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'The Original Mavericks,' or 'More of the Same'?

By Howard Kurtz
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

THE AD

The original mavericks. He fights pork-barrel spending. She stopped the "Bridge to Nowhere." He took on the drug industry. She took on Big Oil. He battled Republicans and reformed Washington. She battled Republicans and reformed Alaska. They'll make history. They'll change Washington. McCain. Palin. Real change.

ANALYSIS

John McCain is using this ad to try to reclaim the "maverick" label once routinely attached to his name, before he embraced the Republican right more tightly in seeking the presidential nomination. His running mate, Sarah Palin, can also claim to have taken on her state's Republican Party as Alaska governor, though it is conservative media outlets that most often call her a maverick.

The senator from Arizona has made a crusade of battling pork-barrel "earmarks," but the whopper here is the assertion that Palin opposed her state's notorious Bridge to Nowhere. She endorsed the remote project while running for governor in 2006, claimed to be an opponent only after Congress killed its funding the next year, and has used the $223 million provided for it for other state ventures. Far from being an opponent of earmarks, Palin hired lobbyists to try to capture more federal funding.

McCain can fairly be said to have taken on the drug industry by co-sponsoring a bill to allow imports of cheaper drugs from Canada. Palin presided over a tax on oil company profits and pushed the industry to develop Alaska's natural gas reserves.

To say that McCain "reformed Washington" is an overstatement. He has had limited success, such as on campaign finance legislation, but many of his other efforts, most notably on an attempt to revise immigration laws, have failed. And McCain has changed his position on such issues as President Bush's tax cuts, which he originally opposed but now wants to extend.

The commercial makes it clear that McCain, with the addition of a rookie governor, is no longer running as the candidate of experience. Instead, he is trying to steal the "change" mantra from his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, and appeal to swing voters who are disillusioned with the Republican Party.

THE AD

They call themselves mavericks. Whoa. Truth is, they're anything but. John McCain is hardly a maverick, when seven of his top campaign advisers are Washington lobbyists. He's no maverick when he votes with Bush 90 percent of the time. And Sarah Palin's no maverick, either. She was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it. Politicians lying about their records? You don't call that maverick. You call it more of the same.

ANALYSIS

This mocking response ad from Obama tries to tie the Republican ticket to old, conventional politics -- but also has the effect of bringing Obama down a notch, into a debate with McCain's running mate.

McCain's top campaign leadership is packed with former lobbyists, but that is not unusual in presidential races -- Obama's deputy campaign manager is a former lobbyist, and more than three dozen lobbyists have worked for his fundraising team. And McCain took on big lobbies with his successful push for campaign finance revision.

More damaging is the ad's citation of McCain's overwhelming legislative support for President Bush, raising questions as to just how independent he is from the man he is vying to succeed.

The senator from Illinois recycles a 2004 Bush attack line against Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, who had said he was for $87 billion in war funding before he was against it. The ad accurately charges that Palin, who is touting her opposition to the bridge project, originally supported it when she ran for Alaska governor.

Does that amount to politicians "lying" about their records? Palin's description of her role in the bridge funding is highly selective at best. An on-screen headline cites a critique of McCain's ad calling it a "naked lie," but that is from the liberal New Republic magazine. And while McCain may be exaggerating his maverick credentials, that is not evidence of lying.

The commercial's opening shot shows Obama with fellow senator and running mate Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the words "For the Change We Need." That encapsulates the ad's underlying purpose: not to let McCain hijack the change theme that has been at the core of Obama's candidacy.

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