News & Politics

Swing and Miss: McCain's Pinata Politics

In recent weeks, McCain has been acting less like a presidential hopeful and more like a child swinging a bat, hoping to win an undeserved prize.
Have you ever been to a child's birthday party in which there's a pinata? It's a pretty straightforward exercise: The birthday boy or girl gets blindfolded, is handed a big stick, is spun around to cause minor disorientation and is then encouraged to swing the stick wildly in every direction, in the hopes of hitting a target and getting a prize.

John McCain's campaign has been operating under a similar framework for quite a while now. Under McCain's version of Pinata Politics, the senator and his team swing wildly in every direction, hoping to hit Barack Obama. There's no real consistency to the attacks -- and there's even less honesty and integrity backing them up -- but McCain appears to be blindfolded, allowing Karl Rove's operation to spin him in circles.

To fully appreciate just how disorientated the presumptive Republican nominee has become, consider the memo distributed by the McCain campaign in early March, immediately after the Arizona senator officially secured his party's nod.

"It is critical," the memo explained, "as we prepare to face off with whomever the Democrats select as their nominee, that we all follow John's lead and run a respectful campaign focused on the issues. ... Throughout the primary election we saw John McCain reject the type of politics that degrade our civics, and this will not change." The memo added that "overheated rhetoric and personal attacks" only serve to "distract" us, and that it was imperative that the campaign hold itself "to the highest standards."

That was nearly five months ago, and it's hard to imagine even the most sycophantic McCain supporter agreeing that the senator is meeting the standards he set for himself in March. Indeed, since McCain brought in Rove's team to run the campaign operation, the swings at the pinata have become even more reckless, occasionally hitting the target, but just as often hitting everyone else watching the festivities.

Just this week, McCain took a swing at the race card. And toward Britney Spears. And even at wounded U.S. troops. The more elusive the pinata, the more out of control McCain becomes. One day, Obama is responsible for high gas prices. (He's not.) The next, Obama wants to raise taxes on the middle-class. (He doesn't.) McCain swung at Obama's health care plan, falsely calling it "socialized medicine," topped only by another swing at Obama's patriotism, equating his Iraq policy with treason.

Pinata Politics makes no distinction between trivial issues and monumental ones. The 50th anniversary of NASA? McCain takes a swing at Obama. Remembrance of the Nazi Holocaust? McCain takes another a swing at Obama. Last week, the McCain campaign even hinted that Obama is weak on genocide. The blindfold, apparently, prevents the Arizona senator not only from seeing the lines of accuracy, but also those of decency.

There's no coherent thought or theme, just an angry man with a bat. There's no underlying message, just a once-proud politician filled with hate for his rival and disdain for the public he seeks to lead.

It hasn't generated too much attention, but even some Republicans are expressing discomfort with the increasingly erratic nature of McCain's style of Pinata Politics.

"The McCain campaign, I think, is being pulled in two directions," Todd Harris, a Republican strategist who worked for McCain in 2000, told the New York Times. "On the one hand, this race is largely a referendum on Obama, and whether or not he's going to pass the leadership threshold in the eyes of voters. So being aggressive against Obama on questions of leadership and trust and risk are important, but at the same time I think they need to be very careful because McCain is not at his best when he is being overly partisan and negative."

Mike Murphy, a former McCain strategist, added, "I think the campaign does have to be careful about its tone. A pure attack tone could be perilous."

John Weaver, a longtime McCain friend and confidant, expressed his frustration this week to the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. Bothered by yet another "childish" television ad, Weaver said, "For McCain's sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop."

But McCain apparently has no interest in stopping. He's having fun -- McCain knows that pinata is somewhere, and if he just swings hard enough, and in enough directions, he'll connect and electoral votes will start spilling out.

It's likely that the McCain campaign recognizes the structural disadvantages it faces this year. Given that the vast majority of the electorate believes the United States is off track, and McCain is effectively offering more of the same, it probably didn't take too much coaxing when Steve Schmidt dangled the bat in front of McCain.

"They're doing it because the candidate, and the campaign, is not happy with where they are and they're lashing out," a Republican strategist recently said.
That may be true. For that matter, voters may very well find all of this compelling. This week, as McCain's attacks became increasingly irresponsible, his gap in the polls got smaller, not bigger, suggesting his wild stick-swinging may have landed a few glancing blows.

But at this point, most of us are pretty anxious to see McCain take the blindfold off. His tactics are starting to make us dizzy.
Steve Benen is a freelance writer and editor of The Carpetbagger Report.