McCain's silver lining

Can the reactive Republican nominee effectively create voter resentment toward Obama?

Published July 28, 2008 2:21PM (EDT)

While poking around the Internet I stumbled on a Web ad at, sponsored by the McCain campaign. The banner ad features side-by-side pictures of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Barack Obama, with a single line of script, asking rhetorically and rather ominously, "Is it OK to Unconditionally Meet With Anti-American Foreign Leaders?" Clicking it brings you to a donation page on McCain's Web site featuring the same image and question.

With the national punditry in nearly universal agreement that McCain is grasping and reactive, allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment and wonder aloud if the emerging conventional wisdom -- not unlike media certainty last August that McCain's campaign was toast or similar confidence as recently as last December that Hillary Clinton was a lock to be the Democratic nominee -- overlooks a key undercurrent of sentiment that McCain and his campaign are shrewdly attempting to tap into. (When something seems obvious to me, and especially when all the talking heads are unified in agreement, I reflexively pause and remind myself that neither they nor I am the median American voter.)

That said, it's possible that if there is a silver lining for McCain in Obama's otherwise successful trip, and despite all McCain's angry fumbling and the punch in the nose Nouri al-Maliki’s timeline statements provided along the way, it is that McCain may just have the sort of character-based talking point that Republicans relish. Al Gore? Too smarty-pants-ish. John Kerry? Too weak and Frenchified. Barack Obama? Too cocky and way ahead of himself.

Character politics of this sort may seem meaningless and superficial, but the historical record proves that playing the character card works, especially when it's some version of the smarmy-elite-resentment card. (Lest there be any doubt, read Rick Perlstein's new book, "Nixonland.") And, ironically, this style of politics works because the media prefers these narratives as much if not more than the voters do. Point: Fair or not, legitimate or not, there is a slight opening here to create a powerful anti-Obama meme if McCain is savvy enough to exploit the opportunity.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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