McCain Ad Blames High Gas Prices on Obama



In politics, the big smear is the best smear, because it can work magic with the "low-information voters" who often decide elections.

Twenty years ago, Vice President George H. W. Bush overcame a 17 point deficit to beat Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for the Presidency, largely on the strength of two TV ads: one that showed Dukakis riding in a tank with a big grin; and another that showed convicted murderer Willie Horton, who, while out of a Massachusetts prison on a weekend pass, raped and murdered again. The two ads were shown so often on TV that they did the trick in convincing voters that it was just too dangerous to elect a man like Dukakis who was 'so obviously soft on national security and soft on crime.'

Dukakis knew the charges were a reductio ad absurdum of his record. The weekend pass program had in fact been signed into law by the Republican Governor who preceded him. But that didn't matter. What mattered is that Dukakis did way too little to fight the smears. The smears worked. Today Michael Dukakis teaches college courses in government, and the man who beat him, George I, paved the way for George II.

This time around it's McCain blaming today's hottest hot button issue--high gas prices--on Senator Barack Obama, supposedly for not supporting new off-shore oil drilling, even though McCain himself had only reversed his own long-standing opposition to it a few days earlier!

Of course, completely ignored by the McCain ad were a whole host of obvious causes of high gas prices, including:

* huge demand for oil from developing nations like China and India;
* refusal by Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations to meaningfully increase production, with little jawboning by Bush, McCain and their other friends in Washington;
* Bush's refusal to release petroleum from the government's emergency Strategic Reserve;
* no serious effort at conservation, and a long love affair with gas guzzling vehicles

As one cable TV commentator said, "If Obama is responsible for high gas prices, he's also responsible for the dent in my car."

On Countdown with Keith Obermann last night, a top Obama advisor dismissed the McCain ad on gas prices as ridiculous, along with a new one that alleges that Obama went to the gym rather than visit wounded servicemen on his trip abroad. Unfortunately, dismissing these attack ads and assuming that the electorate will see through them has proved a disastrous strategy in the past. In fact it could mean defeat in an election that the campaign recognizes will be very close.

Four years ago, T. Boone Pickens and other oilmen who had never been anywhere near Vietnam, financed a smear ad by the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" that tipped the election against John Kerry, a genuine Vietnam War hero. They backed, and we got, candidate George W. Bush, whose family had gotten him out of overseas service in favor of a stint in the Texas Air Guard; and running mate Dick Cheney, who'd received five deferments from military service because "he had other priorities" at the time.

So the last thing Obama or his advisors should be is over-confident or dismissive of attack ads. The powerful interests benefiting from high gas prices, the war in Iraq, unregulated Wall Street, high prescription drug prices for seniors, and the like, don't want to lose one bit of what they've got, and will say anything to keep it. They will continue to tell the big lies, trying to blame the very things that benefit them--and hurt the rest of us--on the challenger. Millions of voters will not have the facts or judgment at hand to counter these lies, any more than they did in 1988 or in 2004. The smears that work will be told by McCain and broadcast over and over again in ads until they can become be the largest item in "low information" voters' brains.

That is, unless Obama counter-punches against every lie with an even bigger truth. That hasn't happened yet, and even that won't be enough. A good offense is still the best defense. Today's Gallup Poll tracking poll shows Obama ahead by 8 points, but many polls in the battleground states that will decide the election--Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania--show him behind. Obama should be campaigning as if he's down by 18 points nationwide.

He should have ads out now that ridicule McCain's constant flip-flopping and denials of statements he's made just days before. He should have ads that contrast his own favorable voting record on military and veteran issues with McCain's poor one. Most voters are unaware of how poorly McCain has voted on servicemen's and veterans' issues. The ads should even point out that, despite his heroism as a Vietnam POW, McCain simply lacks the smarts to be President:

* Graduated 5th from the bottom of his class at Annapolis

* Told the N.Y. Times July 13 that he is "learning to get online" himself

* Erroneously claimed that Iran was training Al Qaeda and had to be corrected on camera by Senator Joe Lieberman

* Referred last week to the "Iraq-Pakistan border," though the countries are 700 miles apart....

We're already living with a President who underachieved and partied his way through college, and couldn't name leaders of major countries when questioned by a reporter in 2000. At this point, Americans are probably quite open to a smart President who listens and understands what they are going through, over a smug one who says whatever comes into his head and counts on the press to ignore his gaffes. But the Obama campaign must make the case to "close the deal." Otherwise Republicans will once again dominate the conversation and convince America that the Democratic candidate is just too risky...especially this one who looks different, with the funny name. The bigger case is this: Having another dummkopf in the White House is not the best scenario for solving our problems, and keeping America competitive.

Robert C. Keating, Editor
July 29, 2008
© 2008