(Well, Warner, looks like you got your wish.)
The Obama campaign is clearly not content to sit back and play defense while John McCain rehashes questions about Barack Obama’s past associations and Sarah Palin throws spitballs from the back of the class. According to two exclusives this weekend by Politico’s Mike Allen, not only will Obama preemptively characterize all attacks against him as desperate attempts by McCain to change the subject away from the failing Republican-led economy, but the campaign will also launch a full-scale offensive on McCain’s past involvement in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal:
Retaliating for what it calls McCain’s “guilt-by-association” tactics, the Obama campaign is e-mailing millions of supporters a link to a website, KeatingEconomics.com, which will have a 13-minute documentary on the scandal beginning at noon Eastern time on Monday. The overnight e-mails urge recipients to pass the link on to friends.
The Obama campaign, including its surrogates appearing on radio and television, will argue that the deregulatory fervor that caused massive, cascading savings-and-loan collapses in the late ‘80s was pursued by McCain throughout his career, and helped cause the current credit crisis.
Obama-Biden communications director Dan Pfeiffer said: “While John McCain may want to turn the page on his erratic response to the current economic crisis, we think voters will find his involvement in a similar crisis to be particularly interesting. His involvement with Keating is a window into McCain’s economic past, present, and future.”
Once again, that’s KeatingEconomics.com. Here’s the documentary trailer:
There are definitely risks to the Obama campaign with this strategy. For one, up until now the message against John McCain has amounted to: “John McCain is a good guy, an honorable guy, but his lack of judgment on the economy, Iraq, and other issues makes him unfit to lead America into the future.” By raising the Keating Five scandal, the Obama camp is basically throwing out the whole “good, honorable guy” part of that message. If the narrative turns into the young upstart politician daring to question the war hero’s honor– a narrative Obama has been careful to avoid thus far– there could be some blowback. It might have been wiser to pursue this line of attack through independent groups, though of course the story wouldn’t have nearly the impact that way.
Another risk is that the last 30 days of the campaign could end up being focused on things that happened 20 years ago instead of what’s going on right now. Whenever voters are concentrating on the here and now– the Dow Jones, gas prices, unemployment figures, housing foreclosures– Obama is far and away the biggest beneficiary. If the campaign turns into Keating Five versus Reverend Wright, the dynamic is much less certain. The Obama camp will have to be extremely disciplined in making sure that this Keating Five attack remains tied to the current state of the economy and the question of whether McCain is really the man America wants fixing it. The attack has to be seen as a relevant part of the ongoing economic conversation. Again, if the story turns into Obama attacking McCain just for the typical, political sake of attacking, there could be blowback.
The plus side of this new line of attack is that John McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five scandal is in fact eerily relevant to the current financial crisis. In both cases, we have a Wall Street crisis caused by lack of regulation and oversight that required massive government intervention to fix. The difference is that the Keating Five scandal involved not just greedy hedge fund managers, CEOs, and sub-prime lenders, but five U.S. senators who were directly implicated in the Wall Street corruption– one of them being John McCain. If voters begin associating McCain not just with the Republican party but also with broken, and perhaps corrupt, government in general, 30 days won’t be enough time to rescue his image.
The other plus is that McCain is running out of time to turn the race around in his favor. If one week out of the next four is spent discussing the Keating Five, that’s one week spent not discussing Obama’s potential negatives or McCain’s potential positives. It puts a McCain campaign that has already pulled out of Michigan and been forced to channel limited resources into holding Indiana(!) and North Carolina, a McCain campaign that is desperate to distance themselves from George Bush on everything, even further on the defensive. If you’re playing defense, you’re not scoring, and if you’re behind in the game and not scoring, you lose.
Last month, I wrote the following about Obama’s typically passive response to being attacked:
Stop responding to John McCain’s attacks with analysis of how and why it is misleading, as well as commentary on the current state of our politics and media, and what it all says about our culture within the historical context of mid-18th century England. Hit back!
Now that Obama is taking my advice (but still not returning my phone calls), I can hardly fault this new, more aggressive strategy. But one thing is clear. By the end of this week, if the discussion is still on the Keating Five scandal, we’ll either be talking about John McCain’s rapidly rising negatives or Barack Obama’s.