How about this for a deal: I'll stop writing about how John McCain is embarrassing himself when he stops embarrassing himself.
His latest, most personal, assault on Barack Obama is further proof that the so-called "maverick" has trashed his own promise of high-minded discourse, and instead embraced the gut-kicking Bush political template of the past eight years. Indeed, you don't have to be an Obama fan to conclude that the latest assault is juvenile. I say this because a fair number of Republicans - some speaking anonymously to the press, with others, including former McCain aides, speaking on the record - have already judged the assault to be juvenile. Or, as ex-McCain intimate John Weaver prefers to call it, "childish."
I'm referring to McCain's attempt, in a new TV ad and in a new campaign memo, to paint Obama as an effete, high-living political version of Paris Hilton. This is the old-school Republican style, dating back to the zaps aimed at Mike Dukakis 20 years ago, as practiced by the party establishment attack dogs that McCain, supposedly, has stood against for so long. It is no accident that this strategy is now preeminent; within the past month, several veterans of the '04 Bush campaign have taken the reins.
Maybe it'll work (as it did against John Kerry in 2004), and maybe it won't (as it didn't against Bill Clinton in 1992, when the attack dogs tried to link him to values-challenged celebrity Woody Allen). McCain risks undercutting his own reputation (in many quarters) for rectitude. But what fascinates me most at the moment is the bizarre nature of his arguments. Let's go to the McCain campaign memo, released yesterday:
It states at one point, "Only a celebrity of Barack Obama's magnitude could attract 200,000 fans in Berlin who gathered for the mere opportunity to be in his presence. These are not supporters or even voters, but fans fawning over The One." Well, excuse me for asking, but are we supposed to believe that there is something wrong with the notion that a potential American president might be popular abroad? Is the prospect of a closer bond between America and its western allies supposed to be...a bad thing? Where were the McCain people back in the '80s, when Ronald Reagan was often welcomed abroad by a sea of waving American flags?
The McCain memo also states, "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..." Again, are we supposed to believe that there is something wrong with working out in a gym and being healthy? Isn't it a good thing to pay attention to one's health, especially since so many overweight and unhealthy Americans contribute to our health cost crisis? Isn't it a good thing that a potential president is seeking to be in peak shape for the world's toughest job?
And are we supposed to believe that there is something wrong or weird about eating protein bars - which, at this point, are so mainstream that they're often sold at the corner grocery store, as a healthy antidote to junk food? And is there supposed to be something effete or elitist about liking Honest Tea, which, apparently unbeknowest to the McCain campaign, was purchased five months ago by the effete elitists at the Coca Cola company?
But the real problem with the Mcain strategy is its fundamental hypocrisy. McCain himself has been a celebrity since Barack Obama was 11 years old.
When McCain came home from Hanoi in 1973, he was instantly immortalized with a photo on the front page of The New York Times (in that pre-CNN, pre-Internet era, scoring a page-one Times photo was the ultimate media coup). Soon thereafter, he wrote about himself in a long article in U.S. News & World Report. He has since written three books, and inspired at least three biographies. He has trekked 12 times to The Daily Show, 10 times to Jay Leno's couch, eight times to David Letterman's couch, three times to Conan O'Brien's couch, twice to The View, and surfaced as a bit actor in an episode of 24.
And there's more. Long before McCain the celebrity showed up on Saturday Night Live this past spring, he hosted an episode in 2002 (the first sitting U.S. senator ever to do so), and introduced his musical guests, The White Stripes. Heck, producer Lorne Michaels even donated $2300 to McCain's campaign last year (the sole Republican on Michaels' list), and I don't ever recall McCain giving back that celebrity money. Indeed, one grievance that many Republicans have long nurtured about McCain is his celebrity-mongering.
How long will the Bush apparatchiks who are now embedded with McCain stick with this faux-populist attack on Obama? Unless they can gain some traction and reverse the polls this summer, they may be tempted to drink something a lot stronger than Honest Tea.