- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2008

OP-ED:

The heels may be on and the gloves off for Sarah Palin, as she joked at a California rally over the weekend, but if John McCain wants to win tonight’s debate (and sway more voters) he’d better keep his gloves on and let his self-professed pit bull do all the biting.

Going negative is what campaigns do - that’s a given - candidates do not.

Seizing on momentum and economic expediency, the Obama campaign came out swinging yesterday, with its lying-in-wait “Keating Five” ad attacking Mr. McCain. It craftily uses the decades-old savings-and-loan scandal (of which Mr. McCain was essentially exonerated), to raise questions about the Arizona senator’s judgment to lead in the midst of this current economic mess. The online ad states: “The Keating scandal is eerily similar to today’s credit crisis, where a lack of regulation and cozy relationships between the financial industry and Congress has allowed banks to make risky loans and profit by bending the rules.” The ad, no doubt capitalizes on American voters’ present day fears by revisiting the past. Pretty skillful.

But when asked yesterday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about the “timing” of the “Keating” ad coming on the heels of Mr. McCain’s “Ayers” ad linking Barack Obama to admitted terrorist William Ayers, Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs dodged the question entirely by suggesting that the 13-minute ad couldn’t just be pulled together that quickly. “Obviously we didn’t put this thing together last night,” Mr. Gibbs quipped. No, they pulled it together weeks ago, put it on the shelf and waited for such a time as this. Timing is everything - and theirs was impeccable even if the ad wasn’t.

Of course, pundits argued across the airwaves whether either of the ads are “fair game” and why the two camps aren’t talking about the issues (blah, blah, blah.) Issues be damned - voters do respond to the negative whether they say they like it or not. It is an effective tool - the key is who is doing the attacking and how.

Too bad Mr. McCain doesn’t have a Keating Five economic attack of his own. Though he has something close, if not better, which he won’t even let his surrogates use. The one topic of attack apparently off the table, but equally raises the judgment question, is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (remember him, the bigot?). While Mr. McCain has forbidden his campaign from using the Wright debacle (certainly if for no other reason than to not appear racist), many would argue (as Mrs. Palin did to the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol) that Mr. Wright is fair game. And he is.

Even more telling is that the Obama campaign is doing all it can to avoid talking about Mr. Wright (as also pointed out on MSNBC’s Morning Joe by Pat Buchanan.) Mr. Buchanan was among three panelists who asked Mr. Gibbs three different ways about whether the Rev. Wright question was just as legitimate to raise. Since Mr. McCain’s character comes into question in regard to Charles Keating, why not Mr. Obama’s as it relates to Mr. Wright? Mr. Gibbs consistently refused to answer even the “legitimacy” question and instead pivoted to call the McCain campaign “negative” and “desperate.” What’s good for the goose apparently isn’t so for the gander.

But there is the overriding argument that the more these campaigns focus the negative, the less they are drawing contrasts between their policies, particularly at a time when the only policy that matters to Americans is economics. So, for the sake of argument, Mr. McCain would do well tonight to draw contrasts between free-market capitalists such as himself and the liberal, big-government tax and spend policies of his opponent. He should also hammer home how the Democrat-controlled Congress, with its record low approval, has major culpability in the economic crisis. As much as the public would like to blame Republicans (and there is enough blame to go around there) Democrats (going back to Bill Clinton) have just as much, if not more blood on their hands - including the failed, partisan leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

At the time of last week’s bailout package passage, only 30 percent of voters - according to Rasmussen - actually favored it. And soon after, consumer and investor confidence took a dive. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama now enjoys anywhere from a 6- to 10-point lead over Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama hasn’t really offered anything substantive, except more big government. But for better or worse - it is perception that is in Mr. Obama’s favor. Mr. McCain will have to do much more to change that perception when he goes before tonight’s audience of undecided voters in Nashville and addresses those tuning in. His own economic gaffes early on haven’t helped, nor his schizophrenic reaction to the financial mess and energy spent defending himself against attacks.

Mrs. Palin told a Florida crowd yesterday that Mr. McCain is, “The only man who will solve this economic crisis.” Problem is, he isn’t spending nearly enough time telling us how.

Tara Wall is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Times. twall@washingtontimes.com.