The ads John McCain has been running recently are in a gonzo class by themselves. The one
asking, “Who can we thank for rising prices at the pump?” over sounds of a crowd chanting Barack Obama’s name. The one claiming Obama preferred to “go to the gym” rather than visit wounded soldiers in Germany. And now this new one featuring images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and calling Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” before gravely asking, “But is he ready to lead?” (Earlier we rounded up some reactions to the clip.) Factually, these spots are beyond inaccurate; they’re inane. (“Troops” triggered a classic headline from ABC News: “New McCain Ad Bashes Obama for Not Visiting Troops Using Footage of Obama Visiting Troops.”) Creatively, they’re something like your nephew might put together with Final Cut for his eleventh-grade class election, with sneering narrators, grinning Obama faces, and oddly glowing images. They're so puerile they trigger detachment — watching the spots, you can’t help but wonder, “Will this really work?” — yet simultaneously capable of generating massive spectacle by being so outlandish and possibly self-destructive. “I don't know Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, but they are international celebrities, so, you know, apples to apples,” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said on a conference call yesterday. Andy Warhol would have appreciated the deadpan, if not the politics.
The ads, particularly “Celebrity,” tell us three things about where the 2008 campaign stands right now. First, whatever substance there once was to McCain, he’s brined himself into a sour Swift Boater. McCain could have run as a national-greatness Republican or comprehensive reformer, or on any number of issues. Problem is, from Social Security to gay adoption to troop withdrawals from Iraq, nearly every time McCain opens his mouth about a particular policy, he gets in trouble, either with some element of the GOP base or moderates or his own past statements. So he has hunkered down with the nastiest of his advisers, convinced himself (as he did against Mitt Romney in the primaries) that any attacks he makes on Obama are justified, and gone batshit negative.
Second, McCain is correct to assume that the media will repeat and amplify rather than analyze his charges, no matter how baseless they might be. (MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski attempting to challenge Davis: “I want to get a sense of why you guys decided to do that ad, that some consider — eh, there’s some backlash to it.”) What’s still unclear is how far Obama will let McCain go in defining him.
Third, when McCain strings together images of Britney, Paris, and Obama, and viewers are supposed to think “empty suit,” it’s not much of a stretch from there to “dandy” and then to “playboy.” Remember the blonde-bimbo ad that took down Harold Ford in 2006. And ask yourself, when Karl Rove described Obama as “the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall,” did anyone think the “date” he had in mind was either Obama’s wife or any other African-American? Rest assured, we have only begun to watch the GOP try to connect Obama to white women. —Peter Keating