McCain camp: "He made us go negative"

A McCain campaign memo blames the contest's ugly tone on the lack of -- yes, you guessed it -- joint town halls.

Published October 24, 2008 7:13PM (EDT)

If you're upset about the way the presidential campaign is deteriorating into attack ads, scary robo-calls and wild accusations in the closing days, John McCain's campaign feels your pain. And it knows whom you should blame: Barack Obama.

In a memo sent to the press Thursday night, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers argued Obama is running the more negative campaign, mostly because Obama has run more negative ads. But that, in turn, is mostly because Obama has run more ads, period. (The group that produced the report Rogers cited, the Wisconsin Advertising Project, says that despite the spending disparity, a higher percentage of McCain's ads are negative than Obama's. And, for that matter, that voters don't learn anything from campaigns "whining about negative advertising.") Rogers also said Obama had failed to condemn Democrats who attacked McCain (like John Lewis) and that Obama, not McCain, had brought race, age and religion into the campaign. (The memo is not on McCain's Web site, but Time's Mark Halperin reprinted it in full.)

But really, the McCain campaign seems to believe, none of that even matters, because if Obama had only accepted McCain's proposal for joint town halls, the campaign would never have gotten so nasty. "It was Barack Obama who went back on his word and refused John McCain's offer to do weekly town hall meetings that would raise the level and tone of the debate in this campaign," Rogers writes. 

As a political tactic, this line isn't bad, but as a matter of logic, it veers close to blaming the victim. The idea is basically that neither candidate would have wanted to run a negative campaign if they had to spend every week flying around the country together and appearing onstage next to each other. But McCain's aides have turned the wistful hope that Obama would join them for the town halls -- which would have certainly been more interesting than the usual political fare, and which the debates this fall showed might have helped Obama more than McCain anyway -- into an all-purpose excuse for the tone of the race, no matter how low it gets. "The Obama campaign refused the good faith offer for a series of town hall meetings that held the promise of fundamentally raising the dialogue of this campaign," Rogers writes. Still, couldn't McCain have "fundamentally raised the dialogue of this campaign" all by himself, town halls or no town halls?

The answer, of course, is yes; even if you buy the somewhat dubious premise that it's Obama, not McCain, who has been more negative, no one forced McCain to switch all his advertising traffic in late September to attack ads. (Well, except maybe Steve Schmidt.) What McCain's campaign is saying with this bit of spin is basically, "He made us do it." By this point in the campaign, does it really expect people to believe this?

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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