McCain’s Change of Heart

Last week we got all optimistic about John McCain’s decision to call off the cavalry in North Carolina, where the Republican Party was planning to run an ad attacking two Democratic gubernatorial candidates for their associations with Barack Obama using footage of the Rev. Wright’s sermons.

Alas, we spoke too soon.

Over the weekend, McCain walked back his suggestion that Wright was somehow off-limits. He gave two reasons: 1) He recently saw that Wright compared the Marines to, in McCain’s words, “Roman legionnaires who were responsible for the death of our Savior,” and 2) Obama said it was a “legitimate political issue.”

It doesn’t make much sense to assess McCain’s arguments using reason, since neither rationale is particularly rational. First off, Wright has said plenty of things equally or more offensive than the Marines line, never mind that Wright was himself a Marine . And secondly, what difference does it make that Obama called the issue “legitimate”? Was McCain just waiting for Obama’s say-so? If he was personally opposed before, it’s unclear why Obama’s words would suddenly change his mind.

From a political perspective, though, it makes perfect sense. Wright is political gold—the kind of ammunition that comes along rarely. So on the one hand, McCain wants people to know he’s upstanding and above the fray and all that. But on the other, he’d be a fool not to use Wright against Obama. This tension is likely to dog McCain through November. Then there’s always the possibility that harping on Wright could backfire. The moment it stops being about patriotism and starts being about race, McCain could get burned as badly if not worse than Obama.

Now there’s another GOP ad —this one in Mississippi—associating a local candidate with Obama while invoking Wright. What’s the word from McCain? So far, silence. McCain must realize he backed himself into a corner by asking the North Carolina GOP to retract the ad. When they refused, McCain looked silly, and Obama dinged him for it. He doesn’t want that story to replay itself, so better not to get involved. Hence the need to declare the issue “legitimate,” despite previous assertions.