By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008
CLEVELAND -- Sen. John McCain's allies have seized on a new and aggressive line of attack against Sen. Barack Obama, casting the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as an opportunistic and self-obsessed politician who will do and say anything to get elected.
McCain typically leaves the sharpened criticism to others, in the hope of being able to claim the high ground of conducting a "respectful" campaign. But the abrupt shift in tone among his paid staff members, volunteer surrogates and other Republican staples of the cable news circuit is unmistakable, and it resembles the unified message the GOP used to paint the 2004 Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry, as a flip-flopper.
It also reflects a growing belief among McCain's strategists that the campaign for the White House will be won or lost based on voters' view of Obama's character. In a strategy memo released Thursday, McCain's top political adviser accused Obama of "self-serving partisanship."
"In his time on the national stage, he has consistently put his party and his self-interest first," McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said in the memo. "We have seen Barack Obama forced to choose between principle and the interests of himself and his party. He has always chosen the latter."
Schmidt said in an interview that the campaign intends to point out "every day" that Obama broke his promise to accept public financing for his campaign, and that he has not made good on his pledge to debate his Republican opponent anytime and anywhere.
"It's a statement of fact that he discards people, and he discards positions when they become inconvenient for him," Schmidt said Friday. "When politicians say one thing and then do another, like Senator Obama has done, voters wonder about the steadfastness of the character of the person sitting in the Oval Office."
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said he is not surprised by the sharp attacks from McCain's surrogates: "It's our view that's exactly the politics that the American people are sick and tired of. The only ideas they have to promote are the failed ones for the last eight years."
Targeting a politician's character flaws is a time-tested strategy, but it is a complicated argument for McCain, who has also shifted his positions in the course of the campaign. This month, with gasoline prices soaring, the Republican reversed his position on offshore oil drilling.
The aggressive rhetoric aimed at Obama began to emerge June 22, when Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, a national co-chairman of the McCain campaign, appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." The normally collegial senator from South Carolina took direct aim at Obama's integrity.
"He's a calculating politician," Graham said. "The bottom line about Barack Obama, whatever the position -- whether it be Iraq, campaign finance reform, public financing -- he's going to take a tack that allows him to win. He wants to win beyond anything else, even more than keeping his word."
That theme was repeated Thursday in a conference call with reporters about the Supreme Court's decision to affirm the Second Amendment right to own a gun. McCain adviser Randy Scheunemann complained about what he called Obama's constantly changing positions.
"What's becoming clear in this campaign," he said, is that Obama "has demonstrated that there is no position he holds that isn't negotiable. He will say or do anything if it furthers his political purposes."
And Karl Rove, the former political adviser to President Bush who is quietly consulting with McCain's top strategists, offered this piece of advice in his column in the Wall Street Journal.
"Mr. McCain will be helped if he uses Mr. Obama's actions to paint his opponent as someone driven by an all-powerful instinct to look out only for himself," Rove wrote Thursday. "In a contest over who is willing to put principle above personal ambition and self-interest, John McCain, a war hero and a former POW, wins hands down."
Mark Rozell, a professor of political science at George Mason University, said the similarity of the attacks suggests a concerted effort to "build a picture" about Obama's character before the political newcomer has a chance to convince people of the truth of his rhetoric.
"These things are always orchestrated," Rozell said. "I have no doubt there has been a running conversation within Republican circles about what the theme should be in going after Obama and how that theme could be reinforced."
The new Republican theme moves the campaign argument away from policy disagreements -- of which there are many -- to the realm of character, where McCain aides think their candidate is untouchable. But the tactic has potential risks for McCain, who has said repeatedly over the past several months that he will run a "respectful" campaign that does not engage in the politics of personal destruction.
Two days ago, McCain repeated that promise as he rode his Straight Talk Express bus across Ohio.
"Look, I respect and admire Senator Obama, and if I have ever treated him in a disrespectful way I don't know of it," he said. "Americans want a respectful debate. They don't want us to finger-point and question each other's character and integrity."
In a news conference with reporters Friday, McCain decried "gotcha" politics and said, "The lesson I have from traveling around this state and around this nation is they say, why don't you guys stop fighting with each other?"
But on Saturday he told a group of donors, "You know, this election is about trust and trusting people's word. And unfortunately, apparently on several items Senator Obama's word cannot be trusted."
Obama supporters have offered questions of their own about McCain's integrity, adding to the sniping on both sides of the political aisle. Schmidt said McCain has been "maligned and insulted and called names" by Obama supporters.
A radio talk show host called McCain a "warmonger," an accusation with which McCain's camp took particular umbrage, given his history as a prisoner of war and his oft-repeated statement that he "hates" war.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), an Obama surrogate, even cited McCain's service as a fighter pilot as evidence that he does not care about people.
McCain "dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet," he said earlier this year. "He was long gone when they hit. What happened when [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn't know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues." Rockefeller later apologized for the comments.
Republican strategists said it is not as clear that attacks on Obama's character will work this year, when voters have said in surveys that they are tired of political vitriol.
Craig Shirley, a GOP consultant and biographer based in Virginia, said substantive issues are sometimes more powerful during a campaign than a focus on character.
"Bush tried the same thing in 1992 and Dole tried the same thing in 1996 -- trying to make the election a character issue -- both failing, of course," Shirley said of George H.W. Bush and Robert J. Dole. "If these things were simply about character, then the two war heroes the GOP nominated in 1992 and 1996 would have beaten the draft-dodging, pot-smoking womanizer."