McCain’s “Manchurian Candidate” Attack

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At around 3:30 p.m. Monday, CNN provided a perfect illustration for the current moment in this presidential race. When John McCain took the stage in Albuquerque, N.M., about two thirds of the screen was consumed by a tight zoom of the big board above the trading floor on Wall Street–giant numbers showing a dramatic collapse in stock values and retirement funds across the country.

On the other side of the screen, there was John McCain, his head dwarfed in size by the big green numbers. The image was so alarming–the financial collapse now overshadows the presidential campaign–that one could easily overlook the importance of the words McCain spoke. The Albuquerque speech represented a dramatic pivot in the McCain campaign’s strategy, to what Republican strategists have called the “Manchurian Candidate” attack.

The Manchurian Candidate is an well-trod technique in political warfare: You claim that you are the candidate people know, while your opponent is not who he seems to be. In fact, you argue, he has secret ulterior motives that he is trying to hide. You say he is a danger to all that the country holds dear. Ana posted the McCain’s speech below, but let me repost some of the excerpts, edited for brevity to show how the Manchurian strategy works:

I didn’t just show up out of nowhere, after all — America knows me. You know my strengths and my faults. You know my story and my convictions.. . . And the same standards of clarity and candor must now be applied to my opponent. Even at this late hour in the campaign, there are essential things we don’t know about Senator Obama or the record that he brings to this campaign. We have all heard what he has said, but it is less clear what he has done or what he will do. What Senator Obama says today and what he has done in the past are often two different things. He has often changed his positions in this campaign, and the best way to determine where he would really take this country is to examine where he has tried to take it in the past. . . . For a guy who’s already authored two memoirs, he’s not exactly an open book. . . . Whatever the question, whatever the issue, there’s always a back story with Senator Obama.

More after the jump:

Within this framework, McCain’s speechwriters filled in the standard fare of McCain stumps–Obama supports higher taxes, more spending, and lacks a clear record of reform. That stuff is not new. What matters is the argument, which can now be used to bring a whole new list of issues into the conversation, from William Ayers to Jeremiah Wright (at least by Palin), from Obama’s apprenticeship in Chicago politics to his record on crime and national security, an attack that has been hinted at by McCain aides.

This is another long-ball throw from the McCain campaign, at a time when polls show voters choosing Obama as a better candidate to handle the economic downturn. It’s success is far from certain. For one thing, this speech comes after months of harsh attacks by McCain on Obama, potentially dulling their impact. For another, some of the substance of the attack is questionable. While Obama has advisers tied to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, McCain does too, including his own campaign manager. For a third, the Obama campaign will counter that the tough rhetoric just raises more questions about McCain’s “erratic” temperament. For a fourth thing, McCain still has to grapple with the fact that CNN is broadcasting the cratering Dow Jones Industrial Average bigger than his own head.

But the speech shows that for McCain, this campaign is far from over, despite the recent slide in the polls. He is determined to continue to disrupt the storyline with sharp attacks. With less than a month to go, there is still lots more to come.