McCain's Last Month (II)

Jay Cost makes the strongest possible case for campaigning on Ayers, Wright et. al. in the waning weeks of the election. He thinks that an issues-based campaign, pegged to McCain's bipartisan brand, made sense before the bottom dropped out of the economy; now, though, it's character or nothing. He notes that the sharpest, steepest drop in Obama's favorable numbers all year came during the initial wave of Wright-related coverage, and argues that this is the only avenue of attack that has a chance of shifting the race's dynamics:

Relative to past presidential nominees - Barack Obama has little relevant experience. His résumé is comparable to past "phenom" candidates Thomas Dewey and William Jennings Bryan. As a political matter, this means two things for Obama. First, as everybody knows, it is a direct weapon to use against him, which the McCain campaign has been doing for some time with its "Ready to Lead?" attacks.

Second, it means the definition of "Barack Obama" is more open to interpretation than other past nominees. The Obama campaign has used this vagueness to great effect. Simply put, because Obama has a slender record, he can be many things to many people. He can be the prophet of a new age to the chi tea crowd in Hyde Park, and a hardy Jacksonian fighter to the black coffee crowd in Youngstown. Politicians have been doing this dance routine for centuries. The fact that Obama's story is hardly conditioned by a paper trail enables him to do this with more facility than most contemporary politicians.

But this does not mean that Obama "is" only who he says he is. His thin record is potentially a double-edged sword because anybody can try to define him. With the mentioning of William Ayers, the GOP has just now begun the process of offering its alternative definition of the junior senator from Illinois. It waited until October because, as I noted last week, anywhere between 20% and 30% of the electorate is now making up its mind. This is the time to begin this process.

Like Poulos, I don't quite get that "begin" - I think the McCain campaign has been trying to redefine Obama's identity more or less all year; they've just been playing the "vacuous celebrity" and "tax-and-spend liberal" cards, and only now are turning over the "pals around with radicals" card because the others haven't worked. More generally, while I take the point about the potency of the Jeremiah Wright connection, my read on the situation is the opposite of Cost's: If there wasn't a single overriding issue like the economy on voters' minds, and if the two candidates were coming into the final month evenly matched - to the point where gaining a point or two with low-information voters or boosting your base's turnout by a point or two could make all the difference - then I think the gloves-off approach would have a chance of working. (Before the financial crisis hit, I confidently expected Wright to reappear down the stretch somehow, as a potential trump card for McCain in states where the polls were running very close.) But now, in these circumstances ... well, I think a rash of off-topic negative campaigning just makes the election look once and for all like "change versus change the subject," as Rich Lowry puts it today.