It didn’t take long for John McCain’s closest aide, Mark Salter, to respond to a Newsweek article by Richard Wolfe and Evan Thomas that painted Barack Obama as sweetness and light, and Republicans as an Evil Empire. Newsweek took even less time publishing Salter’s rebuttal in a demonstration of the velocity of political reporting and campaigning in 2008. The opening paragraphs of the Newsweek piece suggests that Wolfe and Thomas have joined Chris Matthews in receiving thrills up their legs on the Obama trail:

How do you know if Barack Obama is unhappy with what you’re saying— or not saying? At meetings of his closest advisers, he likes to lean back, put his feet on the table and close his eyes. If he doesn’t like how the conversation is going, he will lean forward, put his feet on the floor and “adjust his socks, kind of start tugging at them,” says Michael Strautmanis, a counselor to the campaign. Obama wants people to talk, but he doesn’t want to intimidate them. “If you haven’t said anything, he’ll call on you,” says Strautmanis. “He’s never said it, but he usually thinks if somebody is very quiet it’s because they disagree with what everybody is saying … so Barack will call on you and say, ‘You’ve been awfully quiet’.” There are no screamers on Team Obama; one senior Obama aide says he’s heard him yell only twice in four years. Obama was explicit from the beginning: there was to be “no drama,” he told his aides. “I don’t want elbowing or finger-pointing. We’re going to rise or fall together.” Obama wanted steady, calm, focused leadership; he wanted to keep out the grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters spoke up. A good formula for running a campaign—or a presidency.

It worked against Hillary Clinton, whose own campaign has been rent by squabbling aides and turf battles. While Clinton veered between playing Queen Elizabeth I and Norma Rae, Obama and his team chugged along with a superior 50-state campaign strategy, racking up the delegates. If the candidate seemed weary and peevish or a little slow to respond at times, he never lost his cool. But the real test is yet to come. The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968, when Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority out of lower- and middle-class folks frightened or disturbed by hippies and student radicals and blacks rioting in the inner cities. The 2008 race may turn on which party will win the lower- and middle-class whites in industrial and border states—the Democrats’ base from the New Deal to the 1960s, but “Reagan Democrats” in most presidential elections since then. It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as “the other”—as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots (Obama is a Christian) and hangs around with America-haters.

What themes do the writers visit in the first two paragraphs of their article?

  1. Temper — Obama doesn’t have one, but McCain??
  2. Richard Nixon!
  3. Racism.
  4. Smear campaigns about Obama’s origins.

That’s a lot of propaganda to pack into such a small space, but Wolfe and Thomas are pros. Why Richard Nixon is still relevant forty years later is never really answered, especially since McCain didn’t begin his political career until after Nixon rightly got chased out of politics. Robert Byrd filibustered civil-rights legislation just four years before Nixon won the presidency, and he’s still in the Senate, honored and feted by his fellow Democrats. I’d say that’s a lot more relevant than a long-departed presidency.

The fourth theme treats McCain especially unfairly. McCain publicly rebuked one of his own supporters, radio host Bill Cunningham, for even hinting at such an issue. McCain took a lot of heat from Republicans after his disavowal of Cunningham, and yet Wolfe and Thomas report as fact that the Republican Party will adopt this line of attack in the fall. They don’t even mention McCain’s own criticism of such tactics, made publicly during the course of the campaign

Salter rips Newsweek for its Matthewsian tilt in his response:

A useful way to read the piece would be to try to imagine you were a Republican reading it. The characterization of Republican presidential campaigns as nothing more than attack machines that use 527s and other means to smear opponents strikes us as pretty offensive. Is that how Ronald Reagan won two terms? Do they really think other Republican presidential candidates were elected because they ran dirtier campaigns than their opponents? Or could it be that they were better candidates or ran better campaigns or maybe more voters agreed with their position on important issues? From the beginning of their article, Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe offered a biased implication that Republicans have won elections and will try to win this one simply by tearing down through disreputable means their opponents. You can see why many Republicans and voters and our campaign might take issue with that.

Suggesting that that we can expect a whispering campaign from the McCain campaign or the Republican Party about Senator Obama’s race and the false charge that he is a Muslim is scurrilous. Has John McCain ever campaigned that way? On the contrary, he has on numerous occasions denounced tactics offensive tactics from campaigns, 527s and others, both Democratic and Republican. By the way, which party had more 527 and other independent expenditure ads made on its behalf in 2004? It wasn’t us.

Salter points out that 527s supporting Democrats have already announced their intentions to drive attack ads against McCain, in part to preserve Obama’s nice-guy image. Wolfe and Thomas don’t give that much play despite accusing the Republicans of doing the exact same thing without any evidence whatsoever. In doing so, they want to put McCain on the defensive, playing by a different, more restrictive set of rules than the Democrats.

Salter rightly rejects that construct:

Senator McCain is not going to referee ads run by groups outside our control. The other side has no intention of reciprocating and has shown every inclination to tolerate and even encourage such attacks against us. Of course, he will denounce any use of race or calumnies against his opponent by anyone. But he won’t play traffic cop anymore. The other side uses the same tactics, with no opposition from the Obama campaign that I have seen. Also, were he to do so and be unable to discourage independent expenditures run by people who have no relationship with him or our campaign, (and, in some cases, had previously run attacks against him) the Obama campaign will denounce him as a phony or weak. If Evan and Richard’s piece represents a general attitude among their colleagues, the press will agree.

Evan and Richard noted, ominously, that our campaign includes Steve Schmidt and Charlie Black, characterizing them basically as noted Republican attack specialists. The Obama senior staffers were described as idealists and decent sorts, and jujitso experts who could use Republican Party smears and deceitful tactics against their authors. I’m sure both David Plouffle and David Axelrod are fine, upstanding citizens. But the former ran a campaign for Senator Torricelli and the latter worked on the campaigns of Mayor Daley. I don’t remember those campaigns being notable for their delicate courtesy and
softball tactics toward their opponents.

In fact, neither candidate can direct the efforts of outside groups like 527s; any coordination at all, even to restrict ad campaigns, is strictly illegal. If Salter speaks for the campaign and McCain will stop commenting publicly on those campaigns, then all the better. Obama’s silence on the MoveOn campaign’s distortions speak volumes about the rules for Democrats, and McCain should follow Obama’s example. And maybe “news” organizations should quit looking for leg tingles and start doing some actual reporting in this election.