Ambinder vs. Scherer: The Emails

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On Friday morning, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, whom I count among the cycle’s indispensable campaign reporters, wrote a blog post arguing that John McCain was not serious about his William Ayers attacks. On Friday afternoon, I responded with a post saying that McCain was serious, to the extent that serious is a thing that matters.

Ambinder and I continued our debate privately in email. After a few exchanges, we decided to post our entirely friendly and respectful give-and-take, in a slightly edited form. Read the original Ambinder post here. Read my blog response here. The emails follow after the jump.

At 5:26 p.m., Ambinder wrote to Scherer:

Sarah Palin is a credible surrogate for McCain with independents?

And that’s just the point: he seems tepid about Ayers; his decisions about what to say about Ayers seem political unless he commits to the message, unless he makes the argument rather than assuming that the argument will make itself. If McCain wants to discredit Obama because of the Ayers association, he needs to find a way to inform the people for whom the prospect of an Ayers connection will change their minds. Right now, all available evidence indicates that these voters don’t know enough to care. McCain can fix that by doing 1 2 or 3. He’s not. Therefore he just doesn’t seem all that serious about Ayers. If the Ayers association really matters …. If it really bothers McCain, if it really ought to discredit Obama, then McCain ought to be shouting it from the hilltops. He’s whispering right now from the valley.

At 5:55 p.m., Scherer wrote to Ambinder:

I agree that McCain is probably still deep down conflicted, perhaps more for reasons of legacy and reputation than anything else. (And, he actually did enjoy those gabfests with the press.) But I don’t think the Ayers play is a misplay, or that McCain is somehow holding back against the plan. The campaign is carrying out the plan of using Ayers, ACORN, and whatever else to grab news cycles, to refocus the spotlight away from the economy, and attempt to take back control of the momentum.

Aides have been very clear about the desire to use Palin as point to drive news cycles. I don’t think it matters that she doesn’t appeal to independents, or that there is little substance to the attacks. The campaign’s contention is that if you get in the news, it filters down, through impressions to voters.

And when it comes to Ayers, the details could become counterproductive. It’s clear from the McCain messaging that the main idea is to “raise questions,” not to clearly answer them. Next will be ACORN, and I would not be surprised to see Obama’s record on crime issues in Illinois, and whatever else. And the whole thing will roll out as designed, unless they decide that the whole campaign is lost, which is unlikely, mainly because this election is still pretty close.

All that said, my post was not really about your post as much as an idea I have been trying to figure out how to write for a while: That the authenticity debate, as normally framed, is off when it comes to McCain. He is the same person today he was back when he was the media’s friend and the enemy of slimy politics. It’s just the mathematics of the nation changed around him.

At 6:05 p.m., Ambinder wrote:

But it’s not working. To the extent that questions are being raised, they are being raised at the extreme margins of a 10 point race (or seven point race). They know this; they see the same polls and do the same focus groups. They’re not grabbing news cycles. The news isn’t about Ayers…

In fact, the stories that seep through seem to be about conservative intellectuals abandoning McCain, not about William Ayers — or they’re about McCain’s soul — or about conservatives questioning whether McCain has lost his soul, or they’re about angry Republicans at events… One CNN segment on ACORN?. [Ambinder post-conversation note: CBS just did an ACORN segment tonight, too.}

McCain has always been more political and less authentically anti-politics than he is portrayed, but he has always been more principled and less political than most, which is why his frustration is evident from his performances on the stump..(or it appears so on TV, which is how 99% of the people see them). He is raging, internally. It’s evident externally.

All of which is to say — the misdirection is so transparent — and, indeed, McCain advisers _tell us_ about the misdirection on background — that I can’t imagine they stick to it.

BTW: McCain, five minutes ago: “I want to be president and I don’t want Obama to be…he is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of (boos)…if I didn’t think I’d be a lot better, I wouldn,t be running.”

Message that filters down (through a media that is, let’s face it, kind of in tank for change, if not for Obama): Angry Republicans think Obama is a bad guy; McCain speaks truth to power and calls his “decent.”

At 6:09 p.m., Scherer wrote:

Am watching too, but I think that is McCain just trying to make clear that he is not calling for anyone to lose their bearings over the election, which seems to have been happening at recent events.

I am not sure how much of McCain’s evident frustration is internal doubt, and how much is that he feels the world–and the press–has unfairly turned on him. (I actually think the latter is a big deal. McCain’s ability to morally dispatch those who stand in his way is substantial, as his record in the Senate shows.)

The argument we are having is whether the current strategy is failing as designed, or failing because it is not being carried out. I think the former. I think they don’t have another play, and there is still hope that the worm turns. They are sticking to the script and adding a economic crisis graft on the side. It may not be working, but I don’t think that’s McCain not being serious.

At 6:13 p.m., Ambinder wrote:

Well, the press is another issue, but I totally agree with your POV, which, after all, is based on seeing him up close more than me.

What also confuses me is, quite frankly, his policy generation process, which seems ad hoc and counterproductive and not well thought out even as the guy in charge of it, Doug Holtz-Eakin, is universally respected. McCain’s had new stuff to say this week, but it’s been lost in the details, and the press is having trouble taking it seriously.

At 6:25 p.m., Scherer wrote:

The impression of policy development problems is unmistakable, and I suspect there are real problems behind the scenes. Doug’s efforts have been heroic, but this is one area where McCain seems to still suffer from the rapid up-scaling of his operation over the spring and summer. McCain may have figured out how to hold big events, but his campaign still has clear
disadvantages of scale when compared with the Obama operation, which has the benefit of an entire Democratic policy apparatus in exile. Doug has help, but his brief is enormous.