mr. McCain (and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin) for these extremist haters who are in some of their audiences.
Yet when similar haters on the left taunted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) during the primary campaign with personal vilification, including one who shouted out “iron my shirt,” many of the same people now criticizing the Republican ticket for what their extreme supporters are saying argued back then that it would be unfair to blame Mr. Obama for those anti-Clinton attacks. (As a Clinton supporter, I agreed that it was unfair to blame Mr. Obama.) The double-standard on the left (and the right) is still alive and well.
Best moment for the Obama team: Michelle Obama was asked by CNN’s “Larry King Live” about the race factor, specifically about polling data that showed a certain percentage of voters are still uneasy about an African-American being president and some will actually vote against Mr. Obama because of his race.
Mrs. Obama could have rightfully and sadly talked about the continued existence of racism in America. But to her credit, she did not go there. She denied that race would be a significant factor, pointing to the fact that her husband was the Democratic nominee. (She could have pointed out that Mr. Obama is now ahead of every national public opinion poll by significant margins.) She spoke with dignity and pride that America had come so far that there was a chance that her husband could be president of the United States. It was an awesome, uplifting performance.
So what is the lesson here?
Thanks to Mr. McCain (and Sen. Russ Feingold, Wis., a Democrat), every campaign ad that mentions an opponent now must have the candidate say personally, “I approve this message.”
So the lesson is simple: Both men must insist that their campaign organizations (including the TV ads) are consistent with their own personal values and standards of conduct during a campaign. And they both should repudiate any third-party organizations running distorted negative ads on their behalf.
It is clear that Mr. McCain’s recent higher “negative ratings” and his drop in the polls are in large part a result of his campaign’s decision to go so personally negative against Mr. Obama. It’s not working, people.
It may be too late, given the economic crises the nation faces, for Mr. McCain to turn these poll results around. But if he stays focused in the remaining days on reproducing more of the “good moments” — being true to himself and positively offering his solutions to the problems facing America — win or lose, he will help rehabilitate what is now an increasingly tarnished Republican brand and his own prior reputation for campaign integrity and mutual respect.
And this will be good for him — and his country.
Lanny Davis is a Washington lawyer and a political analyst. From 1996 to 1998, he served as special counsel to President Clinton. From 2005 to 2006, he served on President Bush’s five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
This article appeared in Mr. Davis’s weekly column for The Washington Times, “Purple Nation,” on Monday, Oct. 13, 2008.