Veterans of John McCain’s presidential campaign of 2008 lamented a maddening process that only worsened as that election season progressed. A liberal blog would make a stunning allegation about McCain or, later, Sarah Palin that was not easily verified or disproved. Within an hour or two, a major newspaper reporter or television news producer would call the campaign and demand a comment or denial; the clock was ticking to avoid the dreaded “the McCain campaign had no comment,” which suggested evasiveness or a de facto confirmation of the often bogus or wildly exaggerated claim.
Patrick Hynes, who was an online-communications consultant for McCain, recalls Sam Stein of the Huffington Post calling about a rumor that McCain had been involved in a car accident that killed someone shortly after returning from Vietnam, and that military authorities had somehow covered up the entire incident.
“Within a very short period of time, the Associated Press called, and we had to take the time to debunk it,” Hynes recalled. “It was a smart tactical move on the part of the Obama people, because the time we spent debunking that we could have done much more fruitful work in terms of a communications strategy. That was the one that blew me away — that something trickling up from the lefty blogs could make its way to the Huffington Post
and the Associated Press in an afternoon, something just absurd on its face.” (Stein ultimately wrote about reporters from Rolling Stone
and the National Security News Service fighting with the U.S. Navy over records that could illuminate details of the purported 1974 car crash.)
The other side of the coin was that John McCain didn’t want to win the race by using any tactics he deemed “dirty campaigning.” John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s account of the 2008 race, Game Change, details how McCain was emphatic that Obama’s mentor, Jeremiah Wright, was off-limits, at the precise moment that the Obama camp was testing its own vulnerabilities in focus groups: “Dozens of Obama-funded faux negative ads against Obama were produced and tested: about Wright, [Bill] Ayers, Muslimism, the flag pin — the works. And some were devastatingly effective.”
The bad news for Obama four years later is that the first weeks of the general-election campaign have demonstrated that Mitt Romney and his top staff are not going to play by the same rules as the McCain campaign.
On April 11, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen appeared on Anderson Cooper’s CNN program and scoffed at Ann Romney’s value to her husband in helping assess the economic challenges of women voters by declaring that “she never worked a day in her life.”