No Penalty

Voters don’t mind negative ads. Do they care about hypocritical ones?

John McCain. Click image to expand
Sen. John McCain

Last week the McCain campaign was roundly criticized, even among some of his Republican allies, for running several misleading ads about Barack Obama. Many voters seemed to agree: A CNN poll showed that four in 10 thought McCain had attacked Obama unfairly.

Yet his aides say it was the best week McCain has had in a while. And their happiness may eventually be justified. It is an accepted piece of campaign conventional wisdom that negative ads work. McCain’s latest barrage will test whether hypocrisy still matters.

McCain’s aides were pleased because they had controlled a few consecutive news cycles for the first time in ages, and they put their opponent on the defensive. They also think they’ve finally found a coherent, easy-to-understand way to frame the race: McCain = Country First. Obama = Obama First.

It may be negative, and people say they don’t like negative ads—but they listen to them. In the Democratic primaries, exit polls routinely showed that Hillary Clinton won handily among those voters who thought she had attacked Obama unfairly. And if voters will tolerate some negativity, maybe they don’t mind a little hypocrisy.

All candidates say they’re going to tell the truth and then don’t. But McCain has made truth-telling the central theme of his campaigns. His bus is called the Straight Talk Express, and he promises candor at nearly every event. And yet his ads aren’t truthful—they’re not necessarily mean, just untrue. McCain has also pledged to run a clean campaign. And suggesting Obama was too media crazed to make time to visit wounded troops on his recent overseas trip, even though he visited woulded soldiers in Iraq, wasn’t clean.

Now is the time to make the sophisticated point that these kinds of distortions are hardly surprising. This is politics, after all. Sure, but there has to be a hypocrisy tripwire somewhere. Someone has to say it: Railing against headwear while wearing a top hat is insincere, if not dishonest.

If there are any qualms about the new strategy in the McCain campaign, they’re hard to find. In a bad political environment, with the press stacked against them, aides appear to be at ease with over-reaching if they believe it counterbalances the forces working against them. They can also take comfort in another fact: Barack Obama didn’t pay a hypocrisy penalty for his attacks on Hillary Clinton.

Pundits have compared McCain’s tactics to Karl Rove’s, but there are more recent parallels in Obama’s record during the Democratic primaries. Obama founded his campaign on the promise of a new high-minded brand of politics. But last fall, Obama supporters were worried that despite his big rallies, Obama wasn’t closing the gap with Clinton. So Obama telegraphed in an interview with the New York Times that he was going to go after Clinton more aggressively. His target? Her veracity. He didn’t make a policy argument. In fact, Obama often pointed out that the two were pretty close to agreement on most policy issues. The issue with Clinton was whether voters could trust her. It was the same kind of values-based argument McCain is making about Obama now as he tries to stoke fears about his opponent’s underlying character.

The difference between McCain now and Obama then is that Obama was more subtle, and he escalated his attacks slowly. He ran ads hinting that Clinton was a political opportunist but didn’t say so explicitly. His slogan, “Change You Can Believe In,” let voters come to the implied point that Clinton was offering change you can’t believe in. But after Obama’s popular-vote losses in Ohio and Texas, his aides launched a full-out assault on Clinton’s honesty that matched just the tit-for-tat behavior Obama was campaigning against. Democratic voters didn’t penalize Obama. Surely McCain’s aides took notice. And if voters in the general election are as forgiving to McCain as they were to Obama in the Democratic primaries, then maybe McCain aides have a reason to smile.