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Posted by on Jul 27, 2008 in Politics | 48 comments

McCain Campaign Ad: Obama Chose Going To Gym Over Visiting Troops

Republican Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign opened both political barrels on rival Democratic Senator Barack Obama with a short but blistering TV campaign ad that charges that Obama chose to go to the gym rather than visit wounded troops because the Pentagon wouldn’t allow cameras to go with him.

It’s an ad (watch ad yourself at the bottom of this post) that is being received predictably by both sides. Democrats are outraged, Republicans defend it. But the fact that it’s coming before the two party political conventions have been held as part of an increasingly ugly battle between McCain and Obama underscores a reality:

So much for 2008 being a year when the political campaign will be different and focus on the issues troubling — and in some cases bankrupting — some Americans. This will be yet one more ugly, divisive campaign whose winner will be the person who is able to best negatively define the other in ways where negative imagery sticks.

But as the Washington Post notes, part of the problem isn’t just that Obama walked — or some might suggest was directed by foes within the establishment to walk — into this controversy. Part of the problem, the Post reports, is that his aides bungled the initial response. So one issue is the actual event. The other is the Obama campaign’s effectiveness in decisively responding to the charges.

That this is becoming an issue on the Sunday morning shows, newspapers and blogs is further confirmation that Campaign 2008 will be just as personal with key issues playing second fiddle as previous recent Presidential campaigns. And the way in which it’s being used by the McCain campaign indicates the era of Karl Rove-style politics is far from over. There has nuances, but you’d never know it by the way it’s being played in the ad and by partisans.

Here’s the Post’s background summary:

Sen. John McCain lashed out at his Democratic rival in a tough new television ad Saturday, accusing him of “going to the gym” while in Germany instead of visiting wounded soldiers, and of doing so because the hospitals would not let television cameras film the visits.

The Republican senator also repeats the charge in an interview to be aired Sunday morning, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that “if I had been told by the Pentagon that I couldn’t visit those troops, and I was there and wanted to be there, I guarantee you, there would have been a seismic event.”

So if Obama had ignored the military and gone anyway, or raised a ruckus over visiting them, THAT wouldn’t have become a big campaign issue and generated a McCain campaign ad? If you believe that, I can sell you this for $21.

In the ad, an announcer says: “And now, he made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras. John McCain is always there for our troops. McCain. Country first.”

The ad, which the campaign said would air in “key” states, was created quickly to seize on a controversy just days old. During his trip to Germany, Obama was scheduled to visit the American hospitals at Ramstein and Landstuhl, but cancelled the trips after being told by Pentagon officials that he could only visit in his official capacity as a senator, not as a candidate.

Was it a trap? As NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported, Obama visited troops in Afghanistan and at Walter Reed Hospital without the press with no problems from the military.

But in this case the Pentagon seemingly took a much harder line. Read this and this. Despite what the McCain ad says, from these reports the issue is not just that Obama didn’t visit the troops because the Pentagon wouldn’t allow cameras — but it could be and is being portrayed in the ad as being what happened.

Here’s the lead from the New York Daily News:

Barack Obama skipped a visit to injured troops in Germany to avoid stirring a political controversy – but he got one anyway.

Obama said he had planned to visit U.S. soldiers at the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, but settled for a phone call when military officials said bringing the campaign’s military adviser, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, would be seen as a “political” move, which is not allowed.

“That triggered then a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political,” Obama said. “The last thing that I want to do is have injured soldiers and the staff at these wonderful institutions having to sort through whether this is political or not or get caught in the crossfire between campaigns. So rather than go forward and potentially get caught up in what might have been a political controversy, of some sort, what we decided was that we would not make a visit.”

ABC’s Jake Tapper:

Obama told me earlier today that the trip was canceled because of “a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political. And the last thing that I want to do is have injured soldiers and the staff at these wonderful institutions having to sort through whether this is political or not or get caught in the crossfire between campaigns.”

McCain’s ad asserts that Obama “made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.”

The McCain campaign provides no evidence for the assertion that being told he couldn’t bring media had anything to do with the trip’s cancellation.

And he adds this update:

UPDATE: Obama campaign spokeswoman Linda Douglass says, “We told military officials explicitly that Senator Obama had absolutely no attention of bringing any members of the media or photographers in with him to visit the wounded warriors. In all of our communications with the military, we stressed that this was to be a private visit by Senator Obama.”

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign responded responded in a predictable way.

Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama and McCain both believed that troops should be honored and noted that Obama had visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan last week and had made numerous trips to Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ”Senator McCain knows full well that Senator Obama strongly supports and honors our troops, which is what makes this attack so disingenuous. This politicization of our soldiers is exactly what Senator Obama sought to avoid,” Vietor said.

But it’s clear from this ad, the way this issue is springing up, and how it’s dominating old and new blog coverage that the elections of 2000 and 2004 will be replayed in terms of tone. The focus is on personal issues that are “high concept” so memorable phrases can be communicated (and oversimplified and perhaps distorted) in easy-to-retain 30 second ads. The negative imagery can also then be repeated frequently in the new media and on talk shows by partisans.

The recent entry of Karl Rove proteges and Rove himself as an “informal” campaign adviser is leaving a mark on the McCain campaign that can be seen now in two key McCain charges over the past week. Both are “high concept” charges. First, McCain accused Obama of wanting to lose the Iraq war. And now, in this ad, of not visiting wounded troops because cameras weren’t allowed.

All that’s needed now would be a high concept McCain campaign slogan that can be taken two ways: as a positive for McCain, and a negative if applied to the high concept allegations injected into the race about Obama. the new, short McCain campaign slogan will be used by some for just that: McCain: Country First. (So just who is it that isn’t putting Country First?)

The bottom line: voters who were hoping for a campaign dominated by debate on issues rather than another descent into personality definition politics will have to wait a while. The problem is that Democrats have had leads going into general elections before but when they’ve been successfully branded by Republicans as soft on national security or not caring enough about the military they have often lost. Is the Obama campaign skillful enough to respond, short-circuit and counter these allegations?

The handwriting is not just the wall. The wall is starting to fall on the Democrats. And it’s not even Labor Day yet.

Here’s the ad:
UPDATE: The Daily Dish’s Chris Bodenner:

If there were pictures on the wires of him shaking hands with bedridden vets while media vultures crowded around for close-ups, conservatives would have ripped him for it properly and mercilessly and he knows it. Why not stick with the ‘he went to the gym but not the hospital’ point, which is at least factually correct? Why go here?,” – Allahpundit.

I predict these nasty, petty, and desperate attacks will only grow as Obama soars into November. What else does McCain have to run on? It’s the same approach Clinton took after Feb. 5: if I can’t beat him, I’ll drag him down to my level and hope he hits back, besmirching his image as a “new politician.” It wasn’t exactly a winning strategy.

More blog reaction is HERE.

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