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Can McCain Use Advice Clinton Got on Obama?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

If John McCain's campaign operatives were looking for strategic advice for the fall campaign against Barack Obama, they could click on the Atlantic Monthly's Web site. There they would find a raft of memos from Mark J. Penn, Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief strategist, outlining possible ways to try to defeat the presumptive Democratic nominee.

The memos, dug up by the enterprising Joshua Green and accompanying an article chronicling the demise of Clinton's campaign, are drawing attention in large measure for what they reveal about her operation's dysfunction. They are equally revealing for what they say about the direction Penn wanted to take Clinton's message and the risks inherent for McCain if he and his campaign were to pursue the same path.

Penn was always the biggest hawk in Clinton's campaign, always the one who advocated going negative against Obama. The day after the senator from New York won primaries in Ohio and Texas, Penn called for drawing a sharp contrast with Obama along the following lines:

"He is just words and she is a lifetime of action. . . . She is the one who is ready to fill the big shoes of this job and he is an inspiring speaker who isn't, and whose background you are beginning to wonder about. She has brought real results and even his words today are in doubt, invented for a campaign. Ultimately he cannot win against John McCain."

Clinton's campaign, he argued, "must now in earnest show that their image of Obama Camelot is simply nothing but campaign pitter-patter."

At the end of the day on March 30, he wrote an even more pointed memo. He argued that Obama needed to be "vetted" on the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his former pastor; on his ties to the corrupt Tony Rezko; and on his record in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate.

"Does anyone believe it is possible to win the nomination without, over these two months, raising all these issues against him?" Penn wrote. "A 'nice' campaign that wins the states alone that can be won -- will that be enough or do serious issues have to raised about him?"

None of these were new positions for Penn. A year earlier, on March 19, 2007, he portrayed Obama as lacking roots in basic American values and as being a phony -- although he was more tentative on how the campaign ought to approach those topics.

Penn was particularly struck by what he called "a very strong weakness" in Obama -- "His roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values."

But then he worried about how the Clinton campaign could draw a contrast on this without sounding negative. "We are never going to say anything about his background -- we have to show the value of ours when it comes to making decisions, understanding the needs of most Americans -- the invisible Americans."

Penn's solution? "Let's explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches and the values. He doesn't," he wrote. "Make this a new American Century, the American Strategic Energy fund. Let's use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let's add flag symbols to the backgrounds."

Clinton's campaign never did quite become the flag-waving, patriotic operation that Penn envisioned in March 2007, nor did she ever go as overtly negative as he was preaching in March and April 2008. Would she be the nominee if she had? And can McCain win the presidency if he -- carefully -- pursues a similar path?

Clinton's risk, often cited by Penn's opponents inside the campaign, was that attacking Obama directly would only heighten negative impressions of her. She carried plenty of baggage as a polarizing politician; taking on Obama would have added to that baggage. Others in Clinton's high command preferred to portray her as more human. They did not think she needed to look more like a warrior.

Earlier this year, the McCain campaign, presumably unknowingly, adopted some of Penn's provocative 2007 playbook with an ad that talked about the presumptive GOP nominee as "the American president Americans have been waiting for."

That was even less subtle in invoking a cultural-values argument against Obama than Penn's suggestion to Clinton that she always tell audiences she was "born in the middle of America" and to talk about "the deeply American values you grew up with."

Interestingly, the most provocative of Penn's memos posted by the Atlantic -- the one that talks about Obama's lack of roots in American values -- went nowhere. "I don't remember there being a real discussion about this," Howard Wolfson, who was the campaign's communications director and who often differed with Penn on strategy, said yesterday. "It was universally rejected, and in fairness to Mark, I don't think Mark pushed it. . . . It's one of those things people heard and said, 'That's not a good idea.' "

McCain's campaign appears to have less hesitation than Clinton's did in going after Obama. For the past few weeks, it has run a series of negative ads -- some humorous, some not so -- that portray Obama as a famous but empty suit who is wrong on many of the issues Americans care most about.

The ads, at a minimum, may be getting under Obama's skin. It's possible they are doing real damage. Penn seems to believe that, based on what he wrote for the Politico. "Fair or not, as advertising it did its job," he said.

Just how far McCain's campaign will pursue this strategy isn't clear. There are risks for him, just as there were for Clinton. Obama has proven over this long campaign to be a difficult target to hit -- at least on anything more than an occasional basis. So the mileage may be limited long term.

More fundamentally, McCain risks damaging his reputation as a politician who has eschewed the politics of negativity. But what was considered out of bounds in a Democratic primary campaign may be less so in a general-election race, in which other voters come into play. McCain will have to make some difficult judgments about this in the final 82 days.

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