McCain and His Mad Men

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On a day when the latest NYT poll tells us that John McCain’s “angry tone and sharply personal attacks” on Barack Obama are hurting McCain more than Obama (and even as the RNC–inexplicably–is doubling down on this losing strategy), former Joe Lieberman aide Dan Gerstein offers a sharp analysis of what has gone wrong for the McCain campaign:

Of all those bad tactical bets, though, none has been less appreciated or more disastrous than McCain’s post-primary decision to entrust his campaign to a handful of Bush operatives. These Karl Rove disciples, led by top strategist Steve Schmidt, were supposed to take out Obama in the same methodical way the Bush team eviscerated McCain in 2000 and John Kerry four years later. But, instead, they ended up swiftly swift-boating their own guy and the peerless reputation he spent a quarter of a century building, decimating in the process the campaign’s best asset–McCain himself. Talk about an honor killing.

Even worse, the Bushies traded integrity for incoherence as the McCain watchword. Indeed, this shotgun marriage never made sense stylistically or politically–and, ever since it was consummated, neither has the McCain campaign. It has careened chaotically from message to message, tactic to tactic, attack to attack.

One day, Obama is too inexperienced; the next, he’s too liberal; now, he’s palling about with terrorists. One day, McCain rails against earmarks and big-government spending; then he embraced the $700 billion bailout bill; now he is proposing a last-minute basket of middle-class sweeteners.

But at the end of the day, McCain has only himself to blame for this largely predictable predicament. He is the one who built his campaign on a fundamentally irreconcilable premise: The war hero thought he could win a character contest by lying, cheating and generally stealing from the political playbook of the most reviled president of the last century. And just as inexplicably, he thought he could somehow escape George Bush’s black hole-ish shadow by hiring his advisers.

By the way, one place where they are not getting too euphoric about these latest polls (the NYT shows Obama with a 14-point lead among likely voters) is at Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago. Officials there say they expect the race to tighten significantly in the home stretch. Much of this recent surge has been fueled by women moving toward Obama, and the campaign expects these voters to stay on board. But some polls also show the Democratic nominee leading among white men who earn less than $50,000–people those of us old enough to remember think of as Perot voters. The campaign believes this cohort may well shift back before the race is over, making the result significantly closer than current polls would indicate.