Ronald Brownstein’s cover story in the September 2008 Atlantic, “Reconcilable Differences,” is a high-minded plea for bipartisanship so tedious that I doubt very many readers made it to the end. It pains me to say this because Brownstein is a gifted political reporter and also a friend. It pains me also because, buried inside the piece, Brownstein makes an important point: McCain’s dislike of Obama is personal.
This has been suggested before, especially in coverage of a weirdly angry letter McCain wrote to Obama in February 2006 (after Obama broke publicly with McCain over the pace of Senate ethics reform; click here to read the correspondence). But I don’t recall this previously being affirmed on a for-attribution basis by anyone close to McCain. I refer here partly to Brownstein himself (Brownstein’s wife, Eileen McMenamin, was until recently communications director in McCain’s Senate office) but mostly to John Weaver, McCain’s chief political strategist in 2000 and, at least initially, in 2008. Weaver left the McCain presidential campaign after losing a power struggle to the current campaign manager, Rick Davis, and lately Weaver has expressed some dissatisfaction with Davis’ strategy of attacking Obama. But in Brownstein’s piece, Weaver goes further, criticizing McCain himself as hostage to a gut-level resentment of the junior senator from Illinois. Weaver, Brownstein writes,
says McCain “does lack respect” for Obama, largely from the conviction that “he’s not ready, he’s green.” Weaver, like other observers, thought McCain’s attitudes about Obama stood in contrast with his personal respect for Hillary Clinton. “All campaigns reflect the personality of the candidate,” Weaver said. “The problem [our campaign] had in 2000 is, we made emotional decisions. Got wrapped up in the bubble. That’s a reflection of John. He at times makes emotional decisions, and when he does, they are almost always a mistake. That’s what you see right now. You’ve got to resist this decision-making in a bubble, being angry at Obama, or personalizing it. … That’s a danger.”
Obama’s task, then, is to provoke what late columnist Mary McGrory once termed a “Rumpelstiltskin scenario,” preferably while TV cameras are rolling. That is, he must find a subtle way to make McCain’s anger seem personal and utterly out of control. The best time to do this would be October, leaving McCain insufficient time to recover.