McCain’s new narrative, courtesy of Karl Rove

James Poniewozik puts it extremely well:  John McCain is now trying to “Britney-fy” Barack Obama. Note the images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton at the beginning of this ad:

The ad represents a turning point for the McCain campaign. This is the new narrative — “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world!” — and you’re going to hear a lot of it, in one form or another.

Earlier this month, McCain demoted his former campaign manager, and elevated Steve Schmidt in his place. Schmidt is a Karl Rove protégé.

The ad is the first time we’ve seen the effects of that change in McCain’s personnel. And it’s straight from the Karl Rove playbook.

One of Rove’s defining tactics is, Attack your opponent at the point of his greatest strength. How counterintuitive! Usually, we look for a weakness that we might be able to exploit, but Rove turns such thinking on its head.

       Q. Why would we call attention to our opponent’s greatest strength?
       A. In order to tarnish it and perhaps drain it of its power.

In this case, the strength is Obama’s ability to attract 200,000 admirers to hear him speak in Germany. McCain/Schmidt/Rove want to equate Obama’s mass appeal with mere, substance-free celebrity — akin to Paris Hilton or Britney Spears.

He’s too popular! Poniewozik comments:

You can make Obama into Britney Spears, or John Kerry, or Malcolm X. I’m not sure you can make him into all three at the same time. (Is there a template in American culture for an Ivy-league-snob, black-militant, out-of-control former Mouseketeer?) …

But the dominant forces in the McCain campaign have decided that their best chance, right now, is to try to turn an Obama strength into a weakness: perhaps to appeal to the kind of people who see the Yes We Can video and feel looked down upon by the cool kids, perhaps to get the Obama campaign to shift gears away from roof-raising spectacles, perhaps to tamp down the “Obama is a celebrity” buzz in the media by suddenly making that seem like an attack.

Rove himself made the first foray in that direction back on June 23:

Even if you never met him, you know this guy. … He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.

(photo shamelessly lifted from Adam at Barack To the Future)

Rove’s jibe isn’t so far removed from the Britney-fication of Obama. You can imagine a celebrity in place of the guy at the country club:  the star quarterback or the Hollywood leading man.

Is the characterization accurate? You be the judge. Can you imagine Britney serving as the editor of the Harvard Law Review? Can you imagine Paris sitting down with the editorial board of the Jerusalem Post without a single advisor to guide her, as Obama did last week, to discuss the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics?

Of course you can’t! But who gives a fig for archaic distinctions like truth / falsehood? Perception is the bread-and-butter of politics. Hence another of Karl Rove’s defining tactics:  If you repeat a lie often enough, it will begin to be perceived as a valid perspective.

Of course, people have been saying nasty things about Karl Rove for years. But McCain is newly acquiring a reputation as a liar.

The “celebrity” ad caused one of McCain’s former associates to turn on him:

John Weaver, for years one of John McCain’s closest friends and confidants, has been in exile since his resignation from McCain’s presidential campaign last year. With the exception of an occasional interview, he has, by his own account, bit his tongue as McCain’s campaign has adopted a strategy that Weaver believes “diminishes John McCain.”

With the release today of a McCain television ad blasting Obama for celebrity preening while gas prices rise, and a memo that accuses Obama of putting his own aggrandizement before the country, Weaver said he’s had “enough.”

The ad’s premise, he said, is “childish.”

“John’s been a celebrity ever since he was shot down,” Weaver said. “Whatever that means. And I recall Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush going overseas and all those waving American flags.” …

“For McCain to win in such troubled times, he needs to begin telling the American people how he intends to lead us. That McCain exists. He can inspire the country to greatness.”

He added: “There is legitimate mockery of a political campaign now, and it isn’t at Obama’s. For McCain’s sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop.”

A reputation is a terrible thing to waste. McCain has a reputation for integrity, but it isn’t going to survive the campaign that he’s waging.

This “tomfoolery” isn’t going to stop, because McCain has embraced his inner Karl Rove.

Victory before honor! McCain = McSame old politics!


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Random
    Aug 02, 2008 @ 08:08:50

    It won’t surprise you to hear that as I was reading through this post I was planning the obvious rebuttals of the misrepresentations and downright deceptions in it (you think that’s too strong? Then what word would you use to describe the use of a blatantly photoshopped image of McCain and Rove to suggest a connection between the two that doesn’t exist in real life? For those who are interested, here’shere’s the original before Bush’s head was replaced with McCain’s.)

    But then I got to the end of it and saw this disgusting comment –

    “Victory before honor! McCain = McSame old politics!”

    and had a rest mist moment – John McCain is a man who spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton being tortured because he refused an offer from his captors to release him before his comrades. People like you and I have no conception of the strength of character and sense of honour it takes to make a decision like that. You have not earned the right to question John McCain’s sense of honour just because he treats the most underqualified candidate for the presidency in recent years with the disdain he deserves. YOU HAVE NOT EARNED THAT RIGHT.

    I’m sorry Stephen, I’ve enjoyed my time here, and was genuinely honoured to be allowed to post guest posts, but if the tone of the blog has dropped this far already it’s only going to get worse by November. I think it’s probably best for all concerned if I say goodbye for a while.

    So long, and thanks for all the fish.


  2. scott gray
    Aug 02, 2008 @ 12:36:38

    stephen, ransom–

    would you guys mind working on grand tour questions on stephen’s site? here’s what i’m interested in both of you thinking out loud about:

    –specific candidates aside, what do each of you expect in a u.s. president? list of top 5 expectations, maybe.

    –since these expectations will be assertions at this point, or presuppositions, where do you think each of your expectations developed from, in your experiences to this point?

    each of you may have posted about this before, but things change in our thinking, do they not? can you re-articulate or clarify here? in particular, i’ll be interested to see where your assertions are congruent, and how each of you got to each particular one.

    if you’re interested.




  3. Stephen
    Aug 02, 2008 @ 14:44:38

    • Random:
    When someone runs for President, he volunteers to be judged by voters. I don’t claim to be a better man than McCain, nor even his equal. But yes, I have a right to pass judgement on the kind of campaign McCain is waging. That’s how democracy works, and I’m sick of Republican sympathizers insisting that voters have no right to judge their leaders.

    It takes nothing away from McCain’s honourable conduct in a Vietnamese POW camp to criticize him in this, completely different context. Fact: he is running a dishonourable campaign. The public (not me as an individual) have a right to make such a judgement.

    Yes, it’s obvious that the image of McCain and Rove is a photoshop job. So what? I’m arguing that McCain has sunk to Rove’s level in his campaign against Obama.

    Not just (1) in the “celebrity” ad, but also (2) in McCain’s claim that Obama would raise taxes and McCain won’t (patently false), and (3) in his claim that Obama skipped visiting the troops in Iraq because the media be there to turn it into a photo op (or was it because Obama preferred to go to the gym instead? — either way, another falsehood). And there are other examples of the same thing.

    I suggest you check out the five links where I say that McCain is newly acquiring a reputation as a liar. If you do, you’ll see that the news media have repeatedly found McCain’s message to be false. So yes, McCain is sinking to Rovian depths. Moreover, it is a fact that Steve Schmidt is a Rove protégé, and I think that’s significant.

    The illustration is a put-on, but it illustrates my point perfectly.


  4. Stephen
    Aug 02, 2008 @ 15:07:47

    • Scott:
    I’m curious to see whether Random will take you up on your suggestion. I’ve hosted guest posts by Random before, and I’d be happy to let him explain, uncensored, what he is looking for in a presidential candidate.

    But I must add that I don’t think the discussion can be divorced from this particular historical context. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t say things like, “I want a candidate who stands steadfastly against torture” or, “I want a candidate who will restore habeus corpus.” But in this specific historical context, those criteria are exceedingly important.

    Indeed, as a Canadian, I would only be mildly interested in the American election in ordinary circumstances. But the issues at stake in 2008 are so fundamental, I think the whole world, or at least the whole of the Western world, have a stake in this election.

    Thus it’s impossible to speak to your question in the abstract. I suspect Random would agree with that statement; that he wants a more hawkish President in the White House than I do, precisely because of the historical context.


  5. scott gray
    Aug 02, 2008 @ 15:17:16


    could you talk then, about what your perception is of the historical context? what matters and what doesn’t? does it have to do with restoration of an earlier idyllic configuration? does it have with an opportunity to create a new and better configuration? it feels to me like you think we are pivoted on some sort of historical cusp.


  6. Stephen
    Aug 02, 2008 @ 15:32:46

    The historical context is the Bush Administration’s drastic over-reaction to 9/11. The Bush Administration has moved away from values that are fundamental to Western democracy. Torture and torture-by-proxy, no longer requiring the state to demonstrate the guilt of someone held in prison for an indefinite period of time, spying on one’s own citizenry without a warrant or any oversight, declaring democratic dissent to be unpatriotic, etc.

    As people were wont to say in those early post-9/11 days, if we behave like that, then the terrorists win.

    Therefore the American people have a very important decision to make in 2008: whether to continue down this totalitarian, human-rights denying path, or whether to restore the values that made America what it is.

    That’s what this election is about, and that’s why I am so invested in it. I trust Obama on those issues rather than John 100-more-years in Iraq — and let’s bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran while we’re at it — McCain.


  7. scott gray
    Aug 02, 2008 @ 16:01:55


    i, too, worry about the poor balance between security and liberty we’re currently supporting and living with. one of the worst outcomes, in my opinion, is that sub-groups in the u.s. that once seemed to live in at least cold peace now insist on engaging each other in cold war, or at its worst, hot war. standing down, reverting to cold peace between factions, looking for hot peace– i’m not sure that either candidate has what it takes to restore, or help build as new, this configuration. as security becomes less and less certain, the ‘nation at war’ or ‘subgroups at war’ postures seem to reify at every turn into business as usual.

    each sub-groups insists on its security and prosperity at the expense of others, as though security and prosperity were zero-sum games. larry hamelin at barefoot bum was talking about how religious claims may or may not be rooted in objective reality, and my take is, if they’re not, they shouldn’t be promugalted as truth, and believers shouldn’t expect that others outside the religious paradigm be expected to treat them as such. i see both sides in the u.s. presidential race behaving ‘religiously’– neither side seems to be making decisions adequately rooted in objective reality, and both sides insist that their claims be treated as ‘truth.’ perhaps it’s the nature of the campaign beast.




  8. Stephen
    Aug 02, 2008 @ 17:10:13

    • Random:
    Here’s John Heilemann‘s take:

    with the weeklong string of attacks uncorked by the Arizona senator and his people during Obama’s trip abroad and in its aftermath—some brutal, some mocking, but all personal and focused on Obama’s character—we now have an inkling of just how deep in the mud McCain and his people are willing to wallow in order to win in November: right up to their Republican eyeballs.

    As countless fact-checkers and tsk-tskers have maintained, the broadsides were a blend of distortion, innuendo, and outright slander. …

    For those not keeping score, a quick review of the McCain campaign’s lunge for Obama’s jugular. First, its new slogan: “Country first,” with its inverse insinuation that Obama puts something else (i.e., his own ambition) ahead of the nation. Second, McCain’s accusation that Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” Third, the McCain ad “Troops,” which claims that Obama, while in Germany, “made time to go the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops—seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” And, finally, the ad “Celeb,” with its intercut images of Obama in Berlin, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears. …

    “Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand ‘MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew—Black Forest Berry Honest Tea’ and worry about the price of arugula,” wrote campaign manager Rick Davis in an e-mail announcing “Celeb.”

    So … Obama is all flash, no substance? I’d love to hear your rebuttal to this paragraph from my post:

    “Is the characterization accurate? You be the judge. Can you imagine Britney serving as the editor of the Harvard Law Review? Can you imagine Paris sitting down with the editorial board of the Jerusalem Post without a single advisor to guide her, as Obama did last week, to discuss the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics?”

    Back to Heilemann, who has this to say re Steve Schmidt:

    The motor behind his operation now is Steve Schmidt, the shaven-headed strategist who earned his bones running Karl Rove’s war room in 2004, Frenchifying and de-war-heroizing John Kerry.

    If you want to respond to my post based on the merits of the argument, you’re welcome to do so. But at this point I see no need to retract any of the statements that I’ve made. McCain is behaving dishonorably; he’s sold his soul to the Rovites in the Republican party.


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