John McCain's decision to slime Barack Obama by repeatedly questioning his patriotism and insisting he's put his ambition before his country seems to be paying off in the short term, judged by his recent climb in many polls. McCain is squandering the political capital he's earned over 30 years projecting an image of integrity and decency. He's a hothead, sure. He's cursed out colleagues; he told a despicable Chelsea Clinton joke years ago; he may have used an awful slur against his wife in public. He's flown off the handle many times and he's sure to do it again.
But like it or not, and most Democrats don't, there's a strong public perception that McCain is a statesman -- albeit a sometimes angry statesman. His conscience-free attacks on Obama can't help tarnishing that image. On Wednesday McCain sharpened his pitch and insisted he's not impugning Obama's patriotism. Obama has pushed to end the Iraq war "not because he doesn't love America, but because he doesn't think it matters whether America wins or loses." Oh, that's nicer. As the nation tunes in to the campaign and begins to realize McCain is promising a) four more years of the Bush administration, from Iraq to Georgia to the gas pump, and b) has morphed from maverick statesman into nasty crank, he may well wind up paying for his summer of slime come November.
Having said that, Obama's worsening poll numbers are, well, not good. All the usual provisos apply: It's still early, he'll get a convention bounce, he hasn't picked a V.P.; all true. National polls are fairly meaningless; it's the Electoral College that matters. Alarmingly, the Real Clear Politics Electoral College map now has McCain winning 274-264 (and Obama losing the Western states he's targeting, like Colorado and Nevada, along with Southern dream states Virginia and Georgia, winning Michigan but losing Ohio), but Nate Silver's smart FiveThirtyEight.com still has Obama on top.
Even Obama supporters in the blogosphere are starting to panic over Obama's seeming drift. Josh Marshall worried Monday that "the lack of any consistent lines of attack against McCain is becoming palpable," while John Aravosis' Americablog is freaking out, publishing this long analysis of Obama's troubles, concluding, "This isn't a transformative election, it's another hardscrabble, claw out each and every vote, election. To win that kind of election, you need to fight for every vote and fight hard," wrote Robert Arena, citing "years of experience watching the Republicans make Democrats look weak -- Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry. That line of attack works when not countered and we were defeated. None of us want that in 2008."
Over at Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas is calmer, warning against an early freakout, reminding Democrats Obama still has a veep choice to make, and a convention to wow. Kos would be more convincing if there was any reason to think Obama's veep choice will energize his base or independents. There's no evidence it will do either -- I just don't expect a big surge from the choice of Evan Bayh, Tim Kaine or Joe Biden (even though I'd be happy with the choice of Biden).
Obama could still surprise us; I was surprised to see Bill Maher tell Larry King on Tuesday night that he thinks Obama should pick Hillary Clinton. Maher hasn't been a huge Clinton fan, and he was quite critical of her during the Democratic primary. But here's what he told King, via TalkLeft: "At this point I think they need Hillary Clinton ... Yes. Look, I may change my mind tomorrow. I've been thinking this way a long time, but I swear to God. Not just because it's bold and they need to show bold, but you know what? I think they need the Clinton ruthlessness onboard. I really do. I'm beginning to think Bill Clinton is still the only guy in that party who really knows how to do this, as far as talking to the American people, making the counter argument to the Republican arguments that, again, Obama just seems to be cozying up to their way of thinking."
Here's a longer sample of the exchange, but you should read the whole thing at CNN. I'm not sure there's evidence that Obama's trouble in recent polls is due to his moves to the center, but Maher makes some great points.
MAHER: I mean, this is the Democrats' problem. Is that they never do anything bold once they get the nomination. You know, I'm still for Obama, but I have to tell you, he's trying my patience.
MAHER: Well, moving to the center on so many issues and just doing what I saw Kerry do, what I saw Al Gore do. I thought he was going to be different. He didn't have that "I'm going to blow it" look on his face like those two did. But he's doing sort of the same thing: moving to the center, moving to be a kind of a lighter version of the Republican candidate.
KING: So who do you -- who do you handicap? Do you think it's going to be one of these three boring white guys?
MAHER: I do, but I think that's, again, the wrong -- the wrong sort of strategy. At this point I think they need Hillary Clinton.
MAHER: Yes. Look, I may change my mind tomorrow. I've been thinking this way a long time, but I swear to God. Not just because it's bold and they need to show bold, but you know what? I think they need the Clinton ruthlessness onboard. I really do.
I'm beginning to think Bill Clinton is still the only guy in that party who really knows how to do this, as far as talking to the American people, making the counter argument to the Republican arguments that, again, Obama just seems to be cozying up to their way of thinking. "Oil drilling? Yes sure. I'm for that. Wiretapping? Like that, too. Religious nut? I can get onboard there." I'm telling you, I like this guy but ...