McCain’s Increasingly Negative Campaign Begins Worrying Some Republicans

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Yes, Virginia, there are some in the GOP who don’t think likely Republican Presidential candidate Senator John McCain’s negative campaigning blitz is a good idea….

In recent weeks McCain’s campaign has more than ever begun to resemble exactly the kind of campaign many independent voters have long said they don’t like to see: a Rovian-style negative campaign where the focus is on seek-and-destroy attacks aimed at character more than policy, quick response negative campaigning, versus a campaign based on issues where a candidate aggressively outlines his or her vision of the future.

And it starts a cycle: the other side will then feel it has to respond in kind.

The danger for McCain is that some independents are starting to conclude that the John McCain who they may have backed in 2000 and rooted for in the Republican primaries is starting to vanish in a crowd of Karl Rove proteges and campaign advisers who feel the way to win is to by demonizing Obama and Democrats and by aiming for yet one more party base mobilization election.

And this worries some Republicans:

In recent days Senator John McCain has charged that Senator Barack Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign,” tarred him as “Dr. No” on energy policy and run advertisements calling him responsible for high gas prices.

The old happy warrior side of Mr. McCain has been eclipsed a bit lately by a much more aggressive, and more negative, Mr. McCain who hammers Mr. Obama repeatedly on policy differences, experience and trustworthiness.

By doing so, Mr. McCain is clearly trying to sow doubts about his younger opponent, and bring him down a peg or two. But some Republicans worry that by going negative so early, and initiating so many of the attacks himself rather than leaving them to others, Mr. McCain risks coming across as angry or partisan in a way that could turn off some independents who have been attracted by his calls for respectful campaigning.

The drumbeat of attacks could also undermine his argument that he will champion a new brand of politics.

In reality, the damage is probably already done. The growing sharpness of McCain’s campaign rhetoric, its focus on responding to Obama and verging on name calling that sometimes seems akin to a “troll” in a blog comments section just doesn’t jibe with the 2000 John McCain. And if he manages to win a campaign on this basis, he will take over the Oval Office with a reservoir of polarization-hubris-bad-will that will make it difficult for Democrats to work with him or risk backlash from their constituents.

(Be sure to read the UPDATE further down in this post…)

“The McCain campaign, I think, is being pulled in two directions,” said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. McCain in 2000. “On the one hand, this race is largely a referendum on Obama, and whether or not he’s going to pass the leadership threshold in the eyes of voters. So being aggressive against Obama on questions of leadership and trust and risk are important, but at the same time I think they need to be very careful because McCain is not at his best when he is being overly partisan and negative.”

The McCain campaign said that Mr. Obama had been taking shots at Mr. McCain for some time, and that Mr. McCain was simply trying to draw the contrast between the two candidates.

That’s a good response spin — but it’s not quite true. McCain is indeed drawing “contrasts” — but it is the tone, anger and seeming contempt with which McCain is speaking that is drawing the attention.

Many analysts have noted in recent weeks that McCain has now moved from being someone promising a more high-minded campaign to someone whose campaign is resembling the same kind of aggressive Karl Rove style campaign that unfolded in 2000 and 2004. Those campaigns worked. But they also helped perpetuate an era of political polarization and ill-will that many had felt McCain could help end.

Criticism of McCain has not only come from Democrats, unnamed Republicans who talk to reporters and independent voters who he’ll need to win,. A sign of the emerging conventional wisdom is seen in this Politico post which contains former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s comment in his role as a Fox News contributor on how McCain responded to Obama’s media-saturated overseas trip last week:

Frankly, I thought he looked more like Bob Dole in the last days of the 1996 campaign saying ‘look at the record, look at the record,’ and there was some anger and sense of frustration there.

He shouldn’t show that. He needs to show that nothing is getting to him, it’s rolling off his back, and I think he missed an opportunity to do that last week.

And, indeed, most articles and posts — including those written by yours truly — have been polite in characterizing the McCain campaign’s evolving tone: it is now morphing into the epitome of the kind of campaigns run by the late Lee Atwater and Rove with the same kind of angry, lashing-out character attacks that led some to also criticize the latter part of Senator Hillary Clinton’s Democratic primary campaign. It isn’t a shift in gears away from the polarizing politics of the 1980s-2008 but a continuation of it.

Writes Marc Ambinder:

The contempt that many McCain aides hold for Barack Obama rivals the contempt that McCain held for Mitt Romney a year ago. McCain’s advisers know that McCain is apt to treat those held in contempt contemptuously, but no inside McCain’s campaign believes that aggressively negative television ads and McCain’s public dismissals will “damage one of the most unique and most popular brands in American politics.”

The cadre of McCain allies who aren’t part of the campaign are very worried. They believe that McCain’s current crop of advisers are playing to his worse instincts, particularly his pride and his ego. When McCain is privately content, he comes across publicly as happy-go-lucky and magnanimous; satisfied; when he is combative, he comes off as combative and reactive. They worry that he is obsessed with Obama’s character and willing to attribute motives to Obama that are simply unbelievable outside of an echo chamber filled with those who are predisposed to believe Obama’s a phony.

This would include cable and radio talk shows that echo the official line. Since July 1 I have been on a drive through 3 states, sometime driving 650 miles in a single day. I have listened to a lot of talk radio and many of the conservative radio shows are wall-to-wall medleys of anti-Obama riffs that mirror McCain or GOP strategy.

Two other things on this subject:

1. Nowhere can you note the glaring failure of progressive talk radio more than on a drive like this. With the exception of picking up a few hours of progressive talker Ed Schultz, all talk shows on the stations are conservative ones, all basically putting out the same message.

2. The newest rant on some shows is linking up Obama to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as part of a do-nothing, obstructionist Democratic Congress run by a corrupt Democratic party. Prediction: this will be a big GOP theme soon.

Ambinder also writes this:

Concerns about whether McCain is coming off too mean, [McCain camp associates] say, are irrelevant. The media, they believe, has created double standard that allows them to view Obama’s contempt for McCain as in-bounds and McCain’s attempts to draw contrasts with Obama as out-of-bounds.

But there is a difference. McCain’s contention that Obama WANTS to lose the Iraq war (a statement he refused to back down from) and the TV ad claiming Obama wouldn’t visit wounded U.S. troops because they wouldn’t let TV cameras follow him (a charge NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said is “literally not true..”) were comments you would not expect out of the 2000, independent-voter-friendly edition of McCain.

(UPDATE: A Washington Post reporter looking into the charges about Obama not going to visit the troops due to cameras has found that the McCain camp’s charge “lacks evidence.”

For four days, Sen. John McCain and his allies have accused Sen. Barack Obama of snubbing wounded soldiers by canceling a visit to a military hospital because he could not take reporters with him, despite no evidence that the charge is true.

The attacks are part of a newly aggressive McCain operation whose aim is to portray the Democratic presidential candidate as a craven politician more interested in his image than in ailing soldiers, a senior McCain adviser said. They come despite repeated pledges by the Republican that he will never question his rival’s patriotism.

Read the entire report — and note how the campaign is sticking with and repeating the charge even when a reporter asks for specifics and is given info that is not deemed proof.)

And, in fact, the media has long respected McCain, who has been highly accessible and a superb quote machine — providing quotations of both style and substance. Many progressives still criticize the media for giving McCain “a pass” on a lot of things. Obama is a new news commodity and so in the nature of “news” he’s getting lots of coverage….which could, by the way, turn on Obama on a dime (and before the campaign is over, it likely will).

McCain’s problem in campaign 2008 is that he is in danger of losing a chunk of the independents who felt he was a candidate with a more thoughtful and positive vision.

He risks alienating the media when he throws down the gauntlet as they focus on the newer political story.

He risks losing the chance of picking up some Democratic support as he veers into political territory where he is just one more partisan Republican demonizing a Democratic candidate or letting surrogates go after the entire Democratic party, rather than presenting an exciting vision of the future and poking holes in his foe’s ideas in a substantive way.

The Democrats seem poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

And as that perception surfaces: so does John McCain.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle, MSNBC